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History Under a Microscope

August 25, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

SONOMA, Calif. — William Heintz cares not about the condition of the 1988 harvest. He cares a lot, however, about the condition of the 1888 harvest.

Heintz frets over things such as founding dates of wineries, names of founders, and who did what in the formation of the California wine industry. This year's harvest will just have to take care of itself.

Heintz is one of the world's few wine historians, a job he says turns him into a near-hermit digging through boxes in garage sales, spending hours poring over yellowed civic records, driving remote dirt roads to interview nonagenarians, rummaging through wine label collections, antique stores and museums, and otherwise acting like a man trying to assemble the ultimate vinous trivia game.

He likens himself to a detective with a specialty in missing persons and dates.

"This is solitary work," he said recently, sitting in his apartment two blocks from the historic home of Gen. Mariano Vallejo and a mile from Sebastiani Vineyards.

Heintz pushed back from the huge desk laden with ancient wine bottles displaying labels that haven't been seen in a century (Reputation Brand Vermouth; Italian Vineyards Grignolino). "If you like being with people--and I do--this isn't very much fun," he said. "You're alone so much of the time."

Heintz, 55, admits he knows little about wine. Oh, he drinks it with meals and occasionally has a glass of somebody's Riesling, well chilled, on a hot afternoon. But otherwise he doesn't have a large cellar filled with wine.

"I'm just a farm boy from Montana," he said. "I don't come from the wine industry. And I consider that essential to my objectivity. If I had come from here originally, born here, I would probably be filled with family mythology that would have little basis in historical fact. That would be too much baggage for me to carry around.

"People in this industry love to create myths about how things began--stories that benefit them."

Heintz's office is neat and organized, but perhaps not very efficient in this electronic age: There is no computer. In 20 years of researching the California wine industry, he has taken notes on literally thousands of facts and has typed them on some 60,000 5x7 index cards that now fill 24 binders. Filing cabinets are filled with memorabilia. Cross referencing is done in gray matter.

Despite his work for dozens of wineries throughout the years, he said, one of the irritants of his job is that the "official" founding dates of more than 40% of the state's wineries are wrong. And the owners of the wineries know better but keep silent. It is thus even more frustrating that in so many cases the research he does to set the record straight is ignored by wineries, who bury the material.

For instance, in 1974 the owner of Simi called Heintz and asked him to research whether Simi Winery was actually founded in 1876. "The phrase 'Est. 1876' was on the roof of their building," said Heintz. "Well, my search took me to the assessor's office of San Mateo County (where the Simi family lived at the time) and I found that the Simi family didn't move to Healdsburg until 1880 and the winery wasn't built until 1890."

Yet until weeks ago, Simi said its founding date was 1876. "They put my research into a desk drawer and locked it," said Heintz with a rueful shrug.

However, Michael Dixon, president of Simi, said the Heintz report was unearthed a few weeks ago and the real founding date of the winery was discovered. "We plan a nice celebration for the 100th birthday in two years," said Dixon. "And then after that, the 1876 date will be forgotten."

That bit of news cheered Heintz, for a second. Then he said he isn't surprised when a client doesn't want to hear his report and ends up hiding the details. "I've realized you can't change facts overnight."

Doing research into the California wine industry would seem to be an easy task because wineries like to enter their wines in competitions and when they win awards they get plaudits in local newspapers. A problem is that so much of the history of the California wine industry is filled with myth and legend that has little basis in fact, he said.

Heintz said that situation occurs because winery owners often make self-serving and inaccurate statements. Newspapers then may reprint such material as fact.

For example, Heintz is ired by a campaign mounted within the last 18 months by the M. G. Vallejo brand of wines. Some advertising and point-of-sale material says that in 1851 Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo "founded the California wine industry when he planted the state's first commercial vineyard and made the first classically styled wines."

Conflicting Data

That angers Heintz, who said the first commercial winery in California was that of Jean Louis Vignes in Los Angeles in the early 1830s, and that no evidence exists that Vallejo ever made wine commercially. He points out that Frona Eunice Wait, in her 1889 book "Wines and Vines of California," said Vallejo "made wine in a desultory (aimless) fashion."

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