Meet Bill Hill, mountain man.
Behind flashing blue eyes and silver-blond hair, the bespectacled Bill Hill is a guy who loves nothing better than assessing a piece of raw land -- particularly when it's near the top of a hill -- for grape vines. If it were up to him, he'd follow the old landowner's maxim: Never sell.
"Well, it hasn't always worked out that way," he says with a rueful laugh. "We developed Diamond Mountain, but the partnership forced its sale to Sterling. We had to sell Veeder Hills to Donald Hess |The Hess Collection~ when a split within that partnership went beyond my control. And we had to sell Foss Valley to the Antinori-Bollinger group |now called Atlas Peak Vineyard~ when Bank of America pulled the plug on us."
Bill Hill is not just any kind of vineyard guy. He's mountain vineyard kind of guy. He has long been convinced that mountain-grown fruit makes the most concentrated, the most long-lived, and the highest quality wines. Even his Navy blue Laredo Jeep proclaims his conviction, with a license plate that reads "MTN VYND."
If Bill bemoans the loss of some of his favorite mountain jewels -- and each one he's lost has produced spectacular wines by anyone's definition -- he hasn't let it slow him down one whit. He's busily acquiring land and planning to plant. In the Carneros. In Sonoma County. In Mendocino's Anderson Valley. And even in Oregon!
"We began looking in other areas for a couple of reasons," says Hill, warming rapidly to his favorite subject. "First, the great vineyards of the Napa Valley were being rapidly absorbed by the mid-'80s. They became very scarce and very expensive. Second, I began to develop an interest in making wine from some other varieties. As you know, thus far we've focused entirely on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from hillside vineyards.
"The other noble varieties -- Pinot noir and Whit Riesling -- generally have not performed well in California. They've improved here in recent years, but have still fallen short of their European counterparts made in the great years. In assessing vineyards from Santa Barbara to Washington State, we found the 'stuff' of great wines in Oregon."
Hill suggests strongly that latitude has a greater part to play in grape quality than he had previously considered. "Sauvignon blanc, for example, doesn't seem to show vineyard differences all that much, but Pinot noir and White Riesling are extremely differentiated by where they're grown. Pinot noir in Santa Barbara has concentrated, intense flavors, but they lack a certain elegance, and particularly that long, focused finish that you get in Burgundy or Oregon in the good years. In California, Pinot noir has a Zinfandel-like fruit, but Oregon Pinot has a subtle blackberry quality that carries all the way through to the finish."
While most vineyard climate assessments have looked to heat buildup from bud break to harvest, Hill says that it's really the last six to eight weeks before harvest when climate is really important to wine quality. "Look, the last day before harvest is the most important day of the year. The next most important day is the second to last day before harvest, and each day you go back its importance declines.
"Let me give you an example. In July, the Carneros, which has a maritime climate, is cooler than Burgundy or Oregon. But in September, Carneros remains the same while Burgundy and Oregon are substantially cooler. I have to wear a jacket in Oregon, all day long!"
While Hill likes many of the Oregon Pinot noirs he's tasted ("beautiful balance"), he feels that concentration and finish are often lacking due to overly heavy soils. "Most of the Pinot noir is grown on heavy, clay soils, like our Aiken soils. But those soils retain too much water. The parcels we bought in Oregon are northwest of Salem in the Eola Hills. We're on an island ridge that has very austere soils. And the Van Duzer corridor brings cool air directly in from the Pacific Ocean. In fact, our Oregon wines are bottled under the Van Duzer label.
"But even where you have clay, you can improve the drainage with the application of lime, 20 tons per acre, rather than four or five. You see, clay particles are electrically charged, so that they cling to water. But when you apply lime freely, that charge is lost, and the water becomes free to drain."
Two years ago, Hill brought out his first Oregon wine, a Dry White Riesling 1989 under the William Hill label. It is a lovely example of dry Riesling, with steely apricot smells. In the mouth, it's taut with apricot skin fruit and a crisp, flinty finish. The first Pinot noir, from the same vintage, under the Van Duzer label, has ripe black cherry fruit, with mushroom and potato nuances, and a chewy, somewhat grainy finish.
The whole of Hill's outlook is to create a portfolio of great wine estates, each with its own winery, each with its own varietal wines that are specific to each estate vineyard. The Carneros Hills property began development in 1987. "We've only put Chardonnay there, and I think that was wise," says Hill. "It's just south of Bouchaine, and it's a little island of gravel soil that has excellent drainage. I believe it's the largest contiguous block of Chardonnay in the Carneros, over 300 acres."
The Sonoma estate is 300 plantable acres at the far southern end of Sonoma Mountain, just over the hill from the Gloria Ferrer Winery. "Again, where most of the area is heavy with clay, the spot we found has lots of gravel. This, too, will be a Chardonnay estate."
Anderson Valley is a "jewel" according to Hill. "This is going to be a Merlot estate. We're too far inland for Pinot noir or Gewurztraminer. We're right at Boonville, and up a slope that has beautiful gravel soils. We'll plant Merlot up on the slopes and about a third of it to Chardonnay, down on the flatter land near the highway. We have about 600 plantable acres there."
These estates are all separate from the Allied-Lyons deal, which closed the first of June 1992. "What they wanted was the new winery, just north of Silverado Country Club, the vineyard there, the inventory, and the brand," says Hill. "Plus they wanted me to continue providing fruit from Carneros Hills and Veeder Peak Vineyards, which my new partnership, Avatar Wine Company, retains. The other estates had always been separate. Soda Canyon Vineyard is a Cabernet estate that is solely mine. I've planted 11 acres, and will continue planting as money becomes available. I'll use a warehouse to make wine from this estate until we can build a small winery here."
In a time of vast and turbulent change, Hill has a clear vision of the future, if not a specific timetable. "Perhaps in ten years, when the smoke clears, I'd hope to be left with a couple of good Napa Valley wine estates, covering Cabernet and Chardonnay and including Soda Canyon and Veeder Peak -- the best Cabernet I've ever seen -- and an Oregon estate that focuses on Pinot noir, Chardonnay and sparkling wine: all either wholly owned by me, or with operating partners that I'm comfortable with, who are in it for the long term."
That's another key to the Hill philosophy, you have to stand back far enough to see the whole picture, and not just the short term fallout. "I believe that close planting is a major quality factor, so much so that my own vineyard at Soda Canyon is planted at more than 2,000 vines per acre," he begins. "I am flabbergasted when I talk to someone who has the same belief, but won't go as densely as he talks just because he doesn't want to buy a smaller tractor to work the narrower rows. Here he's making a 50-year quality decision based on a tractor that he's going to have to replace in three or four years anyway! That's the tail wagging the dog. Hey, if you have to go to Europe to buy a tractor, go to Europe!!"
At the moment, Hill is using a 44-inch wide Italian-made Heston, but thinks that may even be too wide. "I'm looking at the German-made Fendt, a 55-horse machine that is only thirty-nine inches wide. Once these vines get mature, the Heston may be just a bit too tight going down these rows."
Hill is convinced that one of the great mistakes growers make when assessing closer planting lies in viewing yields in terms of acreage rather than in terms of each vine plant. "When you compare, say, Rutherford bench Cabernet and Bordeaux, they're both getting around four tons per acre. But ours is doing that with only 500 vines per acre, which means 50 or 60 clusters per vine. In Bordeaux, they're looking at a yield and quality factor based on only 12 clusters per vine.
"Here, if you go above 30 clusters per vine, there's a slow, steady diminishing of intensity and complexity. On the other side, when you go below 20, there's no further increase in quality. Thus, if you use a high vertical trellis, irrigate and fertilize at the beginning of the growing season, with our lower humidity there's no reason why we can't get over eight tons per acre of top quality fruit with closer spacing."
Here's how that factors out. First, you've got 2,050 vines per acre, leaving 24 to 28 clusters per vine. And that means upwards of eight tons per acre, using all of the available sunlight. There is a kicker. Development costs (exclusive of land costs) are high. Very high.
"Yes, we are looking at $40,000 per acre just to develop the vineyard," admits Hills almost sheepishly. Almost. There's the fox's slyness behind those lensed lids. "When you're getting upwards of $20 the bottle, for top quality wine, and the higher yields, it pencils. I know that typical development costs here in the Napa Valley are less than $20,000, and it shocks people when I say 40. But when I say eight tons, there is disbelief. But with clusters that only weigh a quarter of a pound, or thereabouts, that's balanced, quality fruit."
Figure it out. If you're making wine that sells for upwards of $20 a bottle, and production costs are under $1,000 a ton, well, as Hill puts it, "There's a comfortable amount of profit there, more than enough to justify initially higher costs of development. And that's what it takes to make the finest wines, the willingness to pay up front for a profit that doesn't show itself until the second decade of operations.
"That's where I think we have the advantage, is a sense, over the big guys, the Gallos or the Seagrams," assesses Hill. "You see, the most important decision I ever make as a winemaker is buying the property. And I can spend the time crawling through the poison oak in Anderson Valley or the Eola Hills to find this or that 40 acres. And that is definitely to my advantage." Crawling through the poison oak to get to the top of the hill. It pencils.
(Hinkle's latest book is "Beyond the Grapes: An Inside Look at Napa Valley," written with L.A. TIMES wine columnist Dan Berger. He is currently finishing his fifth book, a history of Chateau Montelena, wrote the script for the video "Wines of a Place" |narrated by Raymond "Perry Mason" Burr~, and is the author of Hinkle's Law, which holds that there are only three responses appropriate to any glass of wine: (1) I like it; (2) I don't like it; and (3) I'll drink it if somebody else pays for it!~