You won’t find Tony Arcudi’s unusual business model or career path in any books on how to launch a wine.
Arcudi spent 20 years working in computer-related fields, first as a missile navigation engineer aboard Navy submarines and later as a product manager for IBM. The transition from that to winemaker—working with wine greats such as Heidi Peterson Barrett and Maison M. Chapoutier—to ultimately launching his own wine brand, wasn’t an easy one.
But Arcudi considers barriers nothing more than a chance to prove how badly you want something.
“Every time I’d hit a challenge, I’d wonder if I was really cut out for this,” Anthony says. “But each small win, breaking through some barrier, would keep me going.” And 11 years after he began his quest, Arcudi Wines became reality.
Tony Arcudi grew up outside of Boston, where his parents inspired in him a love of cooking and good food. “I come from a big Italian family, and we all cooked. That was the most sacred thing in our house. I was cooking when I could barely see over the edge of the pot on the stove, and my parents encouraged it, excited that I could cook at such a young age.
Tony’s love of cooking continued through high school. He cooked in local restaurants before he had a driver’s license, watched Julia Child on tv and read Escoffier. But high school held little interest for him and his grades reflected that. After graduation, Tony entered the Navy, which seemed the more practical career option to working in restaurants.
But he continued to love cooking, which led to an interest in wine. And through his early 20s, he immersed himself in learning more about it, trying wines from all over the world and reading as much as he could about them.
“Then there was that moment—and I suspect this happens with all wine lovers—when it became more than a beverage. I was at a large dinner party and the host poured a Chateauneuf de Pape. The moment I smelled it, it grabbed me. I moved to a quiet corner to try to figure out what was in this glass. And even after the party, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Wine moved from an interest into an obsession.
“I tried my hand at making wine. I made it in my basement from California grapes, then got the idea of growing my own winegrapes. So I planted a small vineyard—a hard-headed idea for New England. I was taken with the whole process, but ultimately realized the only way my wine would improve would be with better grapes. I knew no one would send their best winegrapes across country, meaning I needed to go to California and make wine there.”
“It’s hard to leave the security of a well-established career, a good network and a proven track record, though. I grappled a long time with the thought of taking that leap, and finally decided that if I didn’t do it now, it would never happen. So in October 2001, at age 38, I left my job, packed up my car and drove to California.”
Small Wins Add Up
Once here, Tony visited UC Davis, ready to enroll in the Enology program, but “I didn’t fit the mold. I had no SAT scores and my high school grades were abysmal. The only other way to get to Davis was via a community college.”
So Tony registered at Napa Valley College and worked in the restaurant industry cooking and working as wine buyer in Berkeley until the start of the new semester. Then he began knocking off, one by one, the chemistry, math and other classes needed to apply to Davis, and two and a half years later, he was not only was accepted into the UC Davis enology program, but scored a Regents scholarship from the school.
As part of his degree, Tony spent a year in a viticulture internship at Stagecoach Vineyards. “I walked the rows of vines every day for the entire growing season, and with no distractions, you can deeply observe and absorb what’s going on in the vineyard, get a feel for the vineyard and understand what the end result is. I also learned a lot about the business of winemaking from founder Jan Krupp: grape contracts, and the costs and business decisions involved in producing wine.”
After graduating in 2006, Tony received a Fellowship from the International Wine and Food Society, which he used to travel to France and train at Maison M. Chapoutier.
Here the next barrier presented itself. While he did have the proper work visa, local law prohibited him from taking a paid internship that could be filled by a French student. So he worked illegally, without pay—but was paid handsomely in experience. “Chapoutier has more than 200 years of winegrowing knowledge that has been passed down and distilled through each winemaker. Their comprehension of the vineyards really made a deep impression on me.”
Returning to Napa Valley, his first job was as assistant winemaker at Nickel & Nickel in Oakville, a perfect place to hone his skills. “Working with 25 single-vineyard wines from Napa and Sonoma appellations was an intensive education on how the nuances of growing sites reveal themselves in the resulting wine.”
In 2009, Tony met renowned winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett at a conference. “Our first conversation was about the submarine service,” Arcudi recalls, “given my background and the fact that her father-in-law and his brother had both been in the sub service.”
But as the conversation turned to wine, the two found their philosophies on winemaking were closely matched. Heidi needed an assistant for a new project and suggested Tony apply. After interviews that included a blind tasting with Heidi and the owners of Fantesca, Tony was appointed associate winemaker for the Spring Mountain District winery, which he still serves as today, working closely with Heidi. In the summer of 2016 Tony was named consulting winemaker at Kapcsandy Family Wines.
Making A Name for Himself
From his experience both in France and in Napa Valley, Arcudi was able to refine his vision of how to realize his longtime personal dream: he would seek out select sites from which to make vineyard-designated Cabernets that expressed the personality of the site, and build his growth plan based on his finds, not the other way around.
It makes for a challenging business plan, but in 2012, the stars aligned, providing his first vineyard source.
Tony learned a small parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon from the acclaimed Black Sears Vineyard would be available that year. The only other Cabernet made under the Black Sears vineyard designation was made by the family itself, so their goal was to find a buyer whose philosophy matched theirs. After carefully interviewing all prospective buyers, they ultimately chose Tony.