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Spring Mountain District ~ Napa Valley (AVA)

"Winter" in Napa: The foundation for a new Napa brand is laid

Rob Winter began to foment the notion that indeed, he could make wine, too. In fact, he just knew he could do it well.

by Alan Goldfarb
October 13, 2005

As is the case with many people who come to live in the Napa Valley, Rob Winter, a builder by trade, had no intention of getting into the wine business. However, 10 years ago he found himself getting “sucked into” the wine business. Eleven months ago, he put his first wine in barrel with plans to launch a new label. This is the story of how a wine brand is created -- from conception to fruition. We’ll follow the Winter story until the moments before, and just after, the wine is released.

Rob Winter has built some mighty impressive, one-of-a-kind homes for others during the last 25 years. While designing such a dwelling and putting in some vineyards 10 years ago for a man who relocated to the outskirts of St. Helena, he says he was presented with an opportunity to move here from Laguna Beach. In fact, “it was a perfect opportunity to live somewhere that I’d long thought about.”

While working on the project he’s calling “Winter,” he began meeting some heavy hitters in the wine industry. Although, Winter insists, at the time he didn’t know that they were some of the biggest names in the Napa Valley.

Figures such as Jim Barbour and David Abreu became his friends, as did vintner Jayson Woodbridge and winemaker Philippe Melka. Over the next few years, while listening to their stories and tasting their wines, Winter began to foment the notion that indeed, he could make wine, too. In fact, he just knew he could do it well.

“I have a real talent for precision, for detail and design,” the 49-year-old Winter explains while sitting in front of an outdoor fireplace at his home at the base of Spring Mountain. “I see the small things. I see how things are put together.”

And he began finding a corollary with wine. But what was it about those men, to whom he calls “industry giants,” that so intrigued him, so captured his imagination that so compelled him to make wine, too?

“I didn’t know for the life of me know who these guys were (at first),” says the ruddy-complected Winter, whose strawberry-blond shock of hair makes him appear younger than his years. “But these men were in my face, exposing me to some great things.”

“The wine business pulled me in. It engulfed me. I was a guy who got sucked in, pulled in by his surroundings. Rob, you should be doing this, I said. I can do it well. I have the heart for it and I have the feel for it. Eventually, a light bulb went off. Bing!”

Eventually too, he found a property that stood between the confluence of York Creek and another smaller stream with land that had the blackest of soils that were strewn with obsidian rock. So, he hired vineyardist Pete Richmond, who planted three-quarters of an acre in 2000 and then another vineyard of equivalent size almost two years later -- all to Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The soils have amazing richness of black dirt, and nothing had ever been planted on it,” says Winter, who in his younger days, played mandolin, violin and guitar as a studio musician for the likes of Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs.

Winter also says once he saw the vines in his vineyard growing, “my heart learned to grow and follow it.”

So, he hired a young, rising winemaker from New Zealand named Helen Mawson, who herself came to the valley in ’98, landing at Phelps and then going on to Miner and then to Vineyard 29 and to Woodbridge’s Hundred Acre.

The first Winter wine from the 2004 vintage, rests in 100 percent new French oak barrels at Vineyard 29. Last year’s harvest produced only enough for 225 cases that were augmented from the Van Buren Vineyard in north St. Helena, whose fruit is shared with Melka. With this crush, the 34-year-old Mawson -- who works with Woodbridge here and in Australia’s Barossa Valley -- hopes to make about 1,000 cases, with the aid of additional grapes from a vineyard in the Stags Leap District. There are also plans to purchase another vineyard.

The ’04 will most likely be released in ‘07. But at this juncture, no label or package has been contemplated for this nascent wine brand. A price hasn’t even been set.

That’s because Winter insists that thus far, he doesn’t yet consider what he’s doing, a business.

“It’s not money-driven … I don’t really have a plan. It’s not yet a business. I’m starting a brand and I’m spending money and I’m spending a lot,” he explains. “It’s to do something right in the right way and to make a great wine.”

When he’s told that the latter seems to be the goal of everyone else who has come before him who have tried to make a wine in this heady climate, he says his motivation derives from “relying on your gut instinct and your heart.”

“And, I turn myself loose to other people who have more knowledge than I have; and I trust them … It’s an uncalculated field. I build to the highest end possible, and we’ll do the same thing with the wine.”

“It’s not about a bottom line or about a business. The business will happen later, after we make good wine.”

The idea for producing a wine brand germinated he explains, eight or nine years ago and “I started the commitment six years ago. That takes a lot of heart. It’s like a relationship with your wife or your children. You start something and don’t back off of it.”

“My commitment is a lot stronger (now) and it’s grown and Helen is anxious to get it in the bottle. It’s like waiting for a baby.”

Suddenly, with Mawson looking on, Winter admits to her that he once had taken wine classes at Napa Valley College.

“I didn’t let on to Helen. I’d like her to think I know less than I know,” he says with an impish laugh. But he acknowledges, “She is very talented and works very hard, enough so that I know I’ll stick with building.”

That’s because he admits, this business of wine made him “realize there was so much to it.”

But he concludes, “there’s something beautiful about creating a tangible item out of nothing.”

Sort of like building a house from the foundation up.


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