The Wine Guys: Old Wine Brand Survives Challenges of Time
In a world of ever-changing ownerships, there is comfort in seeing an old brand that has survived the challenges of time. Heitz Cellar brings us such comfort.
Joe Heitz founded Heitz Cellar in 1961 when there were only a couple dozen of post-war farmers making wine in Napa Valley. He stood alongside such iconic pioneers as Andre Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Lee Stewart, Louis Martini and Charles Krug who brought old-world winemaking to the valley. Most of these people have since passed but their legacy lives on in new generations.
Heitz left his mark on California winemaking by being the first to make a single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon. While others were blending the grapes from several vineyards, Heitz landed on a particular vineyard that produced a unique flavor profile. In 1965, he struck up a handshake deal -- still in existence -- with Tom and Martha May to use grapes exclusively from their 14-acre vineyard. It was Heitz's idea to put their name on the label and thus was born the first single-vineyard cabernet: Heitz Cellar Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
The wine that sold for less than $10 then sells for $225 today. It has more awards than almost any other Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. It's 1970 Martha's Vineyard cabernet placed ninth in the 1978 Judgment of Paris tasting and scored well in similar tastings afterward. It set a benchmark 46 years ago that is used today.
Heitz saw in the terroir a special flavor that makes this wine so great. In fact, the clone's identity remains a family secret.
We recently tasted the winery's regular Napa Valley chardonnay ($27) and cabernet sauvignon ($52). They are great wines. The 2015 chardonnay has generous aromas of peach and lemon and tropical fruit flavors with a lush mouthfeel and a dash of sweet vanillin oak.
The 2012 Heitz Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has fresh, dark berry fruit, great depth and complexity.
Josh and Jake Beckett were kicking back in the middle of the 2014 harvest in Paso Robles when the conversation turned to making wines that were "chronic," oddly a word they chose to describe something good.
They decided the country needed more casual wines, so they embarked on a winemaking adventure and new label, "Chronic Cellars."
We've tasted several vintages of these crazy wines and decided that the brothers have found a niche. First, you have to get past the label, which targets the adverturesome spirit of millennials. Adorned with a skull and crossbones, each blend identifies a lifestyle: Purple Paradise, Sofa King, Dead Nuts, Suite Petite. The blends are anything but conventional: tannat is thrown in with Rhone varieties syrah and grenache (Sofa King), zinfandel joins tempranillo (Dead Nuts), zinfandel complements syrah (Purple Paradise). You can drink these wines with casual dinners, like pizza, hamburgers, pasta, on a Friday night and feel good -- chronically good.
And they're delicious and cheap -- $15 apiece. If the label doesn't start a conversation, the wine will.
We remember when Clos Pegase opened in the mid 1980s. Who could forget? It was the most lavish wine facility in Napa Valley and soon became the scorn of traditionalists who saw nothing but oneupmanship over other lavish tasting facilities. Least impressed were its neighbors, Sterling Vineyards, whose visitors looked down on Clos Pegase when they boarded Sterling's gondola.
The source of contempt -- which became an unsuccessful lawsuit -- was owner Jan Shrem's excessive use of precious water for waterfalls and other water features. But underneath this complaint was Shrem's post-modern architectural tastes. Sculptures, like that of a thumb, were displayed all around the Calistoga estate.
Shrem sold the property in 2013 to Leslie Rudd, owner of Dean & DeLuca, and his partners at Vintage Wine Estates. Most of the sculptures -- including works by Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon -- were donated to the University of California at Davis. Gone is most of the sculptures and thus most of the long-forgotten controversy.
We had a moment to recall this history while enjoying the 2014 Clos Pegase Mitsuko's Vineyard Chardonnay ($30). The quality of the wine far exceeds its price. It has exotic mango and papaya notes with a hint of lemon and butterscotch. Very lush in style and appealing to those who like a little oak with their wine. At least the wine lived on.