Apparently Napa Valley isn't too overcrowded or too expensive for some to still want into the game. In a matter of just two weeks in February, Chalone Wine Group created for itself a sizable Napa presence by purchasing two major vineyards, one of which is a prized plot of land planted with top-notch Cabernet Sauvignon.
By purchasing the 69-acre Hewitt Ranch property in Rutherford and the 160-acre Suscol Creek vineyard in southeastern Napa Valley, Chalone is now stocked with premium fruit sources. Chalone paid a healthy $14.5 million for Hewitt Ranch, which is located smack in the center of the fabled Rutherford Bench. The 57 acres of vines, planted in four sections to three different clones, are surrounded by famed Cabernet vineyards with names like Niebaum-Coppola, Bosché and Eisele.
Suscol Creek, which cost nearly $6 million, is a more multipurpose vineyard, with 35 acres of Chardonnay and some Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir. Chalone plans to plant 40 additional acres of Merlot and Cabernet.
The bold and costly moves are all part of a grand Napa red-wine project being engineered by Tom Selfridge, Chalone's president and CEO. Selfridge was winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard in Rutherford from 1973-83, and later became president of the winery before leaving in 1990. He says that with the exception of Chardonnay, America is fast becoming a red-wine drinking nation, and Chalone is responding to what it sees as a trend. Ultimately, Selfridge wants the company, which has properties stretching from Washington's Columbia Valley down to the Edna Valley of California, to be about two-thirds dedicated to reds. Just two years ago, 70 percent of the Chalone group's production was white wines.
With respect to the newly acquired chunk of prime Rutherford land, Selfridge admitted that he is personally a big fan of the Hewitt property, which includes a 10,000-square-foot home originally built by a former U.S. ambassador to Jamaica. For many years the vineyard has been a source of Cabernet for BV, including the Georges de Latour Private Reserve. But that is about to change. Over the next five years, a contract that entitles BV to all of the Hewitt Ranch fruit will expire in stages.
In an interview, Selfridge said 2004 is the target vintage for an inaugural single-vineyard Cabernet from Hewitt Ranch. At this point, neither a name for the wine nor a winemaker has been decided upon. Meanwhile, Suscol Creek and vineyards owned by Andy Beckstoffer will provide the fruit for Merlot and Cabernet wines under a different brand name. The first vintage for these wines should be 1999, with a release in 2001 or 2002.
"This is a long-term investment for us. Hewitt is an 18,000-case vineyard. We will want to maximize the character of this precious piece of land," Selfridge said. Having been replanted in sections starting in 1992, the vineyard, which is managed by David Morisoli, is better than ever, Selfridge insisted. "This vineyard is in super shape. It's got the best root stock and clones. In theory, we won't have to touch it for 25, 30, even 40 years. It's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
How quickly things change in Napa. Just a month ago Chalone had no "claret" vineyards, as Selfridge calls them. Now, counting the commitment from Beckstoffer to provide grapes, Chalone could soon be putting out as much as 50,000 cases of red wine from Napa. If you thought Napa was tapped, you were wrong.