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Renteria Family of Napa Valley

Oscar and Salvador Renteria operate one of California's most successful vineyard management businesses.

Napa Valley (AVA)

Tending the Vines of the Napa Valley: An interview with Salvador and Oscar Renteria

"We felt like we had achieved a certain success in growing grapes, but I felt it wasn’t complete. Obviously, if you grow some great grapes, you can make great wine. There’s an added value there. You get full exposure."

~ Oscar Renteria

by Alan Goldfarb
November 1, 2006

The Renteria Vineyard Management Co. farms about 1,800 of the Napa Valley's 44,000 planted acres for 27 clients who come from all but one of the region’s 15 sub-appellations. The knowledge, expertise, and background of the Mexican-American family that runs RVM, has turned it into one of the largest and most respected vineyard management companies in California.

From its roots in 1962, when the patriarch Salvador Renteria came to the Napa Valley from Jalisco, to mid-October of this year when permits were granted for the Renterias to break ground on a cave for their eponymous wine brand, their story is an epic one. And still, it’s not that much different from earlier Napa Valley settlers who arrived in the last two centuries from Europe.

Now, it is the Mexican-Americans’ turn and, more specifically, the Salvador Renteria family, including Salvador’s 39-year-old son Oscar, who has taken over both the vineyard company and the Renteria Winery.

But it all began with Salvador, who recently turned 69. Remarkably, he had never farmed before first getting involved with vineyards. Salvador made his bones in two disparate professions first as a barber and then as a pool shark. But 45 years ago, he gave it up to start a career in the vineyards at Sterling. There he was quickly named crew leader because he could speak a little better English than his colleagues.

I guess you could say that Salvador was a fast learner. In short order, he helped innovate such vineyard techniques as trellis trials and canopy management systems, working in various places, including the famed Three Palms Vineyard.

Salvador then went on to work in the vineyards of some of the valley’s more prestigious wineries such as Screaming Eagle, Domaine Chandon, Dalla Valle, Trefethen, Caymus, Duckhorn, Beaulieu, Clos Pegase, Cuvaison, Silverado, and Sonoma’s Williams Selyem.

In 1987, he started his own vineyard company. Today, with Oscar at the helm, RVM boasts such clients as the Robert Mondavi Winery, Caymus, Rombauer, Duckhorn, Vine Cliff, Silver Oak, Baldacci, Juslyn, Reynolds, and Michael and Rob Mondavi’s vineyards in Pope Valley, Atlas Peak, and Carneros.

Ten years later, Oscar started producing wines under the Renteria name. The Renteria’s themselves own 107 acres, which include seven acres of Cabernet Sauvignon on the Oakville Cross Road on Mt. Veeder (which is for sale), 42 acres of Cabernet in Pope Valley, three acres of Pinot Noir in Carneros, and an undisclosed parcel on Howell Mountain that has not yet been announced.

They are now building their own winery on a 55 acre site, at an elevation of 1,300-feet, on the southeast slope of Brown Valley where Mt. Veeder meets Carneros. The project won’t be finished for a couple of years. But Oscar hopes to begin crushing there next year. Currently Renteria produces 3,800 cases of Cabernet from the Stags Leap District, as well as Merlot, Pinot and Chardonnay. The new winery, which will sit near the Artesa Winery and Lee Hudson’s storied Carneros vineyard, will continue to employ the highly respected Karen Culler, to make the wines.

Salvador and Oscar Renteria spoke to Appellation America’s Napa Valley correspondent, Alan Goldfarb, recently from Salvador’s home in the hills above the Silverado Country Club in southern Napa Valley.

Alan Goldfarb (AG): Why did you choose to locate your winery on Mt. Veeder?

Salvador Renteria Oscar Renteria (OR): For the slopes, the hills, and the uniform terrain, which allows me to produce a range of varietals. It’s a unique site. We’re trying to make lower alcohol wines and wines that are truer to the terroir.

According to the analysis of the soils, they are extremely uniform and that’s hard to get on hillsides. With that elevation (1,300 feet) I can attain good acidity.

AG: It’s been said, Salvador, that you developed some innovative vineyard techniques. What are those?

Salvador Renteria (SR): In the late ‘60s, we worked with head-pruned vines, no wires, and we were just coming into drip irrigation systems. I worked with UC Davis.

André Tchelistcheff (then the winemaker at BV) used to drive me nuts because of his coffee and his smoking (laughs). Every time he spoke to you, he poured more coffee; and he swore a lot, too. (But he also) showed me cane training.

OR: We didn’t invent it, but we improved it. Everything was new and my father was right there in the middle of it.

AG: I read that Oscar once threatened to quit because he said, you’re “too hard to work with.” Is that true?

Oscar took over Renteria in 1993 SR: I think so. The story is larger than that. It wasn’t my fault, but he was coming out of school and it wasn’t easy for him to be a farmer. ..What are you going to do, fire your son because he wasn’t going to show up today? The best thing for him was to go work for somebody else.

The first year it was hard. I don’t know what he did, but I think he got a little smarter. It was kind of hard though. He was ready to quit. When we came home and had dinner, I wanted to talk about work, but he was on the phone talking to all his girlfriends.

AG: When you arrived in the Napa Valley you had never worked on a farm before -- you were trained as a barber and you were a pool shark -- and ’62 was a very wet year and you left, saying, “This is not for me.”

SR: I went back to my barbershop but I came back in ’64. I still don’t know why I came back. I didn’t want to go back to Chicago (where he hustled pool). It was too cold.

I went back to Napa and gave it another try. I liked it. Within a few months, they made me a crew leader and I had a little more responsibility. I had learned a little English back home and I was able to communicate with the people around me.

Salvador Renteria began working at Sterling Vineyards in the early 1960s AG: Oscar, why did you decide to finally produce wine? Was it because you once said, "… growing grapes, there's not a lot of exposure. By making wine, you tell a story.”? In other words, is making wine more sexy or interesting to the public than growing grapes?

OR: By far. You can look at all the tourists that visit the Napa Valley…We felt like we had achieved a certain success in growing grapes, but I felt it wasn’t complete. Obviously, if you grow some great grapes, you can make great wine. There’s an added value there. You get full exposure.

AG: What do you think about your son going into the wine business?

SR: It was always my dream. When I started working for Sterling, I actually made wines in ’73 - 70 cases, from the second crop. I liked it, but I never thought I’d make (my own) wine.

AG: Now, since you farm across so many AVAs of the Napa Valley, and source fruit for your own brand from several, tell me the differences and characteristics of each.

OR: Here are my thoughts:

Calistoga (AVA pending) (Clients are Vine Cliff, Rombauer) -- Here, it is very warm, with soils that are well-drained. Ripening is not an issue, and the region produces extracted wines.

Diamond Mountain (von Strasser, Constant) -- This is one of my favorite appellations. What can you say about mountain fruit and elevation? There are volcanic soils and because of the hillsides, there’s a tremendous amount of control over vigor. Here, the fruit ripens quickly because it’s warm.

Spring Mountain (Keenan, Juslyn) -- Here, there is a later harvest relative to Diamond Mountain. There is an eastern exposure, so it gets morning sun, and has mid-range, moderate ripening. The soils are well-drained -- it is a damn tough appellation to beat.

St. Helena (Rombauer, Silver Oak) -- What I love about St. Helena is that this is the valley floor. It’s extremely well-drained, which means you can control vigor. You can also hang the fruit for maturity for (up to) three weeks. Grapes ripen consistently here year to year.

Howell Mountain (Vine Cliff) -- This is my favorite appellation. I’ve yet to produce a bad year from fruit sourced from Howell Mountain. No misses, nothing but hits. The soils are more distinct -- tufa, volcanic ash -- which are very rich in nutrients.

Chiles Valley -- (no clients)

Pope Valley (not an official AVA) (Michael and Rob Mondavi, Merryvale, Duckhorn, Groth) -- We manage 600 acres here. We’re the largest grower in the appellation. There’s very little difference between Chiles and Pope. Extremes of cold and warmth, we start late, wake up late, and it ripens fast. It is the best Sauvignon Blanc in the valley because of the short cycle of growth.

Rutherford (Silver Oak, Rombauer) -- Cabernet is strong here, so it’s an easy one for us. The appellation has good soils, which are rich in nutrients. Stylistically, it produces an easy, solid Cabernet.

Oakville (Vine Cliff) -- On the hillsides, the best fruit is immaculate. It ripens easily and they can hang there. Stylistically, the wines have less high-heat (alcohol).

Stags Leap District (Baldacci, Rombauer) -- This is the only AVA in the U.S. that was granted because of its soils – well-draining tufa and shale. It is my second favorite appellation because wines here are plush, velvety, approachable, and seem to be better balanced

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Stama Winery 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
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