The Beginning of Modern Winemaking in Napa Valley

Today’s Story: Heitz Wine Cellars

Heitz Cellars was founded in 1961 by Joe and Alice Heitz with the purchase of a small 8.5 acre vineyard planted to Grignolino in the Napa Valley. Joe was previously enlisted in the US Air Force during World War II, though afterwards he started taking classes at UC Davis in viticulture and enology and graduated in the inaugural class of 1951 with half a dozen others. Though Joe first worked for Gallo, he transitioned to Beaulieu Vineyard in 1951 and worked under legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff as assistant winemaker for 10 years. When Joe and Alice went into business for themselves by starting Heitz, this was a time when Napa Valley wineries were reduced to their lowest decline since Prohibition and even preceded Robert Mondavi’s namesake winery founded in 1966.

In 1964, Joe and Alice Heitz purchased a 160 acre ranch property to expand their production and this land included a stone cellar built in 1898, a farmhouse, and vineyards first planted to vine in 1880. Though Heitz wines became well-known in the Valley, his breakthrough came in 1965 and 1966 with the Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1965, Joe purchased his first fruit from friends Tom and Martha May who owned a 34 acre vineyard in the Oakville AVA. Though he bottled this wine in 1965, it was in 1966 Joe decided the Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet deserved its own standalone bottling and this iconic wine became the first ever in Napa Valley to be labelled with a vineyard designation. With a handshake, Joe and the Mays entered an exclusive agreement where Heitz would be the sole purchaser of Martha’s Vineyard fruit and production of this historic wine continues today.

In 1974, Joe and Alice’s son David joined the family business having graduated from UC Davis with an enology degree. Little did David know, his first vintage working with his father would produce arguably the most legendary Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the Napa Valley: the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard. This wine is the first Martha’s Vineyard bottling with a commemorative label, a series that would see a new label for one vintage each decade, but is certainly not the reason for this bottle’s fame. The 1974 Martha’s Vineyard is one of the highest quality and spectacularly age-worthy wines in the world, to this day coveted by collectors and listed as one of the Top 100 Wines of the World. This is even included in Assouline’s The Impossible Collection of Wine: The 100 Most Exceptional Vintages of the Twentieth Century of which I have a copy. Though for all the fame the vintage of this wine holds in the California wine world, it holds a special place for me since I was able to drink a bottle and it is my single favorite wine I’ve ever had. There are a couple bonus pictures of the bottle I consumed at the end of this post.

In 1976, Heitz Cellars entered another exclusive agreement with Barney and Belle Rhodes who owned an 18 acre vineyard in the Rutherford AVA. Fruit from this plot of land goes into the Heitz Bella Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. As Heitz remained a family operation, they expanded yet again by purchasing the Trailside Vineyard in Rutherford in 1984 (though they had been purchasing fruit from the property since the early 1980s) and this marked their first exploration into organic farming. The Trailside Vineyard Cabernet was bottled separately in 1989. Though Joe Heitz suffered a stroke in 1996, he remained frail but lucid to his death in 2000 and Heitz Cellars came fully under second generation management. In April, 2018, Heitz Cellars was sold to the Lawrence family but thanks to their deep roots in agriculture and a dedication to the same core values of the Heitz family I am confident this legacy will live on with success.

Note: Heitz Cellars practices organic farming in 100% of their vineyards (CCOF certified) and they are transitioning to biodynamic farming in the near future.

Today’s Wine: 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14.5% ABV

The 2012 Napa Valley Cab is an almost cherry-like medium ruby color and is moderately transparent. Give this about an hour to open up and expect aromas of blackberry, plum, cassis, black cherry, violet, cedar, mint, lightly scorched earth, slight pepper, and vanilla. Once in the mouth, this Cab showcases notes of blackcurrant, redcurrant, blueberry, licorice, tobacco, loamy soil, green herbs, eucalyptus, leather, and a touch of oak. The wine is medium-bodied with medium acidity, medium (-) tannins, and a medium (+) length finish.

Price: $55. I’ve consumed countless bottles of Heitz over the years from their Grignolino to the Martha’s Vineyard Cab and am a proponent of the great value these wines offer. Alongside the Ridge Estate Cab and Jordan Cab, this is one of my favorites in the price range. Pair this with steak, a good burger, or lamb.

Bonus Pictures:

The 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, tasted alongside a 1978 Château Lafite Rothschild in January, 2017.
That same bottle of 1974 Martha’s Vineyard, laid inside my copy of The Impossible Collection of Wine: The 100 Most Exceptional Vintages of the Twentieth Century.

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