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Vine Connoisseurs

Members of Napa Reserve get to retreat from the city and work alongside farmhands and vintners to produce small lots of their very own wine

January 09, 2005|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

ST. HELENA, Calif. — There was an hour to go before sunrise, and it was cold for a late summer morning in Napa Valley. Elizabeth Funk grabbed a pair of gloves and switched on a headlamp, before moving toward the Cabernet Sauvignon vines.

Slicing away at clusters of deep- purple berries with her steel knife, she heeded a warning from a fellow harvester not to cut toward her body.

"This is wild," she said. "I'm a city girl."

That's why she and her husband, who live in San Francisco, paid $125,000 to join Napa Reserve, a country club of sorts for affluent oenophiles. There's no golf or tennis, but members get to work alongside farmhands and on-site vintners to produce small lots of their very own wine.

So far, 167 families have joined Napa Reserve, an 80-acre development owned by wine and real estate entrepreneur Bill Harlan and two partners that celebrated its first harvest in the fall.

Harlan said members "want the opportunity to work at the pace of the season rather than at the speed of the microchip" -- though usually only on weekends.

People who prefer to live near the vines aren't left out. At least half a dozen real estate developers are building housing tracts bordering small vineyards in Northern California.

Selling proximity is a growing industry in wine country. Buying into it isn't cheap.

In the Ruby Hill development in Livermore, a 20-acre home-and-vineyard parcel sells for about $1.5 million. Each of the 32 parcels comes with about 15 acres of planted vineyard; the home has to be built by the buyer.

Undeveloped lots sell for $1 million to $1.5 million at CordeValle Vineyard Estates in San Martin, a 36-parcel, Tuscan-style gated enclave where each house is surrounded by 2 acres of vines. The O'Brien Group development includes a golf club and the new Clos LaChance Winery, which has a long-term contract to farm and buy grapes from the housing development's vineyards.

Grover Smith, a Cisco Systems Inc. executive who moved into a CordeValle home in June, said it was well worth the investment.

"The colors of the vines are beautiful as they change during the year," he said.

People like Smith have fallen for the "mystique" of wine, which sets wine apart from other foods and beverages, Harlan said. Cultural references to wine go back thousands of years in art and literature, he noted, and wine plays a major role in the rituals of both Christianity and Judaism.

"You just don't see that type of tradition in beer or whiskey," he said.

And that's a reason wine has joined sailboats, racehorses and dog breeding as one of the preferred hobbies of the very rich, said Charles Sullivan, a Los Gatos, Calif., author and wine historian.

In the early days of the United States, winemaking was a mostly pedestrian endeavor, though there were spurts of glamour. Thomas Jefferson played with vines at Monticello. Leland Stanford, the 19th century California industrialist, was so inspired by a trip to Bordeaux in France that he planted a 3,825-acre vineyard in Tehama County. His wine was abysmal, however, and his grapes were eventually used for brandy.

Wine became glitzy during the Napa Valley boom that started in the 1980s. The business attracted a new generation: tech millionaires, wealthy attorneys, Hollywood types such as Francis Ford Coppola and the branch of the Disney family that bolted from Los Angeles to run a winery in the Stag's Leap district of Napa Valley.

But you don't have to own and operate an entire winery or vineyard to play.

Bill Krause, a retired 3Com Corp. chief executive, recently hired Bill Murphy, the owner of CordeValle's Clos LaChance Winery, to plant 2 acres of his Los Altos Hills estate with Pinot Noir vines. Krause paid Murphy $95,000 and will ultimately sell the grapes back to the vintner; Murphy plans to make a reserve Krause Vineyard Pinot from them.

Depending on the vines and the terrain, planting costs will be at least about $30,000 an acre. An annual maintenance fee charged by Murphy will add about $5,000 an acre more. Krause's little vineyard will produce 3 to 4 tons of grapes, and Murphy will buy them for $1,200 to $2,000 a ton depending on the year and variety.

Krause doesn't expect to break even. He said that a backyard full of vines would be "a romantic fantasy of going back to the agrarian roots of our ancestors."

Grape vines, he added, are far more "seductive" than the apricot trees that had been on his property. And "seduction," he said, is the only word that can explain why an otherwise circumspect business executive would "do such a stupid thing from an economic point of view."

As for Elizabeth Funk and her husband, Steven, they could afford to buy a winery. He made a fortune developing parking lots in Canada, and she is a former Yahoo Inc. executive who now heads CML Global Capital Ltd.

But Steven, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, knows that the life of a gentleman farmer can be far more complicated than most realize.

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