WASHINGTON — When I recently mentioned to a friend that I was planning on featuring Napa Valley’s Heitz Cellars, his first response was, “You mean those people who make the really expensive wine?”
Uh, well, yes. I mean, well, sort of. I mean they do make some pretty pricey juice, but they also have a portfolio that features some of the best wine for the money in the area. In addition, they are also one of the oldest family-owned wineries in California and you can almost taste their history in every glass of wine.
It all began with Joe and Alice Heitz. The two discovered their passion for wine in the 1940s when Joe’s part-time job as a cellarman trumped his plan to become a veterinarian. Joe went on to earn a master’s degree in oenology from UC Davis and practiced the basics of winemaking in a series of wineries near Fresno and Lodi.
In 1951, the couple moved to the Napa Valley where Joe became the right-hand man for revered winemaker André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard.
In 1961, Joe and Alice finally purchased their first vineyard, 8 acres just south of St. Helena. Heitz Wine Cellars rapidly established a reputation as home base for one of the Napa Valley’s most innovative and brilliant winemakers, and the unassuming winery soon became a prestigious destination for wine connoisseurs.
Then in 1964, the Heitz family acquired a 160-acre vineyard property in Spring Valley, a small fold in the eastern hills of St. Helena, where Joe focused his attention on cabernet sauvignon. Soon after, Joe and Alice struck a handshake deal with Tom and Martha May, of Martha’s Vineyard fame, and decided to produce a single vineyard bottling from the property. It was an immediate success, and thanks go Joe’s vision, accolades for Martha’s Vineyard cabernet sauvignon have continued for over 51 years.
Along the way, the Heitz family has expanded their portfolio of wines to include different varietals, such as chardonnay, Zinfandel and Grignolino, and distinctive appellations — including the Rutherford appellation.
Joe passed away in 2000, but not before passing along his passion to the second generation. Alice continues to lend support at the winery with her keen palate and quick wit. Their children, Kathleen Heitz Myers and David Heitz, continue to maintain Joe’s exceptional standards.
Today, the sibling team is focused on sustainable and certified organic farming at all their ranches. This has resulted in healthy vineyards and elegant wines that reflect the true character of each varietal. Maintaining the same high standards passed down from Joe, Kathleen and David have concentrated on developing consistency in their wines year after year. They know it is their family’s name on every bottle.
The Heitz name is so deeply ingrained in the culture of Cabernet connoisseurs that some people are surprised to discover they have been making chardonnay since the winery was founded in 1961. The 2015 Heitz Cellars Chardonnay displays all of the incredible potential of the varietal. Elegantly assertive aromas of honeysuckle, white peach and lemon zest hint at the clean, refreshing nature of the palate. With just a touch of sweetness from French oak barrels, a well-balanced acidity and a slight creaminess, this chardonnay is stunning. Enjoy the long, lingering finish. Finally, a glass of California chardonnay that is hard to put down. $27
The Heitz family began producing Zinfandel at Heitz Cellars more than 30 years ago because, well, they actually love to drink it! The 2012 Heitz Cellars Ink Grade Vineyard Zinfandel is fresh, lively and impeccably balanced with zesty aromas of bramble, cherry and baking spices. Flavors of raspberry and black cherry are integrated with black licorice and a hint of black pepper. The vibrant flavors make this a great pairing with baby back ribs. $27
The Heitz family’s love affair with Grignolino began in 1961 when Joe and Alice purchased their first 8-acre vineyard. Previous owner Leon Brendel christened the property “The One & Only,” an homage to the only varietal he planted: the zesty Grignolino “Green-o-lean-o” from the Piedmont region of Italy. The Napa Valley version of 2014 Heitz Cellars Grignolino is full of refreshingly zippy acidity. Versatile and vivacious, this wine is filled to the brim with sweet red berry flavors and adorned with just a hint of orange peel, giving it a wonderful finish. You can almost taste the 55-year history in every sip. A natural match for a slice of pizza. $22
The Heitz entry-level cabernet sauvignon is about as good as this varietal gets — well, almost, but we’ll get to that. The 2012 Heitz Cellar Napa Valley Cabernet features aromas of fresh-picked blackberry and cassis abound in this lively wine. It has wonderful balance and classic Cabernet richness with loads of dark fruit, black cherry on the front of the tongue and black plum on the middle and back of the tongue. Firm tannins on the medium-balanced finish support touches of vanilla and cocoa notes all the way through to the end. This is a quintessential cabernet sauvignon through and through. $52
Of course, no story about Heitz Cellars would be complete with mentioning their iconic Martha’s Vineyard cabernet sauvignon. The 2012 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard is a brilliant star, possessing incredible harmony and elegance. It possesses impeccable balance from start to finish, with a very complex nose of dark plum, dried cherry and mocha. Dominate flavors of blackberry, black cherry and cassis hit the palate like a velvet glove while hints of black pepper and cocoa work their way in on the back of the tongue. The mouthfeel is full, yet seamless, with ripe tannins woven into a supple and full palate that lead to a long finish of dark fruit, toasty vanilla notes and telltale hints of eucalyptus and black licorice. Martha’s Vineyard is a true Napa Valley benchmark for Cabernet. $235
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