A long family line of wine and garlic lovers

Alex Larson is co-owner of Rapazzini Winery.

Rapazzini Winery on U.S. 101 and Highway 25 is the embodiment of all that is sacred in Gilroy: wine, garlic and family ties.

I met with Alex Larson, co-owner with his brother, Charlie, at one of his two Garlic Shoppes, to talk about wine.

Alex stomped his first grapes when he was 8 years old in his grandfather’s Gilroy backyard. His grandfather’s best friend was John Rofinella (founder of the oldest Wine Growers Association and one of the largest purveyors in the country for selling grapes to home winemakers). Rofinella was involved in a wine study through UC Davis and talked his friend and twin daughters (Alex’s grandfather and aunts) into participating by making wine at home.

When Alex’s grandfather passed away in 1972, Alex’s aunts were incensed to learn that a little-known law on the books made it illegal for unmarried women to make wine at home. So with the help of Norman Mineta – a family friend who enjoyed the aunt’s Italian home-cooking – the trailblazing aunts organized a vote to repeal the archaic law.

By 1982, Alex had earned his degree from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. In 1983, Alex and his brother, Charlie, opened a wildly popular Italian restaurant, Sandrino’s, in Gilroy. Midway through their first year of business, Sandrino’s received an award of excellence for the Best Wine List/Wine Service from Wine Spectator magazine. Little had the two brothers realized that the wines they had been importing from Italy had been selected by none other than Marchesi Antinori – the Italian equivalent of other wine legends, like Mondavi or Rothschild.

In 1994, Alex and Charlie went to work for a family friend named Jon Rapazzini. Jon had owned and operated Rapazzini Winery (formerly B&R Vineyards) since 1962. When Jon retired in 1999, Alex and Charlie purchased the winery and The Garlic Shoppe.

Since then, Alex and Charlie have kept Rapazzini’s business the same. They purchase their grapes (instead of maintaining their own vineyard) and do all of the blending and bottling on site. This allows them to offer a wide range of wines – about 30 different wines, including 20 specific varietals and almond Champagne.

Rapazzini’s best sellers are their fruit wines – Apribella (apricot/peach blend), Berry Berry and Raspberry Delight, which are delicious on their own, or especially so when mixed with sparkling wine. Rapazzini’s is also the sole importer for Twelve Apostles, a refreshing frizzante (a wine between “sparkling” and “still”) from Italy.

In keeping with all things garlic, Rapazzini’s offers world-famous garlic wine, Chateau de Garlic. When paired with linguine in garlic clam sauce, this wine is a garlic lover’s delight.

While at The Garlic Shoppe, Charlie’s godfather, John, his trailblazing Aunt Joan and a slew of customers came in to buy everything from garlic-stuffed olives to Garlic Dude Dust (a low-salt, garlic seasoning) to spicy pickled garlic. Alex proudly showed off his newest product – Garlic Honey – which he swears (and I believe him) is fantastic on a peanut butter sandwich.

For the last 34 years, Alex and his family have participated in the Gilroy Garlic Festival and in fact, Alex prepared the very first garlic French fries (Grandma Lily’s recipe) for the 1979 inaugural event.

The upcoming Passport Weekend is a great time to get acquainted with Rapazzini Winery and meet their friendly wine-tasting manager, Adam Pagnagni. In addition to wines, they are hosting Aemen Burke, a local artist who donates some of the proceeds to the Crohn’s Disease Support Group. They’ll also have their specialty panini cheese and jam bar.

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My wine and cheese tasting class was a great success last weekend – thanks to help from friends and family. Best chuckle of the class: A completely serious, white-zin-loving woman exclaimed, “I didn’t know zinfandel came in red!”

Layered Reuben Dip
– 2/3 cup mayonnaise
– 1/3 cup thousand island dressing
– 1 can (8 oz) sauerkraut, well drained
– 1 bag (8 oz) shredded Swiss cheese (2 cups)
– 1 cup thinly sliced corned beef, chopped
– 2 tablespoons sliced green onions (2 medium)
– 1 box of Triscuits (rye flavor)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In small bowl, mix mayonnaise and dressing. In ungreased 9-inch pie pan, layer sauerkraut, half of the cheese, the corned beef and mayonnaise mixture. To remaining half of cheese in bag, add onions; toss to mix. Sprinkle over top. Bake at 350 degrees, 25-30 minutes until bubbly and golden around edge. Serve with crackers.

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