WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Marcus Rafanelli, born and raised in Seattle, recently was hired as Walla Walla Community College’s newest vintage winemaker.
He grew up on Beacon Hill in a big Italian family, whose scions had made their way from the Veneto region of Italy and around Pisa.
Although his family reveled in big family dinners where wine was always served, he never thought about getting into wine himself, until one fate-determining day.
Destiny shows its hand
“I was already enrolled to go to Seattle University to get my master’s in teaching, after getting my biology degree at Boise State,” Rafanelli said. “Out of the blue, my grandpa, Russell Rafanelli, said ‘You might want to get into this new wine industry because it’s booming right now, and I think you’d be a great winemaker.’ ”
The idea wasn’t far-fetched. Rafanelli’s great-great-uncles were bootleggers in Tacoma, Wash., during Prohibition. Great-great-uncle Quintilio Rafanelli was a bootleg winemaker who made as many as 3,000 gallons of wine some years. Because viticulture wasn’t common in Washington then, he had grapes shipped up from California and made the wine in his basement. Quintilio’s brothers, employed as garbage men, distributed his wine along their collection routes. Before that, their father made wine in Italy.
And while Marcus was in high school, his father also produced wine on a much smaller scale as something fun to do with friends. Wine evidently runs inexorably in the family’s veins.
Wine trumps snow
But it was snow, not wine, that first called to Rafanelli. As a young man, he dropped out of school to be a ski bum and supported himself working in restaurants. There, wine came back into focus when he began cooking for winemaker dinners.
“I was doing all these winemaker dinners,” he remembers, “and I finally realized that what I wanted was to get out of the kitchen and onto the other side of the table.”
He moved to Boise, graduated with a biology degree in 2006, and then considered the viticulture and enology program at University of California-Davis before enrolling at Walla Walla Community College.
“I really wanted the hands-on approach that the WWCC program takes, both in our College Cellars winery and through our internship program,” Rafanelli explained. “Also, I wanted to focus on Washington wines.”
Walla Walla in his stars
Immediately upon arriving in Walla Walla, before school even started, he secured a job at Walla Walla Vintners.
“That was the first time I ever saw or touched wine grapes and I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow, this is really cool. Making this move is the best thing I ever did!’ ”
He landed a position at L’Ecole No. 41 during his second year in the College Cellars program.
“I loved working at a bigger winery, making 35,000 cases a year, doing all the punchdowns, filling all the barrels,” Rafanelli said. “I was really into all the repetition, and the hard work of moving barrels and cleaning tanks, getting the real-life experience that I don’t think I would have gotten at any other school.”
As luck would have it in 2008, just as he was ready to graduate from the EV program, Rod and Leslie Balsley from William Church Winery in Woodinville sought a graduate of the WWCC program to fill their winemaker position. They wanted to make award-winning wines and someone to source the fruit, make the wine and manage the cellar. Rafanelli interviewed with the Balsleys and they hit it off instantly. Straight out of school, he embarked on what would be a nearly six-year stay as William Church’s winemaker.
From student to winemaker
Rafanelli was about to fully realize his dream, but it took him beyond his comfort zone.
“I was actually petrified that first year because they gave me the keys to the cellar and said, ‘Do what you learned,’ ” Rafanelli said. “Fortunately, we worked as a team, and we had a consulting enologist who did all the lab stuff and made sure that I knew what I was doing. Because in truth, I had never worked with a wine from start to finish.”
His lack of experience notwithstanding, his first Viognier for William Church won a Platinum from Wine Press Northwest magazine and a double gold at the Seattle Wine Awards. He also inherited a cellar full of wine at William Church.
“My first year there was mainly about making sure that all the wines the previous winemaker had made were safe into bottle,” he said. “I really wanted the pressure and the responsibility of having the cellar to take care of, and Rod and Leslie gave it to me, and they also let me ski and snowboard in the winter.
“We all made decisions about style together, and then I executed them,” he added. “I think that having developed my palate not only here in school but also working in the kitchen really helped with blending the wines.”
Eventually, he began to feel that he was trapped in what he calls the “Washington bubble.” In 2012, he went on a driving trip around Italy that proved to be life-changing for him.
“I saw how wine was intertwined with life over there, and it opened my eyes to how many ways there are to make wine, and the different regions that I needed to learn about,” Rafanelli said.
Bob Betz predicts Rafanelli’s future
Seeking an even broader perspective, he decided to study Australian winemaking as well. He discussed his options with Bob Betz, Master of Wine and a guiding light in the Washington wine industry.
Betz’ advice to Rafanelli was to travel, if only in order to see how good life is for winemakers in Washington.
“Chances are you’re going to come back to Washington,” Betz predicted.
And so in the winter 2014, with the blessing of the Balsleys, Rafanelli resigned from William Church. He and his father attended Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey, where they cheered on the Seattle Seahawks to the title. Marcus then went Australia, where he worked a harvest at Two Hands Wines in the Barossa Valley. It was their hottest vintage on record, and he saw many techniques that he’d never encountered in Washington.
“It was big production,” Rafanelli said. “We processed 800 tons of Shiraz grapes that had been raised with a totally different viticulture style, machine harvested and vinified with really hot fermentation.”
Following that harvest, he took two weeks off and traveled throughout the Barossa Valley, where by his count he visited 65 wineries, tasted wines from old vines and talked to winemakers with five generations of experience behind them.
“That experience made me really excited to come back to Washington, because we’re such a young wine region,” Rafanelli said. “And whenever I was out tasting, I wore my Seahawks shirt because we’d won the Super Bowl that year. It was fun to educate Australians about how we can grow almost anything we want in Washington, and we’re not bound by water restrictions like they are in Australia, France and Italy.”
From red to white
Rafanelli and his wife, Heather, then spent a couple of months driving coast to coast across Australia, followed by a month of backpacking through Europe. Next, he did a brief turn as a harvest worker for Dr. Loosen in Germany’s Mosel Valley, working exclusively with white grapes and primarily with Riesling.
“I went from one of the hottest places in the world to grow grapes to one of the coldest places in the world to grow grapes, and I chose those two because I love Riesling, and I love Shiraz,” he said. “And I think that with global warming, there’s maybe going to be some Shiraz in our future here in Washington.”
When he came back to the U.S., Rafanelli found to his chagrin that he was considered to be both underqualified and overqualified for most winery jobs then on the market.
“I was qualified to be a winemaker at a 3,000 case winery, but there aren’t too many of those looking for winemakers,” he sighs. “And when I applied to the bigger wineries, lots of times I didn’t even get a call back because I hadn’t worked at a winery of that size for more than one harvest. It was just heartbreaking to get rejected day after day.
“And then one day Tim Donahue, director of winemaking at WWCC’s EV program, called me up and said he that he needed help in the cellar for the coming year.”
Donahue said he’s thrilled to have someone with Rafanelli’s background.
“He’s here this year to be our vintage winemaker,” Donahue said. “He’s someone with deep experience in the industry, and he’s here both to help support the students and the staff in our mission to make great wines and turn out great students.”
Back home at College Cellars, Walla Walla
Rafanelli seems to be over the moon about his new job and hopes that it will lead to a permanent position.
“To actually get to do winemaking and teaching, that is my dream job,” Rafanelli said. “We processed just over 90 tons of fruit this year, and we’re making 30 wines, so I have to learn all the equipment and the College Cellars style so that our award-winning wines will keep on winning.
“Another one of my goals is to emphasize giving good work habits to the students so they can go out and be confident and apply for assistant winemaker and cellarmaster jobs when they graduate from the program.”
He gives an unqualified thumbs up to the caliber of the EV students he’s working with.
“Our students are very proactive and excited,” Rafanelli said. “They really want to become winemakers. They’re eager to jump in and help, thirsty to learn how to make wine.
“We have students from right out of high school to some in their early sixties. We have a lot of people who have already been cellar hands here and abroad,” he added. “They’re teaching me how to be a teacher, and they want to do everything. They’re chomping at the bit.”
Rafanelli seems to be embracing his destiny, teaching in the Walla Walla Valley and making wine at his alma mater.
“I love making wine and sharing it with people,” he said, eyes shining. “I love the intensity of harvest, the fact that you only get one chance per year and you really have to dial it in. I love making a natural product that changes from year to year, and developing my style.
“I love engaging with the students, getting everyone involved and having fun. And I love being myself out on the crush pad, being goofy and dancing around,” he continued. “This program got me trained, got me out making wine, and now, to get the chance to come back here and get the next generation of winemakers ready, that’s so cool!”
Ultimately, he aspires to an even greater goal.
“I want everyone in Washington to work together and focus on making Washington the next really big thing,” he said. “After what I saw in Australia and Germany, I really think that we have the potential to be the best.”