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The Wine King

Jack Davies is the leader hidden in the very fiber of Napa Valley

September 17, 1997|DAN BERGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CALISTOGA — In 1972, President Nixon took Schramsberg sparkling wine on his historic 1972 visit to China. Any other winemaker would have taken out newspaper ads, staged a grand dinner party or put out flowery press releases hoping for headlines. But Schramsberg's Jack Davies did nothing at all.

This is just one reason that Davies, one of Napa Valley's most dynamic leaders and a man known by his fellow winemakers as the conscience of the wine industry, is practically unknown to the general public.

Many know the great image-making of Robert Mondavi and the great wine-making of Andre Tchelistcheff and dozens of others. But Davies has always declined the limelight, and outside this narrow valley, his name just draws puzzled looks.

Even so, Davies and his wife, Jamie, founders of the sparkling wine house Schramsberg, deserve a huge share of the credit for making Napa Valley a world-recognized producer of fine wine.

It was 1965 when Davies decided to move his family to Napa Valley and open a winery. Davies, who received an MBA from Harvard and had held various management positions, was then vice president of Ducommon Inc., an international industrial management and supply company.

"Jamie and I wanted to be in a business to make something together," Davies says, "something other than gypsum wallboard [one of Ducommon's major products], something artistic."

They acquired a run-down winery with a rickety home and had to chase bats out of both.

It was a dreary time for the valley. Now-bustling State Highway 29 was a little-traveled country road. The county had just a dozen wineries and no international acclaim.

"In the mid-1960s, Napa Valley was a depressed agricultural area with prune trees, apricots, walnuts and hay fields," recalls John Trefethen, owner of Trefethen Vineyards, who got to know the Davieses in 1968 when he and his wife, Janet, began farming vineyards in Yountville, Calif.

It took a visionary to move here then. Warren Winiarski, who later founded Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, was the only other winemaker of note to move here in 1965, and his first job (he had left a position as a professor at the University of Chicago) was pulling hoses for Lee Stewart at the old Souverain Winery. There was no Robert Mondavi Winery; Robert was still working with his brother, Peter, at Charles Krug.

"What wineries were here were all in a state of disrepair, and the wine industry was very small," Trefethen says. "The percentage of [agriculture that was] vineyards was nowhere near the 100% that it is now in the ag preserve."

The Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, which now encompasses the Napa wine country, was just a concept then--a proposal to make 40-acre parcels the minimum size of land for agricultural purposes. The aim was to protect the wine country from being developed as tract homes.

Less than two years after settling in the valley, Davies concluded that the ag preserve concept was vital to the continuation of farming here, and he leaped feet-first into the controversy.

"It was a very divisive issue," Trefethen says. "People who had lived in Napa for a long time were opposed to the ag preserve. They thought land prices would drop if it passed. But Jack saw the need to protect the vineyards."

Powerful forces opposed the preserve, including John Daniel, the late owner of Inglenook Vineyards and a pioneer in the valley. But Davies went up and down the valley, knocking on doors to get industry and consumer support for the preserve, and he won.

Although he had not been an activist before, Davies says, "We were very eager and willing to get involved with an issue that important. We were very committed to helping preserve the valley."

The 1968 passage of the ag preserve is now seen as the major catalyst of subsequent vineyard development in the Napa Valley. For one thing, it stopped cold any thoughts of "ranchette" development.

"It established a base for wineries and vineyards to go forward, with the message that this is an agricultural valley," Trefethen says. "It eliminated the thinking about trading land for houses. [Residential] land speculation became moot."

With the adoption of the ag, a public vote on development issues would be now be required. "About 18 months ago, some Texas people bought some land south of the city of Napa," Davies says. "They had plans to put in a major housing development, with a golf course. Well, because of the ag preserve, they had to go to a public vote. The voters rejected the plan by an 85%-15% margin."

In 1970, another major controversy arose when the state announced plans to put a four-lane freeway through the heart of Napa Valley. Most vintners viewed the plan as a stake in the heart; developers saw it as a gold mine.

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