Vol 3 No 2.3 visiting some old Napa favorites

To those of you who dream of owning a chateau in Napa Valley try this and Dream.  Keep in mind what I said in the last blog about valley floor land going for $350-450,000 and acre. I saw this right after I posted and wanted it to share with you.

While Napa Valley was able to avoid the Santa Clarafication that Silicone Valley caused, it has developed its own problems of traffic and a cost of living that means workers must come from more than an hour away. Agricultural minimum-sized plots were 10 acres in 1969, when we could have bought land for $5,000 an acre (of course good wines from here were selling for around $5 a bottle). As the boom developed they raised the minimum to 20 acres which prevented the conversion to residential and commercial properties. Now, even one acre would eliminate the problem.

The original landmarks on the highway remain with few major changes in appearance: B.V., Louis Martini, Inglenook (now Francis Ford Coppola Winery). Beringer’s Rhine House, Christian Brothers Greystone, and some visible from the highway. These are interspersed with the new wineries. The Robert Mondavi Winery was the first to change the character which further changed with the OPUS joint venture with Rothschild. One that is missing is the little red shack on Hwy 29, that was for decades the Heitz tasting room. It has been replaced by a nice stone building with vine-covered trellises that blends in with the environment and provides surprises when you enter the tasting room.

Through friends, one of whom unbeknownst to me was related to Joe Heitz, a group of us,  made a pilgrimage to Napa Valley with me doing the planning. The year was 1978, and his nephew said his uncle had a small ‘mom and pop’ winery there. I said sure we can go there and shrugged it off. His uncle was Joe Heitz and on a beautiful Napa Valley morning I was surprised to find out that that was our destination. As we sat on the deck with Joe and his wife Alice, drinking a riesling and enjoying sausages with it, I abandoned my wine snobbery. There was something about this man and following a guided tour, I was hooked on Joe and his wines. So much so, that when I tried his 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Anniversary bottling, I purchased a case at $25 a bottle; the most I had ever paid at that time. Consider that most of the name brands were still well around $5 a bottle. It was also the most luscious cabernet I had ever had. Joe kept saying we didn’t have to buy anything but we wanted it that time and enjoyed it over the next several years – until I was down to the last bottle.

Whenever I visited the ‘little red shack’ and Joe was there he would smile and greet me with “hi, Bill”. Thus I had a strong relationship with him and his wines that lasted. Joe was a smart man with simple, sound values. He had learned under Andre Tchelistcheff, and then went to Fresno State College to set up a viticulture program, where later his son would graduate: they had classes but not a major. He was there for six years then bought the land for his winery. This is background for something he told me that day: “people think of wine as romantic but owning a vineyard is nothing more than agriculture…it’s farming.” That thought stuck with me all these years. One last thing about the tasting room: it is perhaps the last in the valley with no tasting fee. When some charge $25, $50, or even $100, that is amazing and they still make good wines.

I drove over to the Silverado Trail and up Taplin Lane to the winery and the old home. Going inside the building, Kathleen Heitz, Joe’s daughter and the business manager, sat down with me to discuss Joe and the winery. Her brother, David, is the winemaker, and she told me that her dad had been hospitalized when that ’74 was made and he guided David through the process and never failed to give him credit for the wine. That is some kind of a winemaker and man! It’s nice to return to a place and although it had physically changed, what you liked about it is still the same. The wine was named one of the top 10 wines of the century by the Wine Spectator, and President Reagan took it to a 1982 State dinner in Paris.

Just down the hill on the opposite side of the road is the Joseph Phelps Winery. I decided to visit it and while no one from the family was down I saw that much had changed of the winery which is perched on a hill overlooking the vineyards and the valley floor. The two Joe’s were good friends and while Heitz’s specialty was his cabernet’s, Phelps produced the first Bordeaux blend of cabernet in the Left Bank style, under the name Insignia.

My final stop of the day was with an old friend, George Hendry. George is the only ‘rocket scientist’ in the wine business. In fact, he had just completed consulting work on a cyclotron. His father was a professor at U.C. Berkeley and purchased the land on Redwood Road, just above Hwy 29, north of Napa. Originally they had farm animals and grapes which when George took over became all vineyards. We met at ZAP, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers at their annual tasting event in San Francisco when I was pouring for Lamborn Family Vineyards. Each year I would seek him out because I enjoyed talking with him but also because his zin’s appealed to my taste like no other besides the Lamborn.

I also visited the winery for tours and tastings with friends coming to the Valley. George conducts all the tours personally, and as for thoroughness, I recall standing in the hot sun for what seemed 20 minutes explaining the vineyard and its characteristics as well as his philosophy. The tastings were also unique as George would describe the wines with you and loved to use ‘experiment’s’ to make his points. These tours were always the highlight for friends I brought to the winery. No one ever had a bad wine at those tastings. All were beautifully made and very good examples of each varietal.

When George walked in for our meeting, he didn’t seem to have changed. His charm, humor, and the inevitable taste experiments, were still there. We discussed the longevity of the winery and he proudly said, “I never quit my day job.” He understood what many, especially those who only consume wine, don’t know: it is all about cashflow. He never brought in partners because their time horizon might be different than his and he wanted to make wine his way. He had watched many wineries fail or change hands because of a lack of understanding that stuff happens. When that happens, partnerships sour, banks call loans, and much more. Thus his conservative way of running the business has paid off. He also sells his excess fruit in some years, but whereas payment is usually made after the wine is made and sold, he requires a partial payment with the sale, which attests to the quality of the fruit he produces. It was George who told me about land prices around Yountville running from $350-$450,000 an acre. Such is the lure and lore of Napa Valley.

His advice to those who want to own a winery or be a winemaker is “forget about a 40 hour week,” and “the hours are not always when you want them to be.” He also said, what Joe Heitz told me over four decades ago, “wine making is farming.”

We finished tasting our wine and I drove home…into the traffic…and glad that I had visited him again. The drive back to Calistoga took 20 minutes longer than in the middle of the day but I had a lot to process during the drive. The only person I had wanted to visit was Mike Grgich, who was unavailable.

TB