3 Storied Napa Wineries Enter a New Era
All things change, but there's always an air of apprehension when iconic wineries are acquired by new owners, an occurrence that's on the rise in Napa Valley. There's no real surprise here—aging founders, succession questions, and the stratospheric cost of replanting older vineyards are coming into play for many benchmark properties in the region. The worry is always that what made the wines famous in the first place will be diluted or changed for the worse. Yet three recent transitions inspire hope rather than concern.
Read more: The State of California Wine
At Mayacamas Vineyards, high atop Mount Veeder, winemaker Braiden Albrecht, who started in 2013, is aware of the pressure of a legacy. "I try to frame our winemaking within the historical Mayacamas style—you can't help but have a lot of reverence for what was done here." The property, which dates back to the late 1800s, has been a benchmark for Napa Valley Cabernet since the late 1960s, when the former owners, the Taylor family, first planted that variety. The wines have long reflected a traditional Cabernet style—elegantly proportioned, long-aging reds with modest alcohol levels, savory herbal notes, and firm tannins. Albrecht has kept to that. "Our big old wooden casks—one's almost 100 years old—have their doors sealed with beeswax. Just closing up a tank takes an hour or more. A modern tank with a steel door? That takes thirty seconds. But we absolutely love those old casks. They're a huge part of what we do. They're not going anywhere."
At Heitz Cellar, purchased from the Heitz family by Arkansas billionaire Gaylon Lawrence Jr. in 2018, President and CEO Carlton McCoy Jr. is happy to reference the past: "You taste Heitz's wines, [and] you get an idea of what the great wines of the '60s, '70s, and '80s were like; the Heitz family never really changed their course." While the 1990s and 2000s saw that style eclipsed by the rise of Napa's lusciously ripe, cult Cabernet world, former sommelier McCoy prefers the winery's traditional sensibility. "Why would Heitz change? The wines are brilliant the way they are." But there are positive shifts: Under McCoy, Heitz will move entirely to biodynamic farming, and Lawrence's deep pockets have brought new land into the Heitz fold, such as Rutherford's Wildwood Vineyard,which lies adjacent to Heitz's Trailside Vineyard, and the Haynes Vineyard in Coombsville.
Iconic Chardonnay producer Stony Hill Vineyard also changed hands in 2018, when the founding McCrea family sold it to Ted, Laddie, and Chris Hall, the owners of Napa's Long Meadow Ranch. Like Heitz and Mayacamas, Stony Hill is known for elegance and restraint, ignoring the vicissitudes of fashion and making modest amounts of long-aging, complex Chardonnay. But work that the property needed—upgrades to the winery and replanting acres of vineyards—was financially out of reach. The Halls aren't tampering with the winery's classic style, and Sarah McCrea has joined Long Meadow Ranch as vice president of marketing and strategy. Rather, they're allowing it the resources it needs to pursue that style into the future, such as new fermentation tanks and a new press.
Who's next? That's unclear—which well-known wineries might be on the market tends to be a tightly kept secret. (People were startled when top-level boutique producer Pahlmeyer was sold to Gallo last November.) Ask a Napa local, though, and you'll get any number of predictions.
3 Classics to Try
2017 Stony Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay ($54)
Founders Fred and Eleanor McCrea were inspired by great white Burgundy, a lineage evident in this layered white. It suggests green apples, lemon zest, and cool minerality and should age easily for years.
2014 Heitz Cellar Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($63)
The fragrance here is all black currants and blackberries, with a light touch of sweet vanilla oak. Rather than a power-house, this is classic Heitz: elegant and balanced, and eminently drinkable right now.
2015 Mayacamas Mt. Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($125)
A profound Cabernet, this comes from a vintage that produced tiny grapes with lots of tannins. That potent structure frames the black cherry, currant, and graphite flavors in this impressively ageworthy wine.