Jeff Gargiulo is a problem solver. Take, for instance, a one-time dilemma that the Napa Valley vintner faced during his years as a Floridian. “The first part of becoming a collector is drinking wine with dinner. Back in Florida, we didn’t have a bottle of wine in the house, so I said to myself, ‘I’m going to fix that,’ and we bought a case. A month later, we were out of wine again, so I bought four cases. The next thing you knew, we had a few thousand bottles in the house,” the 62-year-old recalls. It’s a terminal disease in some respect.”
However much wine he collects, Gargiulo has one rule: he must not drink his own wine. It isn’t because his Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Aprile Super Oakville, 575 OVX Cabernet Sauvignon and G Major 7 Cabernet Sauvignon aren’t divine—it’s because they’re too good: Gargiulo is one of the most sought-after Cabernet producers in the country. “Our wines are really hard to get, but I try not to drink them so I can sell them. Our staff is really good about keeping me away from them,” he says. Instead, he buys old world wines and wines from friends. “We have a variety,” he says. “I keep a few hundred bottles [in] my own private cellar.” For a man that never intended to embark on a career as vintner, Gargiulo certainly has been bitten by the bug. But then, growing has always been in his blood. As the former owner of Gargiulo Inc., a company that engages in producing, packing, marketing and distributing tomatoes as well as other fruits and vegetables, and as the former CEO and president of Sunkist, the art of cultivation is in his blood.
It is with specific clarity that Gargiulo recalls exactly when he felt his chosen career path diverge. “[My wife Valerie] and I love wine, so we’d always slip up to wine country and connect with Valerie’s relatives, who were pioneers in the Valley. They took us under their wing. The farmer and the wine had to come together: we bought our first vineyard in the early ’90s.” He continues, “Sooner or later the grapes become mature, and you have to taste the wine. The next thing I knew, I had Gargiulo Vineyards.” His wife’s cousins, Barney and Belle Rhodes, were two of the founders of what is now the flourishing Napa wine industry, and were influential in cementing the Valley’s reputation for producing fine wine. The Gargiulos couldn’t have asked for better guidance.
The Rhodes’ counsel, along with Gargiulo’s deep-seated affection for wine, was a perfect pairing, so to speak. Though he only initially intended to harvest grapes, the grower quickly morphed into the vintner after tasting his very first vintage. “I’m passionate about wine, but when we planted the first grapes, we were only going to stay on as growers,” he says, admitting that he changed his mind after that first taste of temptation. “When the first grapes came around, our friend Bob Long made a few vintages out of our grapes. I would say that’s when the passion really set in.” Twelve years later after that initial visit to Napa Valley, Jeff and Valerie purchased their first vineyard, Money Road Ranch. Seven years after that, they bought a second winery, 575 OVX. Jeff and Valerie have homes in Naples, Florida and San Francisco in order to more efficiently run Greenleaf Produce, a Bay Area-based produce foodservice distributor of which Gargiulo is acting chairman, but Valley is truly their home, and Gargiulo can’t help but sing its praises.
“What makes Napa special is a combination of things. You can go around the world, but Napa Valley really stands out,” he declares. “It’s a physically beautiful place with spectacular rolling hills. Get off the beaten path and you’ll see its true beauty in the homes, the wineries, the garden and the dedication to excellence. It’s the dream. A lot of people come out here wanting to get a piece of that, and when they come to Napa, they find it.”
Another element that makes Napa such a special place is its cuisine. “We attract some of the best chefs in the world,” Gargiulo states proudly. “We have a great agricultural system outside of the wine industry that supports food. You throw artisan products in the mix along with all the cultural stuff like music, and Napa becomes a very diverse sort of place that epitomizes the art of living.” Gargiulo will be the first to admit that he lives a good life. Because he is so fortunate, he and Valerie have devoted their lives to making changes and giving back. He and Valerie contribute to Charity: Water, the V Foundation and even co-founded the Naples Winter Wine Festival, an event they modeled after Auction Napa Valley that raises funds for the Naples Children & Education Foundation, where Jeff currently serves as chairman emeritus.
It is the upcoming June 7 Auction that currently commands Gargiulo’s attention, an event that in his eyes, is going to be exceptionally amazing this year in particular. “The Auction is always an amazing event, but this year, we’ve themed it ‘Sweet Home Napa Valley’; we’re trying to focus a lot on the things that make Napa Valley so special: the wines, the people and the food,” Gargiulo explains, adding, “Under Christopher Kostow, we have a great line-up of participating chefs. It’s going to be incredible.” Even more amazing is the fact that he and Valerie, who are first-time hosts of the event, are lucky enough to do so alongside close friends David and Kary Duncan.
“Each one of us was asked to host the Auction individually, but we thought it would be unique to do it together to show the partnership of the two wineries and two families. We’re great friends, and to be partners together is wonderful,” he says. The most incredible part of this year’s Auction, however, is the fact that Gargiulo and his wife of over 30 years are hosting as a team. “Being married to someone you love and someone you want to share your life with, doing this together, that has been a real luxury,” he says. “Whether it’s a great song or great bottle of wine or a great dish on the menu, it’s only as good as who you can share it with. Being able to share this has been the greatest life experience I could have asked for.”