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Joseph Heitz, Napa Pioneer


Joseph Heitz liked to say, "Mother Nature is a mean old lady," but he smiled when he said it. For more than 50 years, until his death Dec. 16 at 81, Heitz worked with nature to produce great Napa Valley wines.

Heitz was a pillar of the new-wave Napa Valley wine industry that began in the early 1960s. From 1951 to 1959, he was a winemaker on Andre Tchelistcheff's staff at Beaulieu Vineyards. In 1961 Heitz and his wife, Alice, founded Heitz Cellar in an old stone winery at the upper end of Spring Valley ("Where the birds go to sing," he often said) in the Napa Valley's eastern hills.

Heitz was a private man. His intimate and passionate relationship with the vine helped transform the Napa Valley, and yet he avoided playing the celebrity vintner role he helped to create. He preferred to put the spotlight on vines.

Vineyard-designated wines were all but unknown in California before the 1971 release of the 1968 Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon "Martha's Vineyard." Heitz (who also bottled a vineyard-designated 1967 Pinot Noir) was the second California producer (after Ridge Vineyards) to denote the specific source of a wine's grapes on the label. Subsequent Heitz bottlings from the Martha's, Fay, Trailside and Bella Oaks vineyards served notice to the wine world that Napa Valley had individual vineyards that were equivalent to the great crus of France.

Martha's Vineyard Cabernet achieved iconic status and remains for many wine lovers the essential California wine. The wine comes from a vineyard in Oakville that was originally planted by Belle and Barney Rhodes in the late 1950s and purchased in 1963 by its current owners, Tom and Martha May. Its grapes make exceptionally concentrated and flavorful wines that reflect each growing season differently, while expressing recognizable character from one year to the next.

Connoisseurs consistently identify a distinctive scent of mint in Martha's Vineyard wines. In some vintages it is overtly eucalyptus-like. However, Heitz refused to acknowledge it. He believed that a little mintiness is characteristic of Cabernet, but also felt that singling out one component demeans the beauty of the wine as a whole.

I discovered that the hard way one spring afternoon in 1985, when I dropped by Heitz Cellar to interview Joe for a magazine article. While rhapsodizing about the lovely hint of eucalyptus in the nose of a '74 Martha's Vineyard Cabernet I'd enjoyed recently, I had a sudden suspicion that this affable, white-haired gentleman with the twinkling eyes was getting angry. To my relief, he kept his temper and enlightened me gently.

"Eucalyptus stinks," he said with a smile, "and I don't think my wine stinks. Cabernet Sauvignon smells like Cabernet Sauvignon--period."

Against his wishes, then, the distinctive note of high-toned mint in Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet will continue to remind wine lovers of a great California wine man.

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