Melissa L. Smith
Heitz: A timeless winery on the eve of its 60th year
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Sommelier Anani Lawson and I used to work together at Terra in Saint Helena twenty-one years ago. I in the kitchen, and him as a regal presence with a loyal group of refined regulars in the front of the house. In those twenty-one years, we’ve both accomplished and experienced a lot, including stints living and working on opposite coasts, and today we find ourselves just a few miles from where we met, before I was even old enough to legally drink wine.
While I spent time in the kitchen of the French Laundry, he joined the restaurant years later and became a sommelier for the company, and then went on to be the sommelier for Per Se in New York. Originally from the tiny country of Togo, between Ghana and Nigeria in West Africa, Anani came to the US in 1982 as a tennis pro. While teaching at the Sonoma Mission Inn, he began working in the hospitality industry. One of his first positions was at the world renowned Stars restaurant in Oakville under chef Jeremiah Tower, with the former French Laundry General Manager, Laura Cunningham. It was this connection that eventually brought him to the famed restaurant, running a world renowned wine program.
These days, he’s found himself at the historic property tucked away off of Silverado Trail as the company's Wine Curator. Having just evacuated the property of the livestock and personnel the week before because of the encroaching fires, we were among the first to visit the grounds that are safe, for now. Joe Heitz graduated from UC Davis in 1951 with a Masters in Enology and then worked his way from wineries in Lodi and Fresno, to Beaulieu Vineyard where he became André Tchelistcheff's right hand. In 1961, Heitz and his wife purchased their first eight acres in Saint Helena. The property dates back to the late 1800s. In the 1960’s, Tom and Martha May were growing and selling grapes on a tiny parcel of land in Oakville that Joe Heitz sourced Cabernet from. A true pioneer in California winemaking, in 1966, Heitz was the first to put a single vineyard designate on a wine label. Martha’s Vineyard. Perhaps one of the only wines that consistently shows up in my client’s collections.
In 2018, The historic Heitz Cellar was purchased by the Lawrence family. Although the influx in capital has enabled winemaker Brittany Sherwood to add more modern equipment, the only other significant change was to convert the entirety of their 425 acres of organically farmed grapes to biodynamic viticulture. Sherwood’s first stint at Heitz was in 2012, part of an international tour working in some of the most lauded wine regions in the world. She returned in 2013, and she eventually earned the title of Director of Winemaking, and has committed to the signature style that sets Heitz apart.
Specializing in single vineyard Cabernet, Heitz is known for their Martha’s Vineyard, Trailside, Linda Falls, and Bella Oaks bottlings (which they lost 15 years ago, the 2007 vintage being their last, and the grapes are now exclusively sold to Staglin). In 2019, Eric Asamov did a retrospective tasting at Heitz, sampling bottles going back to 1972. He perfectly articulates the experience when he writes, “These wines were superb. But to the contemporary way of thinking about wine, or at least my way of thinking, they were hard to figure. The Heitz method of making cabernet sauvignon, with a premium on high acidity and low pH, runs counter to many cherished current beliefs about how great wine ought to be produced. Many Napa cabernets might have been made with similar methods back in the 1970s. But today? Heitz is practically singular.”
Rather than relying on tannins and alcohol to age the wines, Joe Heitz was known for utilizing the positive aspects of naturally occurring acid to preserve the wines for long term aging, which is why almost every bottle of decades old Heitz that I’ve experienced is astoundingly bright. In another signature wine making process, they block malolactic fermentation in all of their red wines to preserve their freshness.
The oak treatment is unlike most that you experience in Napa Cabernets. The first year the single vineyard wines are allowed to age in large neutral American Oak and French Oak casks, and then are transferred into new French Oak barrels for a 30 months before being bottled. The wine is allowed to age for at least a 2 years in bottle before being released from the cellar. This brings me to one of my baby Somm memories. One of the fascinating things about Heitz, is their labels. There is the vintage date, and there is the bottling date. And for an untrained eye, you might grab the wrong bottle if you don’t realize that there are two years printed on every bottle. I believe it was the infamous Jim Barr that pointed this out to me during my early days at K&L.
Winemaker Brittany Sherwood was quoted as saying, “Our balanced, lower-pH wines with extended aging in oak barrels make them stand out. There’s a purity, finesse, and elegance to a wine crafted with vineyard character preserved, and when it can spend five years in a combination of oak tanks, oak barrels, and bottle before it’s released. That’s a rare find, especially in Napa Valley.”, which is probably why I found these wines to be such a surprising anomaly.
Enjoying the flight in the rose garden in the shadow of the historic volcanic rock barn, imperceptibly seems to bring out the floral notes in the wines. The Zaltos don’t hurt. We are fortunate to have a break in the oppressive smoke in this tiny inlet against the hills, and actually see blue skies for the first time in weeks.
We start with the 2014 Trailside Vineyard bottling that comes from property in eastern Rutherford, between the Silverado Trail and Conn Creek. If you’ve read Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route, you will see the correlation to the surrounding flora and fauna in the glass. The brambles, crunchy red fruit, and a touch of stem will guide you down that creek path in mid summer as the blackberries are ripening along the trickling stream.
Another trip down memory lane, centers on the member exclusive Linda Falls bottling. Twenty plus years ago, line cooks at some of the top restaurants in Napa Valley would hike to the hidden falls in the Howell Mountain district for trespassed swims on hot days. Now owned by the Land Trust of Napa Valley, there are scheduled hikes to the previously elusive spot. In 2013, Heitz began bottling Cabernet sourced from seven hilltop acres on Howell Mountain, designated as Linda Falls on the lower left hand corner of the label. It is the smallest production of all of their offerings. The 2015 is highly aromatic, with notes of pastel Indian fennel candy. Perhaps the lightest of the flight, this Cabernet provides soft tannins and high acid, completely a-typical for Napa Cabernets in the best way. These wines are not old world in style, but old California in style.
Anani brings out the 2014 Martha’s Vineyard in a harp shaped Riedel decanter. The Wine Enthusiast score of 100 points is evident in the glass. This is a bottle I would have wished to savor over days. It’s elegant and bright, nuanced and classically Martha’s. I kept thinking about the tiny white Fraise du Bois that we would garnish desserts with at Terra only a couple of weeks out of the year. Perfectly ripe white alpine berries, that had layers of unexpected complexity for something that was the size of the tip of my pinkie. Candied violets, wisps of sweet fennel fronds, and red plums swirl around the glass.
We finish with the 2001 Trailside. At nearly 20 years old (the same amount of time has passed since I left Napa Valley for New York) this wine still has a lifetime in front of it.
It’s not often that I decide on wines that are not only a great investment, but are also deserving of space in your cellar for personal enjoyment. Oftentimes wines are one or the other, or neither. There are a handful of Napa Valley Cabernets that have, and will, stand the test of time. Heitz is classic. Having started out at a controversial $9 per bottle in the 60s, to being offered at $250 upon release, the investment opportunity is certainly evident. The sommelier in me that cherishes historic wineries that follow minimal intervention winemaking practices, are stewards of the land, and are made up of incredible people, is why I will continue to seek out and celebrate these wines.
Heitz ~ By Appointment Only