Guest Winemaker
A. Rafanelli Winery
Shelly Rafanelli Fehlman
Raised in Healdsburg, California, you could say Shelly Rafanelli Fehlman was born with wine in her veins. She graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, in 1996 with a degree in agricultural business, and she had every intention of finding a job in the marketing department of a large winery before heading back home. Instead, she jump-started her career by coming to A. Rafanelli to learn the winemaking business. Today, she is the winemaker and oversees all production at the winery.
A. Rafanelli Winery is a vineyard of over 100 acres of planted vines owned and operated by fourth-generation winegrowers. It was founded by Alberto Rafanelli, an Italian immigrant in the early 1900s. After Prohibition, his son Americo moved the winery to Dry Creek Valley and began to grow zinfandel. In the early ’70s, he began selling his wine commercially. Americo’s son David today owns and operates the business with his wife, Patty, and the help of their daughters, Stacy and Shelly. The vineyards are managed by Shelly’s husband, Craig Fehlman. They specialize in zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot with an annual production of about 11,000 cases.
A. Rafanelli Winery Landscape View
A. Rafanelli Winery Barrels
Winemaker Shelly Rafanelli Fehlman on interviewing with her dad, mom guilt during harvest season, and wine as a conversation.
How do you know Chef Charlie Palmer?
I met him shortly after he opened Dry Creek Kitchen. The restaurant approached us about putting our wines on their list. I had recently started my merlot program, and Charlie featured it in an article, which was amazing. Incidentally, they have poured my merlot by the glass ever since. Dry Creek Kitchen has an incredible wine program, and we have had many events there.

A. Rafanelli participates in Project Zin, an annual fundraiser that benefits the Down Syndrome Association of North Bay. Tell us about it.
When winemaker Clay Mauritson first approached me, I didn’t realize his son had Down syndrome. Not only is this a worthwhile cause and a great event, but it’s local, which we love. Also, it happens right before harvest, so it’s a fun unwind before the crazy season. Project Zin is set up to encourage mixing and mingling with guests, instead of just pouring our wines—which is not easy when you’re used to being a host! We usually donate verticals and library wines as well as Dry Creek experiences—for example, staying at our guest house and having dinner with the winemakers.

Do you support your local community in other ways?
Absolutely. We donate regularly to first-responder agencies: local law enforcement, the fire department, and the Healdsburg District Hospital. We did a fundraiser for the Redwood Credit Union to benefit the 2017 fire victims. We also like to focus on the youth in this town, particularly in terms of food and wine, since it drives our economy. A tastemaker event earlier this year benefited the Healdsburg High School culinary arts program.

You grew up in the wine business. What was that like?
A lot of fun. My parents would let us work at the winery for money during the summer and school breaks. There was no pressure. I grew up raising 4-H animals, and I knew I wanted to stay in agriculture. And so I went to Cal Poly, which is a great agriculture school. Marketing was my concentration. They offer an extended wine marketing program, where you can visit local wineries, and so that was a natural fit for me.

It’s a big world out there. Didn’t you want to spread your proverbial wings?
Yes. I had planned to go work for a larger vineyard before deciding if I wanted to be part of my family’s business. But then I met my future husband, who quit school for a year and came here to work with my parents and learn how to manage vineyards. I was in college, and we had an epiphany that my parents needed some help. Sure, they were successful, but who was going to carry it on?

I hear you had to interview with your dad for a job.
I had no free passes from my dad. I had a resume and everything. He did hire me, and I worked my way from the bottom up. It’s interesting to work hand in hand with the generation before you. Changes sometimes have to come in baby steps.

Do you feel the dynamic of women in the vineyard has changed?
Absolutely. There are more women graduating from U.C. Davis with viticulture and oenology degrees every year. I am personally surrounded by at least four other women winemakers right here in the valley. Women are more widely accepted, and I think we are better multitaskers. As a woman, you are driven a little more to prove yourself in the industry. When I first came back, field reps would look right past me and go straight to my dad. It was tough, but it got better. It’s still hard for some to accept a woman as the winemaker.

What’s the hardest part about your job?
Balancing my winemaker and mom hats. When my son was younger, I could take him to work with me. I find it challenging that harvest coincides with the beginning of school, which brings so many back-to-school activities. Talk about mom guilt!

Healdsburg has evolved into quite the destination. Any growing pains?
As a kid, Healdsburg was commonly referred to as “Hicksburg” among the other schools. Sometimes I laugh and think of that Toby Keith song “How Do You Like Me Now?” This small farming town with minimal cultural influence now has so much going on. Charlie Palmer was instrumental in our town’s evolution when he opened Dry Creek Kitchen. I love all the options we have, but I hope we don’t lose our small-town feel.

How do you meet the savvy consumer’s thirst for new and different experiences?
Today’s generation wants to know where the wine comes from and where it is grown. We encourage guests to walk the grounds, even taste the grapes hanging on the vine, depending on the time of year. We pull out fresh grape juice from the fermenters and let them taste it, so they have a firsthand experience. We walk them through the cellars to get an idea about the process of winemaking. And we pull out library wines for them to taste them. Time and patience for premium red wines versus right here, right now is sometimes a new concept to younger drinkers. We’re saying, Don’t always be in a hurry. Wine should be a conversation. It’s a social beverage, something to be shared.

What can we expect from your 2019 vintages?
Zin is a great wine but a challenge to grow. The weather this year has been crazy, ranging from one extreme to another. That said, so far, so good. All the zin is now in the winery. The aromatics in fermentation are wonderful, and the color is great. Now the cabernet is coming in. Both the merlot and cabernet have smaller berries and looser clusters this year, which means more concentrated fruit. These should be great, complex wines with a lot to offer.