Heitz Wine Cellars is a California winery located east of the town of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. The Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has earned the estate historical distinction. The estate is also considered a “master of Grignolino” an Italian grape varietal.
The estate was established in 1961 by Joseph and Alice Heitz. At this time, there were only about two dozen wineries in Napa Valley. The amount of wineries had yet to recover from the devastating effects of Prohibition in the 1920’s.
Joe Heitz was raised on a farm and served in the Army Air Corps during the 1940s before he moved to California. Professionally, he worked as a mechanic at an Air Corps facility near Fresno for most of the World War II period. Later, he took odd jobs at night and on weekends, leading him to work at an Italian Swiss Colony winery. Subsequently, his work at the winery launched his winemaking career.
In 1951, Joe Heitz earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Viticulture and Enology – making him one of the first seven graduates with this degree.
After graduation, he found work in the wine industry’s extremes, first at Gallo and later as an assistant winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard under André Tchelistcheff, where he served for more than ten years. In 1958, he spent four years as a professor at California State University, Fresno’s Research Center for Viticulture and Enology. These experiences were invaluable for setting up his own business.
Since 1965, Heitz developed an exclusive relationship with Tom and Martha May, the 34-acre Martha’s Vineyard owners in the Oakville AVA. This act can be considered Heitz’s significant breakthrough. He vinified the fruit separately and put the vineyard’s name on the label beginning with the 1966 vintage to recognize the grapes’ quality. He can be credited as the first American to advocate for the single vineyard designation.
Later, the 1968 vintage drew acclaim and attention for its excellent quality, and was primarily regarded as the best American wine at the time. It is characterized by small berries with a vividly purple hue, extremely concentrated flavor, and a characteristic minty perfume. For more than two decades, this wine was signified as a yardstick by which California Cabernets were compared. It shot to fame with the title of “Martha’s Vineyard wine.”
After fermentation, the wine is left to settle and age in neutral oak tanks for a year. Subsequently, the wine is transferred to 100% new French Limousin oak barrels. The wine in each barrel is then tasted, and only the best tasting barrels are selected and bottled as Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
This long oak aging process allows the barrel’s toast and vanilla qualities to mix slowly and gently with the wine. After the entire process, Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet is ready to bottle after three years. Subsequently, it continues to age nicely for another year in bottle before being released from the cellar. All in all, Martha’s Vineyard is a true Napa Valley icon due to its unique and almost mystical traits.
In 1996, the founder of Martha’s Vineyard, Joe Heitz, suffered a stroke, making him very fragile. On December 16, 2000, Joe passed away at 81. His legacy continues today.