Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Heitz Wine Cellars Revisited

Heitz Wine Cellars is an iconic Napa Valley winery that all wine lovers should visit at least once if they are ever in the area.  It is not just a matter of paying homage to one of the great wineries of the world; Heitz has darned good wine and continues to offer complimentary tastings to everyone.  I hope you will purchase some wine when you visit them so they can continue to be one of the rare Napa Valley wineries that offers free tastings.  Heitz is open to the public with no appointment necessary. Be sure, however, to go to the tasting room at 436 St. Helena Highway South in St. Helena, also referred to as 436 Main St. It is just south of downtown St. Helena. Tastings are not available at the Heitz family residence which is on Taplin Road.  Our very helpful and pleasant host, Patty, informed us that some people end up at the wrong facility on Taplin Road because of incorrect maps or faulty GPS directions.

Heitz tasting room building

Heitz Wine Cellars was established in 1961 when Joe and Alice Heitz purchased their first eight acres. This winery continues to be maintained as the current visitor's center.  In 1964 they purchased the 180 acres on Taplin road where the historic 1898 cellar and family residence remain. But Joe Heitz involvement in wine goes back before that.  After working as a cellarman for wineries in the 1940s, he obtained his Bachelor's degree from UC Davis and was one among seven people in 1951 who obtained the first master's degree ever awarded by UCD in viticulture and enology.  That same year Joe went to work with the famous Andre Tchelistcheff at BV Vineyard as an assistant winemaker, staying there for ten years.  Joe was also instrumental in starting the Fresno State College Department of Enology.

Heitz entry sign

In 1956 the first wine under the Heitz label was issued from sourced fruit. Joe Heitz was the first winemaker to promote single vineyard wines in the U.S. In 1964 right after purchasing their new winery, Joe and Alice signed an exclusive agreement with the owners of Martha's Vineyard, 34 acres in Oakville that grow some of the greatest Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the world.  In 1997 a gathering in France was hosted by Champagne Louis Roederer to honor Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon as one of "The World's Thirty Greatest Wines."  Wine Spectator also selected Martha's Vineyard Cabernet as one of the "Top 12 Wines of the Twentieth Century". Although Joe Heitz died in 2000, he was entered posthumously into the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of American at Greystone in 2012. 

Front of Heitz tasting building

Joe's wife, Alice Heitz, continues to be involved with the winery and their two children, Kathleen Heitz Meyers and David Heitz, now run the family winery with both of them having been involved since the 1970s.  David is the current winemaker. His first production began with the 1974 Martha's Vineyard Cabernet. Kathleen Heitz Myers has been president of the winery since 1998 and third generation Harrison Heitz joined the family business in 2012. They maintain their production at around 40,000 cases of wine per year, making them a mid sized family owned and operated winery with a focus on offering consistently excellent premium wines using sustainable agriculture and organic farming.

Heitz outdoor patio

Joe Heitz was a colorful character and there are many stories about him.  One of the best known is when the famous wine critic, Robert Parker, claimed one of the Heitz wines was lacking in aroma.  After he heard about this, Joe Heitz sent Parker a box of handkerchiefs, implying that Parker must have had a cold when he tasted the wine.

Heitz fireplace

Our tasting began with the Heitz 2012 Sauvignon Blanc at $19.75.  This is 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley grapes.  Pale straw in color, it had a very pleasant aroma of melon and orange blossoms.  On the palate I got mostly citrus, lime and tropical fruits.  This was a crisp, well balanced Sauvignon Blanc that was very pleasant to drink on its own.

Heitz front entrance
The second pour was the Heitz 2009 Zinfandel Ink Grade Vineyard at $25.  It was a medium red in color with mostly raspberry and some spice on the nose.  It was a medium bodied Zinfandel with a lot of fresh fruit, mostly raspberry, some pepper, a little vanilla, soft tannins and a medium length finish. It was easy to drink but was, for me, the least interesting of the Heitz wines we tasted.

Heitz outdoor bench

Third up was the Heitz 2010 Grignolino at $19.  This varietal is pronounced "Green-oh-lean-oh." It is very rarely grown in California where there are less than 50 acres of it planted.  A red Italian grape that is grown mostly in the Piedmont area of Italy, the name Grignolino comes from the word "grignole" meaning many pips in the local Piedmnont dialect.  It is also referred to as "little strawberry."  This is a light colored red wine with a very fruity aroma and is sometimes made into a rose.  Some Grignolino vines came with the original eight acres that were purchased back in 1964. Heitz offers it in a red wine and as a rose, but we only tasted the red wine.  Although this was a lighter styled wine, it was very lively.  After the fruity, aromatic nose, I got some crisp acid with good slightly tart fruit, mostly strawberry, quite dry, with some nutmeg and cinnamon, providing an overall presentation that was really unique. Finish was medium plus in  length.  Although the wine was very nice on its own, I think it would pair with a wide variety of food, especially barbeque, tomato based dishes or anything spicey.  It is a very interesting wine for the price.

Heitz outdoor patio

Our fourth pour was the Heitz 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $45.  This 100% Cabernet was aged for one year in American oak and two years in French oak.  I got mostly cherry with toasty oak on the nose. On the palate it was red cherry, raspberry, vanilla, and cedar, well balanced, well structured, dry, with chewey tannins, good acid and a fairly long finish. This is a classic style Napa Valley Cab and quite good.

Heitz outdoor bench

Fifth in line was the Heitz 2002 Trailside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon at $85.  This is from Rutherford grapes and is 100% Cab.  Trailside Vineyard Cabs were introduced by Heitz in 1989 and have become their premium Cab that is second only to Martha's Vineyard.  I was amazed to find an older vintage wine like this at such a comparitively reasonable price, especially given how good it was.  This Cab saw one year in American oak and two and a half years in French oak.  The nose was amazingly complex with cedar, black currant, blackberry, black cherry, blueberry and an endless procession of interesting subtle aromas.  On the palate I got black currant, black cherry, blackberry, blueberry, cedar, baking spices and more, all beautifully balanced with great structure and a long finish.  This is an amazing Cab that is ready to drink now.  Outstanding!

Heitz back door to courtyard

Our last Cab was the Heitz 2002 Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon at $200.  This is from the famous Martha's Vineyard and is 100% Cab.  It was aged for one year in American oak and for 2 1/2 years in French oak.  I got an intense aroma of black cherry, black currant, herbs and mint.  On the palate it was full bodied, highly structured and very well balanced with a complex intermingling of flavors of cherry, blackberry, black currant, cedar, leather and dark chocolate.  With huge tannins that have softened and mellowed with time, I can only imagine what this powerful Cab might have tasted like when very young. It is obviously one of those Cabs that has needed time to develop.  Although very drinkable now, this should continue to develop into an even more complex and intricate wine.  Tasting the Martha's Vineyard Cab next to the Trailside Vineyard Cab of the same year, emphasized the differences between a great Rutherford Cab and a great Oakville Cab.  An amazing wine! 

Heitz old wine barrel

I've always liked the Heitz Ink Grade Port.  It is very reasonably priced at $35 for a full bottle or $25 for a half bottle.  They began producing it in 1994 and sometimes do a vintage version.  This one is nonvintage and comes from 2005, 2006 and 2007 harvests.  The varietals used in this Port are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Sauzao, Tinta Cao, tinta Bairrada, Tinta Madeira, Tinta Amarela and Bastardo.  It is a deep, rich, well balanced Port and one of the very few from Napa Valley that I really like.  Highly recommended.

Heitz garden

Although Heitz is famous for their Cabernet Sauvignon, we recommend that you try their Port because it is so good and their Grignolino because it is such a rare varietal and it has such a unique taste.  I've consistently liked their Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc too.  Service has always been very good.  (My first visit was in 1973.)  This is a down to earth, unpretentious winery, with excellent wines, exactly the sort of winery I would expect from Joe Heitz.  It is one of those Napa Valley wineries that should be on any wine lovers short list of wineries not to be missed.  And be sure not to miss it by going to the wrong place on Taplin Road.

Heitz vineyard and palm trees

436 St Helena Hwy South
Saint Helena, CA 94574
Phone: 707-963-3542

From the Heitz website:
"Sales & Tasting Room Hours:          
We are open daily from 11:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. No appointment is necessary.
We are closed on Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day."

Heitz outdoor fountain

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