While most winemakers struggle to keep wine from completely taking over their lives during the demanding months of harvest, John Falcone frets more about anything that may distract him from it. With his wife, Helen, his primary business partner, it’s easy for the two — who make wine for Rusack and their own Falcone label — to keep their hearts in the winery and vineyards.
The two express their excitement and almost a sense of comfort in holing up in the winery. “I look forward to that adrenaline rush of pouring all of my energy towards one things for two months out of the year,” said John. “I don’t have to look at the calendar, I don’t need to know what I’m doing next Saturday, I don’t need to know what I’m going to be doing tomorrow night.”
Helen shares John’s sentiment, admitting that harvest is her favorite time of year. “I’m so glad I get to be at the winery for long hours, for several days, weekends,” she mused, citing the plethora of decisions she gets to make and excessive amount of physical work they put forth to create wine. “It’s exciting and inspiring to me.”
Both Falcones got their start at a sub-legal drinking age. In fact, Helen notes the strong presence of wine in her family while growing up, and talks about how she had been wine tasting (miniscule sips only) at age 12. As a pre-teen, she had already subscribed to and enjoyed several wineries’ newsletters. While studying food science at UC Davis in 1981, she shared courses with viticulture and oenology students, but admits faculty discouraged her from switching majors. Nowadays, Helen happily proves their fears — that women can’t be serious winemakers — wrong.
John, a self-proclaimed “junior college dropout,” says he “lucked into” the trade after ditching the classroom and looking to family for work. His cousins, who worked in the industry, were happy to give him the brunt of their harvest work. Of all the different industries he had family connections in, after just one year, John knew he had chosen the right one. After all, construction is nowhere near as multi-faceted as wine production. “It’s farming, it’s winemaking, it’s art, it’s chemistry,” he said. “It’s a whole lot of things wrapped up into one fun lifestyle.”
Before they shared a last name — or even a dinner, for that matter — the Falcones worked together for a few years at Codorniu Napa (now Contessa winery) in the early ‘90s. Surprisingly, the two didn’t date until after John left and she “actually had some interest in me,” he confessed. “When we were working together, I thought I was probably the least person she had any interest in.” Helen saw it a bit differently, explaining, “Sometimes I think when you have such a good platonic friendship, you don’t want to mess things up.”
Lucky for them (and for fans of the high-scoring Falcone and Rusack wines), they risked their friendship, got married, and now work on the same product. The winery provides the couple with a great opportunity to work together and independently simultaneously. Working together also allows them to truly appreciate each other every day for their skills — which just so happen to complement each other perfectly. While Helen certainly has more experience in the technical aspects and laboratory work, John, having worked 34 harvests, knows more about viticulture and processing the fruit. They both claim that keeping things professional to get the job done works beautifully for them.
“He has been like a mentor, in a way, for me,” Helen said. “If you can remove the romantic aspect of our relationship, I would say that I really look to John as a guide and a teacher, and I really respect him.”
In a lot of ways, life for the Falcones unfolds in the winery everyday. In fact, John hypothetically asks himself, “What in the wine suffers because I have to do something else?” Because of that, John said that wine is “what drives our lives, outside of our child.” They hope that their 12-year-old daughter, Mia, will end up in the business eventually—and she’s got an early start, already having her name grace earlier Falcone labels as the vineyard designate, “Mia’s Vineyard.” For now, though, if you asked her whether she would follow in her parents’ footsteps, her answer would likely be “absolutely not” considering all of the “boring wine talk” she endures at the dinner table.
“We talk about it and tell her, ‘Oh, you just wait — when you go to college, all your friends are going to find out that your parents are winemakers, and they’re all going to say, ‘What a cool job,’,” laughed John, “’and you’re going to change your major really quick or go to a different college.’”
Whether Mia stays in the family biz or not, though, her parents certainly aren’t planning to budge. Helen explains that the Santa Ynez Valley has become home over the past nine years. John says his passion only grows as the vintages go by, leaving him unable to imagine doing anything else.
“Even if I retired I would still be involved,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that’s always going to be in your blood.”
To sample the Falcones work, visit the Rusack Vineyards tasting room on Ballard Canyon Road in the Santa Ynez Valley. See rusackvineyards.com. For more on the Falcone Family label, see falconefamilyvineyards.com.