Rooted in Excellence
By Nora Heston Tarte | Photos Courtesy Heitz Cellar
Heitz Cellar is dedicated to high-quality vintages, sustainable farming practices, and organic wines. While many of these attributes have become buzzwords, Heitz was at the forefront of the movements, turning out sustainable vinos before it was trending and pushing the industry forward through farming, terroir, and mono-varietal wine production. “It’s something that’s really rooted in our history,” says Erik Elliott, estate director at Heitz Cellar.
The qualities that matter most to Heitz wine production—beyond creating truly exquisite wines—come from the winery founder, Joseph Heitz, a World War II veteran who landed in Fresno while serving in the US Air Force. In 1948, Heitz enrolled in University of California Davis to learn winemaking. He eventually ventured north, where he became a wine apprentice for André Tchelistcheff (known as “the maestro of Napa Valley”). In 1961, Heitz purchased land and founded Heitz Cellar—only the twelfth winery established in the Napa Valley—and put his creative and experimental winemaking tactics to work. Today, his successors stay true to his original style of winemaking, turning out old-world style wines that are inspired by those of Bordeaux, Rioja, and Piedmont in a new-world setting. “When people think of Heitz, they think of old school, authentic,” says Elliott.
To accomplish this feat, Heitz Cellar harvests the grapes early (at or below 24 Brix) for lower alcohol content and more balance; introduces oxygen into the winemaking process to allow for a smoother integration and silkier tannins; and ferments the wines at cooler temperatures, about 68–72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heitz also has a storied reputation for curating wines that age exceptionally well. One reason the wines don’t sour is because the winery takes on the aging for many years instead of requiring the consumer to watch over younger vintages in a cellar that may not offer optimal conditions. This is harder to accomplish at newer wineries, Elliott explains, because property is more expensive, therefore storage costs are higher. With acreage purchased in 1961, it’s an accessible approach for Heitz Cellar.
Another reason Heitz Cellar wines age well (the winery is well known in the community for its vintages) is in the way the wines are produced. “Our wines tend to just have a lot of natural acidity and natural freshness,” says Elliott.
Since 1984, all wines produced by Heitz are CCOF (California Certified Organic Farm) organically farmed, reflecting Heitz’s core values of sustainability and responsible farming. While many local wineries forgo organic farming, Elliott says that the climate in the Napa Valley is ideal for the practice. Moisture is the number one concern for organically and biodynamically farmed grapes, and Napa Valley, with its hot and dry climate, doesn’t see much rainfall early in the year.
Heitz vintages that have benefited from the region’s terroir include the entire 2015 collection (current winemaker Brittany Sherwood’s first vintages at the estate), the 1992 Trailside Vineyard cabernet, and the 1974 Marcus Vintage Cabernet, “Arguably one of the greatest wines ever made in the world,” says Elliott.
Gaylon and Lisa Lawrence are now at the helm of the Heitz empire. Their goal isn’t to change course. Instead, the new winery owners will honor Heitz’s legacy, celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the revered vineyard by looking to the past, staying true to the values instilled in the soil, and offering continuity to the land and to its community of wine drinkers.
For more information, visit heitzcellar.com.