Mary Weber Novak, Founder of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery, Dies at 84

The matriarch of one of the Napa Valley's most renowned wineries leaves behind an influential legacy.
Mary Weber Novak / Photo courtesy Spottswoode

Mary Weber Novak, founder of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery, one of Napa Valley’s most esteemed multigenerational family estates, passed away on Sunday, September 25, after a fight with cancer. She was 84.

As the founder of Spottswoode and one of the first women to run a major Napa Valley winegrowing estate, Novak was a vital part of the wine community since 1972. Her Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc were noted for their consistency and grace.

Upon the estate’s 40th anniversary in 2012, Novak penned a historical remembrance of the winery’s unlikely survival.

“My husband Jack and I had barely finished building a home for our young family in Southern California when we unexpectedly met and fell in love with vineyard life in the Napa Valley,” she wrote.

“When Jack visited the historic wine estate of Spottswoode he was intrigued by its potential. I was captivated by the beautiful gardens and knew we could raise our family here on a vineyard, at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains.”

The couple sold everything and packed their household into a couple of trailers, pulled by a van and their old station wagon and headed north with five children, a pair of horses, two dogs, a cat and a stone fountain wrapped in newspaper and tied with twine, as Novak recalled.

Their car engine burned out over the Altamont Pass and they rolled it into a roadside motel parking lot for the night.

When they finally reached St. Helena, they took on a 31-acre site with 26 acres in wine grapes and, as it was described in the original listing, “nearly 3 acres of park-like landscaping surrounding a two-story Victorian home built in 1883.”

Soon the Novaks would befriend such other early pioneering Napa Valley wine families as the Davies, Chappellets, Shafers and Duckhorns.

The harvest of 1973 was their first. In 1974, records show, they sold grapes to Robert Mondavi—20 tons of Napa Gamay for $525 per ton. They were off and rolling.

When Jack Novak died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1977, Mary, then 45, was left to carry on the business with five children still at home.

She moved their shared vision forward, kept her family in St. Helena and immersed herself in the art of winegrowing. In 1982 she tapped winemaker Tony Soter to make Spottswoode’s first Cabernet Sauvignon.

Soter was the one to suggest to Novak that she consider farming organically, which Spottswoode has done since 1985. Novak championed women in the wine industry by encouraging two of her daughters to work with her, and was responsible for the hiring of several women winemakers throughout Spottswoode’s four-decade history, including Mia Klein, Pam Starr, Rosemary Cakebread and Jennifer Williams.

Beth Novak Milliken, who worked alongside her mother for 29 years, said “The Spottswoode we know is the direct result of my mom’s commitment to and passion for the property.”

In addition to Beth Novak Milliken, Mary Novak is survived by her five children, Lindy, Kelley, Mike and Matt Novak, and nine grandchildren.

Published on September 27, 2016
Topics: Napa Valley
About the Author
Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews the wines of Napa and Sonoma. Boone began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, which eventually led to California-focused wine coverage. She contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Email: vboone@wineenthusiast.net




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