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Heart and Soul in Vines and Earth

By Michael Cervin | Photos Courtesy of Spottswoode

We know the real estate adage: location, location, location. It’s no less true in the wine world. A fabulous property, perfect soil, ideal weather, and prime location equals Napa’s Spottswoode Winery.

Spottswoode’s history dates back over 130 years. In 1882, the first vineyard was planted on the property, and after successive owners, the place was called Lyndenhurst. In 1910, Susan Spotts acquired the property and renamed the estate to honor her deceased husband, Albert, who passed away unexpected just a year earlier. Sixty-two years later, Dr. Jack Novak, a general practitioner, and his wife, Mary, uprooted their five children and left the San Diego area in search of a quieter life, one predicated on returning to a connection with the land. They purchased Spottswoode, with its impressive Queen Anne Victorian mansion on 31 acres, surrounded by lavish gardens and vineyards in the tiny town of St. Helena.

“It’s sheer luck that we found this place. Dad was looking for a house big enough for his family . . . He wanted to drive a tractor, and Mom was an avid gardener,” says Beth Novak Milliken, Spottswoode’s president and Jack and Mary’s daughter.

Everything went according to plan until 1977, when Jack unexpectedly had a fatal heart attack. Left with children to raise and a lot of land, Mary understood both her predicament and location. She decided to stay and began supporting her family in part by selling grapes to Napa’s most established wineries: Shafer, Heitz, Mondavi, Caymus, and Duckhorn. Her vineyard became known for quality grapes, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, Spottswoode makes only three wines—Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon.

Winemaker Tony Soter was influential in changing the course of the winery. He brought the idea of organic farming to Mary. “Tony really wanted an intimate connection to the land,” says Milliken. “Mom trusted him completely.” In 1992, Spottswoode became the second estate vineyard in Napa Valley to earn California Certified Organic Farmers certification, before it was considered a popular practice.

In the years since, Spottswoode has received numerous environmental awards. More importantly, it has become a multi-functioning operation, adding cover crops, bee boxes, restored riparian areas, owl boxes, solar power, and more. This approach to farming is labor intensive and more costly. “It’s not even a question for us,” says Milliken. “There’s a lot of lip service given to sustainability.” Looking at the climatic changes over the decades, she understands that the vineyards have more resilience.

That commitment to resilience led to the current winemaker and vineyard manager Aron Weinkauf to add biodynamic practices. “When you have the good fortune of working with one of the world’s great vineyards, you realize you are part of an ongoing story,” he says. “I recognize the decisions made decades ago that still profoundly shape the quality of our wines. Everyone who has had the privilege of working with our vineyard has strived to leave it better than when they arrived, which is no small feat.”

It is also a large, heartfelt commitment. “It’s been a huge amount of passion and hard work,” says Milliken. “For almost 50 years, what we have built at Spottswoode has defined our family. The values that guide us, and the love and care we apply to our estate and to every wine we make, are the ways we honor my parents’ legacy. Spottswoode is irreplaceable.”

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