Saturday, September 08, 2007

Lewelling Vineyards

In the San Fransisco Chronicle yesterday. The picture on the right is of Doug Wight showing us how he prunes the Lewelling Vineyards- then there's me taking a crack at it in January 2006.

St. Hele

David Wight catches himself. "You won't tell people how to get here, will you?"

The location of Lewelling Vineyards, owned by David and brother Doug , along with their brother Alan, isn't exactly a Screaming Eagle-level secret. But it's not for visitors, either. Tucked out past a St. Helena Ford dealership west of Highway 29, its informal tasting room and office is the 1920s bungalow where David and Doug's mother, Janice, grew up.

Napans love to brag about their ties to the land, but good luck finding a family with better bragging rights than the Wights. Their 30-acre plot, part of nearly 300 acres just south of St. Helena owned by the extended family, has been in their control since the end of the Civil War, first planted (partly in fruit trees) when St. Helena was just a tiny farm town. John Lewelling, the brothers' great-great-grandfather, was a Welsh Quaker who moved from North Carolina to California in the 1850s, and settled this plot in 1864.

"I think we may be the oldest family farming the same ground," David says.

The brothers went to St. Helena High with Tim Mondavi, and in 1992, they decided to take some of the grapes they were selling and make 500 cases of wine. David went to Davis to learn winemaking, while Doug handles the fields. (He also runs a vineyard-management business.) Now there are 1,200 cases a year, still a tiny fraction of what they grow. Most is sold to wineries like Beaulieu Vineyard and Caymus, but only their longtime friends, the Trincheros, can mention the Lewelling vineyard on the label. The brothers don't want their name associated with fruit they can't control.

The family may have long Napa ties, but the wine is amply modern - heady, opulent, high-octane stuff. Fame is creeping up in the form of Robert Parker, who gave their 2004 Wight Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon a mind blowing 96+ points. No surprise, then, that calls are starting to filter in from Wall Street big shots, demanding bottles. They sell their Cabernet in pairs - one regular bottle and one reserve for $98, a regular bargain in these parts. Not bad for guys trying to avoid becoming the next big thing.

"With some bottles at $150, $200, a lot of people have been priced out of trying them." says David Wight. "That seems to be a shame to me."

With 80 acres of prime bench vineyard on coveted alluvial soils, the Wights couldn't help but succeed - as the BMW in the driveway attests. But it's newfound success. Doug and David are the first generation to make a living off the family land without keeping an outside job. "Our grandparents and great-grandparents would roll over in their graves if they knew what we were getting an acre around here," Doug says.

With some 200 acres of open land, and agricultural restrictions barring them from building new houses, the brothers instead enjoy having their own chunk of Napa wildland. They hunt in the wooded hills, and fondly recall when the St. Helena Star would put photos of hunting season's first deer on the front page. It's a long way from their well-heeled neighbors' views of Napa Valley.

"We shoot skeet once in a while," Doug says, "so they get used to the idea of a gun going off."

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