Thomas J. Story
Winemaker Priyanka French in the makeshift offices of Signorello

Because great beginnings can come from tragic ends.

Matt Bean  – November 9, 2020 | Updated November 14, 2020

Napa can be a tough place to break into, even for billionaires. So consider the headwinds when you’re a twenty-something prodigy from Bombay like Priyanka French.

“People like me trying to break in, we never saw anyone who looked like us,” French says. “It’s something I’ve gotten comfortable with, even though no one should ever have to do that.”

Now in her second harvest as the winemaker at Signorello Wines in Napa, French brings a strong sense of purpose and a solid background in food science and chemistry to the third-generation house. Her task—to elevate Signorello to elite status—has been complicated doubly, thanks to the fires in 2017, which all but razed the property, and this year’s blazes, which have had her in constant communication with a lab in British Columbia.

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“We’re looking not only for smoke character now, but smoke that might be released in years to come,” notes the University of California, Davis-educated winemaker. “It’s a very innovative process. We’ll make wines from what we have even if they’re de-labeled just to learn to deal with these conditions.

That’s the kind of optimism you don’t often find among the veterans of the valley, who recall the “good old days” before traffic and fires and everything.

The ruins and rubble of Signorello Estate Winery after the 2017 fires, photographed during sunset
The remains of the Signorello Estate Winery after the 2017 fires

Adrian Gregorutti

To be sure, the blaze that took Signorello in 2017 was catastrophic—but it also represented a chance to rebuild what was an ad-hoc, family winery in the mold of the high-tech titans—as French says, “to be able to adjust the winemaking process to suit the harvest and wines, rather than the other way around.”

This means the company’s flagship cab, the Padrone bottling, will be available in greater volume than before, and that French’s focus on balancing the vines in the field to produce an age-friendly bottling with a “generosity of flavors” at a lower ABV will be allowed to shine.

French knew coming to Signorello would provide her all of the raw materials she’d need to help the brand reach the next level. “They’ve always just flown under the radar, but we have everything we need.”

The vineyards comprise 30 acres straddling the exclusive Silverado Trail in Napa, and plans for the estate include a 2021 opening of a 21,000-square foot winemaking facility and tasting room. But right now, not much more than a humble but functional trailer sits on the property, standing in for a tasting room and office. Still, the future seems bright.

After her appointment to the role, French recruited renowned viticulture expert Steve Matthiasson, who worked alongside her at Napa bluechip winery Dalla Valle, and consulting director of winemaking Celia Welch.

She’s active in a handful of groups aimed at fostering a more welcoming environment for women and BIPOC wine professionals and enthusiasts, including board roles with Batonnage Forum and Wine Unify.

What was it that initially spurred French, a rising star whose tenure at Dalla Valle was much heralded, to sign on with Ray Signorello, the owner of his eponymous winery? His love of winemaking and the chance to help the family chart a course not just for next year but for the next decade certainly played a role.

“But he also has two daughters, and Ray told me: ‘I hope they will see someone like you taking control and say to themselves, “If she can do it, we can do it,’” French says. “It’s not about him. He’s planning for his daughters to come and guide the future of the property.”

Maybe being optimistic about the future is the first step towards changing it.

Collecting for Beginners

Six Robert Mondavi wine bottles with four upright and two displayed decoratively on their sides

Courtesy of Robert Mondavi

Older wines in good condition can be hard to come by. But French has three pieces of advice for aspiring collectors.

Scan the Sites

French recommends three auction sites for older wines. Winebid.com “is very reliable,” she says. “If you get a bad bottle you just email them and they replace it.” Benchmarkwine.com has a great newsletter. And nolimitfinewines.com “is kind of my secret. I’m not sure I should even be telling you about it.”

Know Your Houses

Some wineries have made a practice of keeping old stock available, which means you’re more likely to be able to find it. French echoed what many in the Napa Valley will say about Stony Hill’s older white wines. And Mondavi’s bottlings from the 1980s “are all drinking spectacularly well right now,” she says.

Join Forces

While COVID has curtailed wine gatherings, you can still share the load of scanning for new auctions, and if you’re able to taste at a remove, share the cost. “My husband and I are in three tasting groups,” says French. “It’s great for access to wine but also you have all of these other palates in forming the experience.”


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