Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Master of Grignolino

“You need to go visit one of my student’s dad the next time you go to Napa. He makes a hell of a red wine. Heitz is his name. Joe Heitz.” So my college art teacher, Phil Welch recommended. It would take me 6 years before I took him up on it. I don’t know why I waited so long. Life, again, got in the way of a good time. But I made it up Hwy 29 eventually, the first of many treks up and down that not so lonesome old highway.

It was the summer of 1976 and we had taken the Falcon wagon and the kid(s) up to Northern California to escape the heat of Los Angeles. We were broke, slept in the back of the wagon in parking lots and trailer courts. California in those days was a simpler, safer place. Or so we believed in the mist of our infallible youth.


The landscape and the players have changed considerably. The weeks leading up to Premiere Napa Valley, I get any number of invitations to visit a winery in Napa Valley, many names whom I don't recognize. Even the ones I do, the owners are no longer the same. Beaulieu, Louis Martini, Franciscan, Inglenook, Beringer, Robert Mondavi, Freemark Abbey, Sterling, they all have turned over once or twice since 1976. There are a some who haven’t, Charles Krug, Sutter Home, Stony Hill, Heitz, to name a few along the trail now and then. And there it was. That name. Heitz. I pulled the Falcon in, left the wife and kids outside for a minute and popped into the tasting room.

It was my first introduction to Grignolino. Years later I would encounter the grape in the belly of Italy. I absolutely love it from both the Monferrato and from Heitz. Yeah, I’m a sap for my heritages, all of them.

Over the years, working in the industry I’ve had the good fortune to represent Heitz in the field. I’m sure we never set any records selling their Grignolino and their Grignolino rosé. Hell, I probably have drunk as much of it as I have sold. People in Texas are funny that way. Give ‘em a “Cab and a slab” and they are as happy as a pig in slop. Hey, Heitz’s Cabernets are just about as good as they get. But I have a soft spot in my heart for their “Green-o-leen-o.” It is so quintessentially Californian, like Sunset Magazine and Washingtonia Robusta palm trees, at least for this California expat.

Now Pinot Noir is all the rage. That damn movie really messed things up. As one winemaker told me recently, because of Sideways, Pinot Noir has been planted in too many places not suited for the grape. I don’t think a movie about Grignolino will fix things right for the lovers of the grape. It’s just another one of those little mysteries that make the world what it is. And like the changing face of California, and Napa Valley, maybe someday the Grignolino vineyard will go the way that many of the wonderful Petite Sirah vineyards went, plowed under to make way for a trophy home or another row of Petite Verdot.

Was it mere chance, all those many years ago, that the Falcon turned in and changed my life forever? Whatever the cause, Joe Heitz’s family still keeps their first vineyard, of Grignolino, unviolated. Someone still cares, and all our lives are richer and more profound, thanks to their guardianship of the Master of Grignolino’s legacy.

The Falcon lives! slideshow by stonecrandall





4 comments:

Rich said...

Heitz Grignolino Rose has been one of my favorites for decades. Thanks for the story.

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, Joe Heitz was honored last night in Napa Valley at the 6th annual Vintners Hall of Fame Induction Celebration

Jason O. said...

I have fond memories of the Heitz Grignolino. I have fond memories of Heitz in general.

The other day I was dispassionately tasting whatever passes for Silver Oak these days. I lamented to the rep about how much I miss the "good old days" of Silver Oak. This is how far gone I am. I miss something that I didn't even care for then or now.

But Heitz endures and I love them for that. My first job out of college was for a pretty crazy (but passionate) Northern Italian who claimed his family gave the original Grignolino grafts to Joe Heitz. I recall many a night downing a bottle or two of it with good friends. Sure, you felt as if you had smoked a pack of Menthol cigarettes afterwards, but that just added to the charm.

This was maybe 15 years ago and back then it was pretty daring to even bottle something like this. I can't tell if it's more or less daring to continue doing it today. While things have changed a lot in California, it's hard to say if it's become more permissive or more rutted.

In a way what Joe Heitz has done reflects on winemakers throughout the world. The people that are working more strict, more limited preconceptions tend to be the innovators. Is this why we look to appellations with centuries old limitations for our new ideas?

I'm not sure, but I think the arc of the Heitz winery (here's hoping it's still rising and not falling) speaks to that.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Jason - thanks very much for your commment - sounds like another blog post...awesome of you to share

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