The Napa Valley is a world renowned wine producing area in California approximately two hours north of San Francisco. Although many grape varieties are cultivated there, Cabernet Sauvignon is king. The viticultural real estate is prized, coveted and valuable.
By Michael Venezia // Photography by Eric Gray Cantrell
Today close to 50,000 acres of Vinifera grapes grow on its hillsides, in the mountains high above the fog line and on the carpet of the valley floor.
Stretching north from the county seat of Napa, it is roughly 30 miles to the quaint town of Calistoga. The valley is only four miles wide at its widest location running between the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Range to the east. In volume it represents only 4% of the total of wine produced in the Golden State, yet its crop value per ton places it at the top of the table.
A Napa Valley address on a wine label immediately distinguishes it from all others with added value and prestige. Its global reputation in the production of Cabernet Sauvignon places it toe to toe with the aristocratic chateaux of Bordeaux.
In 2015, there were close to 450 bonded wineries in Napa Valley with a few venerable 19th century names such as Beringer, Charles Krug, and Beaulieu Vineyards still producing wines. The mid-20th century saw famous families like the Mondavi, Martini and the Trinchero start from humble beginnings to conquer the challenges which are omnipresent when attempting to produce world class wines.
The late 20th century brought recently-minted Silicon Valley multi-millionaires who sought the Napa Valley vintner’s lifestyle, retired sports starts such as Joe Montana, Yao Ming and even the late comedian and actor Robin Williams investing tens of millions of dollars into vineyards with brick and mortar winery showcases. Even Chanel and Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy own large estates producing wines in this magical wine land.
In 1961, there were fewer than 15 wineries in this soon to be famous wine valley, and the early pioneers, these viticultural trailblazers, were experimenting in the vineyard and in the winery trying to unlock the secrets which are contained in the soul of the grapes.
After completing military service in World War II and successfully earning a Master’s Degree in Enology from U.C. Davis, Joe Heitz and his wife Alice bought some land and put down their roots in St. Helena, California, smack in the middle of Napa Valley.
During the 60’s Joe worked at Beaulieu Vineyards as the assistant to renowned Russian émigré winemaker Andre Tchelistchef and helped develop and launch the Department of Enology at Fresno State College.
Joe continued to sharpen his focus to Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape variety he loved. He once admonished me for referring to it as “Cab,” suggesting that a Cab was a yellow transportation vehicle that one hailed in New York City. I guess the message “Hail a Cab” rang true in this three word phrase. He felt in its pure form, never blended, it produced the most complete wine in the world.
A chance meeting occurred in 1965 which would change the course of Napa Valley viticultural history. Tom and Martha May, recently settled in Napa Valley, were gifted two bottles of wine as a token of thanks from their real estate agent. The wine was made by Joe Heitz.
Impressed with the wine, the May’s arrived unannounced at the Heitz home and the beginning of the relationships broke bread and flowered. The Mays had a vineyard on their property and asked Joe if he could visit and evaluate the landscape. The grapes were used by Joe during the next harvest and he was very pleased with the quality, as well as the future potential. After a handshake, Joe agreed to produce a wine using these grapes exclusively in a bottling of Cabernet Sauvignon.
The vineyard needed a name and Tom suggested naming it after his wife Martha. So in 1966, Joe crafted the first vineyard designated wine produced in Napa Valley. Today, 50 years later, the families third generations continue this exclusive relationship producing a singular expression of this famous vineyard site in the American Viticultural Area of St. Helena. Stretching to the east and embracing the rising contours of the valley floor, the Mayacamas Mountains stand guard over the late afternoon sundrenched vineyard.
During the last week of March, I hosted Harry Heitz, Joe’s grandson, for a few days visiting the Atlanta wine market. Bones, St. Cecelia’s, The Ritz Carlton Buckhead, City Club of Buckhead and the Capital City Club all set aside some time to meet Harry and to taste some new vintages, as well as, a chance to taste Martha’s Vineyard 2005, 2006, 2010.
A lunch with Gil Kulers, AJC wine writer and two dinners with selected Heitz Cellars wines were also enjoyed.
During his commentary at the dinners, Harry emphasized the family’s current real estate holdings in Napa, a number close to 400 acres. Today 50% of the winery’s power needs are provided by solar energy. The family estates are sustainably farmed and increasingly becoming California Certified Organic (COO), which along with cutting edge technology utilizing GPS to accurately assess each vine in order to optimize its potential.
He also mentioned that the label has never changed. It depicts his grandfather in the cellar evaluating a glass of wine in front of a barrel. It was also disclosed that his father David, as a boy of eight years of age, drew the image of his father at work.
Their wine portfolio includes a subtle and delicate Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as, small quantities of a rare Italian grape variety call Grignolino, a soft textured Zinfandel and a unique Napa Valley fortified style red wine called Ink Grade Port. Produced from indigenous Portuguese grape varieties sourced in the Douro Valley by winemaker David Heitz.
The Cabernet Sauvignon are found on many wine lists occupying prominent along with other prestigious Napa Valley products.
Today winery websites offer direct to consumer purchase opportunities and by visiting www.HeitzCellar.com you can easily obtain your desired selection. If you prefer to trade with a local retailer, many of the wines are available in the metro area by special order.
In closing, I’d like to quote Joe’s daughter Kathleen regarding the Napa Valley wine producers.
“During the last half century our winemaking community earned a premiere position on the world stage. Today at Heitz Cellars, we are proud to be conscientious stewards of the land, working to preserve the Napa Valley winemaking heritage for generations to come.”