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Napa-In the Rearview Mirror

By Don Clemens

By Don Clemens


My history with the Napa Valley goes back into the mists of memory. Back then, in 1972, there was only a handful of Napa Valley wineries being actively marketed in Illinois. The most likely brands to be found on a store shelf were Inglenook, Beaulieu, Charles Krug and Louis Martini, and the most likely varieties being sold were Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. 


Around 1974, a couple of gentlemen who had their own liquor stores in my home town decided to go into partnership and start a third, much larger and more modern store there. They also decided to offer me the position of Manager. This happened to me while things were beginning to explode in the Napa Valley. Brands began appearing that were going to help cement the reputation of Napa: Sterling, Stags Leap Winery and Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Beringer and Chateau Montelena were all making strong impressions on American wine lovers. 


In 1975, my wife and I decided to take a driving vacation heading west in our new Volkswagen Beetle. Of course, once we got to the Golden State, my love of wine led me to see what all the fuss was about in the Napa Valley. Around this time, it could be argued, the Napa Valley’s “Golden Age” had begun. Napa only had 27 wineries in 1970; by 2000, there were 259 in operation. It was on this trip that I purchased by first cases of wines directly from the tasting rooms at a couple of Napa wineries. A case of Louis M. Martini 1970 Cabernet Sauvignon “special selections” and a case of 1970 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon started my palate onto the vinous road that I have followed ever since. 


I got a lot of experience in the wine industry working in retail management, directing the beverage program at a top-tier Chicago restaurant, and District Manager at Almaden Winery. Then I began as Regional Sales Manager at Vintage Wine Merchants of San Francisco with a portfolio to die for: Chateau Montelena, Chateau St. Jean, Stonegate, Parducci, Sutter Home, Raymond and more to come!  ! I had thirteen states to cover with a highly-prized, highly-allocated portfolio of wines. Believe it or not, even Sutter Home White Zinfandel was allocated in 1980! The best side of this gig was that I got to go to Napa twice a year for meetings and visits to our wineries. I began to really fall in love with the Napa Valley (and the rest of Northern California.)


1984 - “William Hill Winery? Napa Valley? Regional Sales Manager? Absolutely! Glad to be part of the team!” So, I went back to covering 13 states with a growing success story. I had Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay only, and all were estate-grown on the hillsides of Mount Veeder. It was fun marketing with sit down “comparative tastings” versus 1st Growth Bordeaux (Ch. Margaux, Ch. Lafitte, Ch. Latour), with surprisingly strong showings in every tasting. William Hill (“Bill”) was quite the entrepreneur, with big growth plans. In March of ’86, I was asked if I would take on the role of VP of Sales & Marketing. After finding a replacement for my Midwest position, I was on my way to Napa. In July 1986, I moved into one of the ranch houses on our Silverado Trail vineyard, just north of Napa. This is where my Napa story really begins to come together. My wife and our two dogs and two cats joined me in October, when we moved into a lovely rental home in Yountville.



As Bill Hill’s surrogate, I sat in at private luncheons with Robert Mondavi, Paul Draper and Julia Child.  I was the winery’s representative on the Napa Valley Vintners’ Association, where I served on the Appellation’s subcommittee with Tim Mondavi, Koerner Rohmbauer, Jim Barrett (Ch. Montelena), Jack Cakebread and other names that have eluded me. I traveled all over North America – we had a LOT of Canadian partners due to some interesting legal/tax rules that Canada had at the time. I ran a sales team of seven regional managers and essentially ran the marketing plan (advertising, media, distributor relations, etc.) with a multi-million-dollar budget. Heady times!  

Vineyard purchases were on a huge upswing. Bill (and partners) purchased a 400-plus acre site in Carneros which was going to be developed for Chardonnay; also a 1200-plus acre site on Atlas Peak at the top of Soda Canyon Road; another large site on the eastern side of Napa and then, a real surprise – Oregon! 


During this time living in Napa, we got to enjoy the ever-growing restaurant scene in and around Napa. The French Laundry was a success; Domaine Chandon had an excellent restaurant;  and (Stags Leap Wine Cellars owner) Warren Winiarski’s daughter opened a great place with her husband. It seemed like everything was happening NORTH of Napa. I was definitely enjoying the growth of our winery AND the benefits of entertaining visiting distributor sales reps. I was also having a lot of fun learning more about the way that wine is made. That is, except for every other Tuesday morning. Because I have been blessed (?) with a good nose and palate, I was required to blind taste samples of wines that had been exposed to various cork samples to ensure that the corks weren’t infected with TCA 2,4,6, the dreaded chemical compound that was known to cause the ruination of any wine that came in contact with it. Every bag of corks that came into the winery was sampled – usually by me – to ensure that our corks were pristine. 


Harvest time for me usually meant that I got to run the forklift, the legacy of a high school summer job skill that I had acquired. Lifting tons and tons of grapes, to be dumped into the crusher prior to fermentation – what fun! 


But, all good things come to an end. Suddenly, in early 1990, changes in the US Tax Code and changes in the aforementioned Canadian Tax Rules, made it imperative that Bill and his partners divest, and sell the winery and its assets. So, after securing new positions for my regional sales managers, I had a decision to make. I could stay on as a “spokesman” for the winery with the new ownership or make my wife much happier and move back to Chicagoland. It was a bittersweet choice, but a necessary one. Hello, Chicago! 


I still love Napa, and always jump at the chance to return. But my home and heart belong where they are now. 

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