History of Wine - People


# **History of wine in California: People who shaped modern Napa Valley** This post continues our series about the History of Wine in California. Previously, we looked at the **[beginnings to Prohibition](https://modernwineclub.com/blogs/news/history-of-wine-in-california-beginnings-to-prohibition)** and then **[WWII until modern time](https://modernwineclub.com/blogs/news/history-of-wine-in-california-wwii-until-modern-time)**. In this episode we’ll look at some of the key people who helped shape modern Napa Valley including creating some iconic estates. Many of you will have heard at least some of these names before. What follows provides context about how Napa Valley emerged as a high-end wine region through the people who made it happen. **André Tchelistcheff** André Tchelistcheff (1901 – 1994) was one of the most influential winemakers in Napa Valley following the Prohibition and contributed much to elevating the quality of Napa Valley wines. Tchelistcheff was born in Russia but fled abroad after the 1917 Russian Revolution to live in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia prior to settling in France where he studied oenology, fermentation and microbiology and the famous Institut Pasteur and the Institut National Agronomique. In 1938, George de Latour, the French owner of Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa Valley, visited France on a mission to recruit a winemaker. It was during this trip that de Latour met Tchelistcheff and convinced him to move to California as the winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards. Tchelistcheff is known for his contribution to defining a distinct style for high-end Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon including maturation in smaller sized French oak barrels which had not been common practice before. Tchelistcheff created the flagship "Georges de Latour Private Reserve", that is still produced by Beaulieu Vineyards to this day, and already by the mid-1940s, this cuvee was served at important White House dinners. Tchelistcheff later made a mark on the US wine industry beyond Beaulieu Vineyards as consultant to numerous winemakers across California. Oregon and Washington State. Thus, Tchelistcheff both helped define the powerful style of modern Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and trained other winemakers to push the industry further.   **Albert Winkler and Maynard Amerine** Albert Winkler (1894-1989) and Maynard Amerine (1911–1998) were instrumental in developing UC Davis into a world leading research center for viticulture and enology. It would be fair to say that they shaped winemaking as an academic discipline in America and created the foundation for modern day, science-driven university study programs. In the early 1940s, Winkler and Amerine developed the Winkler Scale classifying California’s grape growing regions into I-V categories based on heat and growing degree-days as a guide to what grape varietal to plant in what part of California.   Beyond research, they played key roles as teachers to future generations of winemakers. Some of Amerine’s lectures are available for viewing in black and white on You Tube with Lecture 1 available **[here](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmLV6YrNF7c)**. **Robert Mondavi** Robert Mondavi (1913-2008) did much to elevate the status of Napa Valley wines. His Italian parents acquired the Charles Krug winery in 1943 and he worked there alongside his father Cesare and his brother Peter until a split in 1965. The following year, Mondavi established his own winery in Oakville on a mission to craft high-end wines that could compete with the best wines from France. His two sons, Michael and Tim, joined him at the new winery. The Mondavi vineyards in Oakville include part of the historic To Kalon Vineyard founded in 1868 by H.W. Crabb. Other owners of parts of the original To Kalon Vineyard include Andy Beckstoffer, Opus One and MacDonald. Mondavi played a key role in labelling wines by the grape varietal and this became the standard not only in California but in the New World in general. In the 1970s, Mondavi convinced Baron Philippe de Rothchild of Château Mouton Rothschild to enter into a joint venture with him to make a high-end Bordeaux blend in Napa. The first vintage was the 1979 vintage, released in 1984, at the same time as the 1980 vintage. The project was initially called Napamedoc but was renamed as Opus One in 1982. Opus One was located on the other side of State Route 29 directly across from the Robert Mondavi Winery. After more than a decade of operation, Opus One added a second wine from the estate known as Overture. Opus One is a very photogenic winery to visit with a futuristic architectural design with a rooftop terrace and a beautiful “grand chai” exhibition barrel room in the basement seen below. In 2004, Constellation Brands acquired the Robert Mondavi Winery and Mondavi’s son Tim Mondavi has since continued the family’s winemaking legacy at a new estate called Continuum located on Pritchard Hill. In honor of his contribution to the California wine industry, The Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science was inaugurated at UC Davis in 2008. **Joseph Phelps** Joseph Phelps (1928-2015) was a construction industry executive that turned to winemaking and founded the Joseph Phelps Winery in Napa Valley in 1973. Like many new Napa Valley wineries, Phelps initially sourced grapes from other vineyards. However, over time, and with increasing financial strength, Phelps switched to only estate grown fruit with nine vineyards under management. The first vintage of Insignia, the estate’s flagship wine, was bottled from the 1974 vintage. Insignia became part of a new breed of rich and powerful Napa Valley Bordeaux blends seeing significant new oak treatment. It is one of the wines that helped defined the luxury segment in Napa Valley. While Cabernet Sauvignon has become the signature of Joseph Phelps, the estate also grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and pioneered Syrah in Napa Valley in the 1970s. **Steven Spurrier and the Judgment of Paris in 1976** The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, commonly known as “The Judgment of Paris” put California wines to the test against top French wines. The event was organized by British wine merchant Steven Spurrier (1941-2021) who lived in Paris. All of the wines were tasted blind and 9 out of 11 judges were from France. There was a category for best Chardonnay and a category for best Bordeaux varietals. The results of the wine competition sent shockwaves throughout the wine world as Napa Valley wines came out on top in both categories. Best white wine was won by Chateau Montelena in Calistoga for a 1973 vintage Chardonnay made by Croatian Miljenko "Mike" Grgić (born 1923) going up against top white Burgundies including from Meursault, Bâtard-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. Best red wine was won by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Stag’s Leap for a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon that competed against wines from Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Montrose and Chateau Haut-Brion. The winning wine was made by Warren Winiarski with assistance from André Tchelistcheff mentioned above. Beyond making wine, Winiarski popularized the expression “'iron fist in a velvet glove”. This was initially with reference to his own wines but has later come to describe the ideal for smooth but powerful Napa Cabernets in general. The 1976 Judgement of Paris, conceived by Spurrier, decidedly put California winemaking on the world map. **Robert Parker** While not a winemaker or grapegrower, the wine critic Robert Parker played an important role in promoting Napa Valley wine. Parker founded The Wine Advocate in 1978, shortly after the Judgement of Paris. Parker liked wine made from ripe fruit and low yields, leading to high scores for “pedal to the metal” intense, bold, powerful Napa Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wines. The “Parker Era” coincided with the creation of many new wineries in Napa Valley and critical acclaim by Parker could make new wineries overnight success stories. The favorable scores awarded to Napa Valley wines by Parker, versus the wines of Bordeaux, helped to further establish the credibility of Napa Valley wines and prices begun to increase. **Bill Harlan** Bill Harlan (1940-) was a real estate developer prior to turning his attention to winemaking as a second career. Harlan’s Napa journey begun in 1979 when he acquired a run-down Napa Valley country club and turned it into the Meadowood Resort. At the time, Robert Mondavi was looking to start a wine auction in Napa, inspired by the auction at Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy, and Harlan’s renovated resort peaked his interest as a possible location to hold the auction. Mondavi invited Harlan along on a trip to France in 1980 to top Bordeaux and Burgundy estates. Harlan noticed how many of the European wine dynasties, like the Rothschilds and Antinoris, go back many centuries. This motivated him to try to create an American “first growth” wine to rival the best of the French wines. To this end, he sketched out a 200-year plan. He first created the Merryvale winery and then Harlan Estate in 1984, making the first vintage of the wine in 1987. However, it took until 1996 before the first commercial vintage was released – Harlan Estate’s 1990 Proprietary Red. The inaugural release was priced at USD 65 per bottle while the latest release, the 2019 vintage, was sold to allocation list members for USD 1,000 per bottle. That’s an increase of more than 14 times over a 25-year period. A wine with an even sharper price increase is Screaming Eagle, starting at USD 75 per bottle for the 1992 vintage and now fetching USD 1,150 per bottle upon release to allocation list members and frequently around USD 3,000 shortly after release on the secondary market. The chart below from Antonio Galloni shows how limited the yield is for Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle, top left, in comparison to other prestige wines. It is notably how much larger the production volume is for Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Opus One and the super Tuscans Sassicaia and Tiganello. After selling Merryvale, Harlan created BOND and later on Promontory as two additional high-end Napa wineries. In addition, Harlan launched Napa Valley Reserve as a private members’ club with an entry ticket of USD 175,000 and an annual commitment to purchase at least six cases of the club wine, only sold to members, for a minimum of USD 10,000. Member of Napa Valley Reserve get their own row of vines, can blend unique versions of the wine and design their own label making this perhaps the ultimate wine club membership next to French Ficofi. Having turned 80-years old, Bill Harlan has now passed the baton to his son Will Harlan while remaining chairman of Harlan Estate. **Andy Beckstoffer** Andy Beckstoffer (1940-) has done much to elevate the quality of viticulture in Napa Valley and to innovate around business models for grape supply contracts. Beckstoffer started his career in finance for Heublein and advised the company to invest in the high-end wine industry. This led to the 1966 acquisition of Beaulieu Vineyards, founded by Georges de Latour, and of United Vintners who had become the owners of Inglenook and Italian Swiss Colony. All three of these were historic players in the California wine industry as discussed in our previous post. In 1970, Beckstoffer founded Beckstoffer Vineyards and went on to acquire more and more vineyards over time across Napa Valley, Mendocino County and in the Red Hills of Lake County. Today, more than 4,000 acres of vineyards are under the management of Beckstoffer Vineyards including the Napa Valley Vineyards of Beckstoffer To Kalon, Dr Crane, Missouri Hopper, Las Piedras, George III and more. Beckstoffer was Founding Director and the second President of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association and Founder and first President of the Rutherford Dust Society. As a grape grower, Beckstoffer doesn’t make any wine but purely sells the grapes to winemakers. Following the 2018 vintage, Beckstoffer sold 9,902 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for USD 45,617,000 making him the largest seller of premium grapes in Northern California. The pricing scheme currently used for the Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville specifies three different methods to determine the price of the grape by the acquiring winery: a fixed price per acre, a fixed price per ton and a multiplier on the bottle retail price with a minimum allowed bottle price. Buyers are asked to sign futures contracts with the price of the grapes calculated according to all three formulas. The contract then specifies that the acquirer has to pay the highest of the three prices. Price per acre rarely becomes the effective price but sets a floor income level for Beckstoffer in case of unusually low yields. An example of the pricing scheme is USD 45,000 per acre, USD 18,000 per ton and 175 times the bottle price per ton of grapes delivered with a minimum bottle price of USD 125 per bottle to be eligible to be branded as “Beckstoffer To Kalon”. If the bottle sells for USD 250, the price paid per ton will be USD 43,750 while, for USD 150 per bottle, it will be USD 26,250. This compares to less than USD 8,000 paid on average per ton of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 vintages. **French Winemakers in Napa** A number of French winemakers are active in Napa Valley making quality wine. Christian Moueix, the son of a French winemaker, established Dominus Estate by taking over the Napanook Vineyard in Yountville. While still based in Bordeaux, Michel Rolland has consulted extensively for Bryant Estate, Dalla Valle Vineyards, Harlan Estate, Staglin Family Vineyard and St Supéry. Philippe Melka from Bordeaux worked at Château Haut Brion before joining Christian Moueix at Dominus and returning to France to work at Château Petrus. In Napa Valley he has worked as a consultant for Bryant Estate, Cliff Lede, Dana Estates, Dalla Valle Vineyards, Hundred Acre and Seavey Vineyard besides creating his own brand. Provence-born Julian Fayard honed his skill at Lafite Rothschild and has made wine for Purlieu, Brion and Covert Estate including several of the favorite private label wines we have offered our wine club members in the past. Benoît Touquette got a job for Andy Erickson through an introduction from Michel Rolland. This led to him working for Screaming Eagle, Ovid and Arietta. He is now the winemaker at up-and-coming cult winery Realm Cellars while also making wines under several other labels including Fait-Main, Teeter-Totter, Familiar Air, Jack Quinn, Kata and Hartwell. Swiss-French rather than French, Jean Hoefliger worked at Château Lynch-Bages and Château Carbonnieux before arriving in Napa Valley. He has since played a key role to establish Alpha Omega as well as working with AXR and The Debate. --- Beyond the key people included above, there are many others who may with time be included in the “Hall of Fame” of those who shaped modern Napa Valley. They include Andy Erickson (Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Favia), Ann Colgin (Colgin Cellars), Helen Keplinger (Bryant Family Vineyard, Kenzo Estate), Ma’ayan Koschitzky (Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle), Celia Welch (Scarecrow), Austin Peterson, (Ovid), David Abreu (Abreu Vibeyards, Kenzo Estate) and Thomas Rivers Brown (Schrader). Despite the emergence of academic study programs, winemaking is often seen as an oral craft passed down from one artisan to another, from one generation to the next. Thus, many unsung heroes have gone before the people mentioned above and many more will come after as mankind's wine journey continues.