Thursday, August 24, 2023

California Wine Adventures 4

In the last installment (posted August 4), my wine adventures in Colorado ended with tastings of two classic French wines. Then, at last, it was off to California, stopping first at Chalone in Monterey County.  The following adventures in the Napa Valley were at two wineries that have earned legendary status.

Huddling with Heitz

With our visit at Chalone behind us, my photographer, Jack Whidden, and I headed north from Monterey County to the Napa Valley.  I had hoped that my written correspondence with Joe Heitz and Joseph Phelps, had secured our visits to both wineries and set up interviews with the vintners.  Looking back now, it seems my assumptions were a bit naive but hopeful. 

Joe Heitz  (1920-2001)

It was the late 1970s, and email hadn't been invented yet, so the answers to my letters were brief and to the point. Joe Heitz said to come ahead but understand that I don't know any wine writers from Colorado and (I didn't read between the lines) I am very busy!

Nevertheless, we innocently forged ahead, arriving at the El Bonita motel, south of downtown St. Helena. The El Bonita was once one of the few affordable places to stay in the valley. We checked in, dropped our bags and headed back out to get something to eat.

Heitz was our first appointment the following morning, so before eating, we went by the Heitz tasting room on Highway 29.  The small building sat back off the road, amongst the vines. We pulled in the road so Jack could look at photo possibilities, when a dusty red Camaro convertible came roaring down the dirt and cinder lane, stopping at the highway. 

"That's Joe Heitz," I said, referring to the impatient-looking man at the wheel of the Camaro. "Let's say hello and ask about tomorrow." 

Traffic was heavy on 29 and the Camaro was surging as we approached.  "Hello, Mr. Heitz.  I'm Gerald Boyd and this is Jack Whidden.  I wrote to you from Colorado about a visit to the winery and an interview." 

Heitz turned to us, easing the racing motor to an idle, "When," he barked? 

"Tomorrow morning," I said, at the winery." 

"Right," he muttered. Then impatiently eyeing an opening in the traffic, he added,  "You damn writers think we have nothing else to do."  And with that, he was gone, leaving us with cinders on our shoes. 

The following morning at the winery on Taplin Road, we were ushered into a room, and within minutes, Joe Heitz came in, greeting us with a smile, as though we were long-lost cousins.  Three Heitz wines, with two sets of glasses, were set out on the table, but Heitz seemed to be anxious about getting on with the interview. 

So, I politely tasted the wines, Jack busied himself snapping a few photos, while I asked Heitz about the growing interest in Napa wines and the valley as a tourist attraction.  He wasn't happy about the crowds and said he was glad his tasting room was not at the winery. 

Then, Heitz got a little annoyed when I asked about the presence of eucalyptus in his best known red, Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. He said there was a lot of misinformation about Martha's supposed eucalyptus character, supposedly due to the gum trees that surround the famous vineyard. 

"That's a lot of crap," he growled. When I worked in the Central Valley, we parked gondolas full of grapes in the shade under eucalyptus trees, with nuts falling off the trees into the gondolas and we never had a whiff of eucalypt in our wines." 

We thanked Joe Heitz for taking time to talk with us and headed up Taplin Road to Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

Phelps and the Colorado Connection

I first met Joseph Phelps when I interviewed him in Denver for a magazine article I wrote, titled "The Colorado Wine Barons."  Besides Phelps, the other "barons" were Tom Jordan, Jordan Vineyards and Ray Duncan, Franciscan Vineyards.

When we met again at the Phelps winery, I found Joseph Phelps a friendly and robust vintner; an encouraging demeanor that's welcomed in an interview subject. It was evident that this successful businessman from Greeley, Colorado, who had made his money in bridge and highway construction, was just as comfortable at the helm of his Napa winery. 

Joseph Phelps (1928-2015)

Phelps construction company built the Souverain of Napa winery and then in 1972, Joseph Phelps decided to build his own winery on vineyard land he already owned off Silverado Trail. Phelps was among the first monied people, not from a wine background, to buy into the burgeoning Napa Valley wine business. 

Heitz also had the foresight, or some good advice, to hire German-born Walter Schug as the first winemaker.  Later, Phelps brought on Craig Williams who succeeded Schug as winemaker, staying on at Phelps for more than 30 years. That continuity and consistency was also evident in Phelps wines.

One of the first things that Schug did was to plant Syrah in Phelps' new vineyard and I wondered why a Rhone variety in a Cabernet-dominated valley. Phelps said that Schug saw the potential for Syrah and he believed it made a better wine than the more popular Petite Sirah. Joseph Phelps Vineyards, of course, would become known for Syrah as well as the Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend, Insignia.

In the late 1970s, there were many old vines still in the valley, especially varieties like Alicante-Bouschet, Mataro (Mourvedre) and Carignane. So, Syrah, the great French variety from the Rhone Valley, was a shot across the bow to the old timers, but Syrah never became as popular as Cabernet Sauvignon. 

A few years after Joseph Phelps Vineyards opened, I scheduled our visit. Phelps and Schug brought out a few wines, including reds still in barrel. The vines had not yet matured enough to produce complete wines, so the winery was still not ready yet to release a full line.  

My notes from the visit do not include detailed comments on the wines I tasted, but I did note that the Cabernet barrel sample was deeply colored and packed with ripe berry flavors.  

Admittedly, I had little experience then tasting barrel samples, so the impressions of Heitz and Phelps were more about the people and the wineries, than the wines. Time and experience helped improve my abilities as a wine taster.  

After Napa, my next California Wine Adventure was in Ukiah, and a visit with a Mendocino County legend. Later, there's a glimpse at the early years of The Wine Spectator, the former Marine who founded the publication and the New York investment banker who took it from a struggling tabloid newspaper to a major wine magazine.

Next blog: "Paso"

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