Wine, passed down

Second-generation LaRoccas take the reins of the family winery

WINE’S FINE Phaedra, Dharma and Maria LaRocca with Nathan Hoffman (right) at the winery’s Forest Ranch vineyard. Each member of the family helps with the winemaking process—from vine to juice to bottle.

WINE’S FINE Phaedra, Dharma and Maria LaRocca with Nathan Hoffman (right) at the winery’s Forest Ranch vineyard. Each member of the family helps with the winemaking process—from vine to juice to bottle.

Photo by Tom Angel

Sip this: The LaRoccas produce all their wine themselves at the Forest Ranch vineyard. There’s a tasting room at the site, which is open weekends from noon to 6 p.m.

Even when they were little kids, Dharma and Phaedra LaRocca were working—in the ways little kids can work—for the family business.

Back then, it was more fun than work, though. They’d traipse through the sunny vineyards that their parents, Phil and Judy, planted themselves, picking the bunches of grapes from the leafy vines. They’d gather up the fruit and, with help, separate the good grapes from the bad ones. The kids—with sister Maria and family friend Nathan Hoffman—pulled weeds from under the vines. Even that was fun, they say with a laugh.

The whole family helped to crush the grapes into juice each autumn, and Phil LaRocca—the self-taught winemaker of the family—crafted and bottled his own wine.

The whole operation was a family affair.

The family—and their winery—has come a long way from those old days. Phaedra LaRocca is now 27 years old and runs the business and marketing side of LaRocca Vineyards. Her brother Dharma is 30 and farms the winery’s 90-acre vineyard in Forest Ranch. Nathan Hoffman (who has lived with the family since he was a teenager and is more like a LaRocca sibling than anything else) farms the winery’s 84-acre vineyard on the west side of the Sutter Buttes.

It’s still a family affair, but these days the family’s second generation is starting to take it over.

First, a little history about LaRocca Vineyards: Phil LaRocca bought the Forest Ranch vineyard in 1984, having little practical experience in farming. He had a friend who farmed apples, but LaRocca had never actually farmed his own land. He worked from dawn till past dusk most days to get the farm on its feet, and he was successful, as LaRocca Vineyards doubled in size when it acquired the Sutter Buttes vineyard.

The winery now produces up to 10,000 cases of wine (cabernet, merlot, zinfandel, white zinfandel and chardonnay, to name a few types) a year. The vineyards are all organic, and the wine is sulfites-free.

The availability of the wine has grown, too. LaRocca Vineyards ships its wine to states all over the country. It’s sold in Taiwan, Japan and Singapore. The wine is also sold in most grocery stores in and around Chico and in many area restaurants.

Dharma LaRocca first started getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the farm when he was about 18. He’d graduated from Chico High School, and after a stint in New York City ("I grew up in this town. I wanted to get out and see the world,” he says, laughing), he came home and started working on the farm.

Farming, he said, is a profession that’s grown on him.

“It’s kind of weird,” he said. “I wanted to travel and see other places and do other things, but I always come back here … and I have a green thumb, so I became a farmer.”

Hoffman said he had many of the same experiences.

“This is just what we do,” Hoffman said. “It’s what we’re good at … and we’re doing it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You’re always on call. And since we’re a family business, we’re the ones out there making sure [the grapes] are looking good. We really care about the land.”

Hoffman said he averages 50 hours a week working on the farm. It’s not a career that’s made him rich, he notes, but it’s one that he loves.

“That’s why we do this,” Hoffman said. “We have real passion for it. If you don’t have passion for it, forget it. You have to really love this business. If not, why do it?”

The family sells about 60 percent of its grapes to winemaking giants with famous names like Mondavi, Frey (another organic label), Fetzer and Barducci—a fact that Hoffman and LaRocca are proud of. The other 40 percent of the crop produces the vineyards’ “estate bottled” wines.

“We grow great grapes,” Hoffman said. “I mean, we were like 18 years old farming this land and selling to Mondavi and Fetzer. That’s pretty impressive.”

Phaedra LaRocca started getting involved in the business end of the winery just after she graduated with a degree in community studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz. She’s tall, friendly and affable—and seems to have a knack for marketing. While a student at UC Santa Cruz, she managed to sell LaRocca wine to several outlets in and around Santa Cruz.

Since then, she’s started working on a master’s degree in agribusiness at Chico State University. She spends much of her time—usually at least two weekends a month—on business trips all over the country, when she makes connections and sells wine.

“I go to wine tastings, trade shows, all over the place,” LaRocca said, ticking off the states she’s visited. “You name it, I go.”

Her father still produces the wine himself, LaRocca said. She calls him “the overseer” of the winery’s operations, but he’s given much of the control of the business to his children now, as he’s the president of the California Certified Organic Farmers and devotes an increasingly large portion of his time to that organization.

“He’s all over the place,” Phaedra LaRocca said. “He just got back from a business trip to Germany.”

As she and her siblings (her sister, Maria, lives in Hawaii now but helps with the business from there) take more control of the winery, they say they hope to see it continue to grow and produce more wine.

“I want to see us use all our own grapes to make wine," Dharma LaRocca said. "It would be great if we didn’t have to sell them to anyone … because since we’re the ones that grow them, we should use them in our own wine."