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On the Heitz of Delicious

The Grignolino grape lives on at Heitz Cellar

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GENERATIONS Harrison Heitz's grandfather, Joe, bottled the first Heitz Cellar wine over 40 years ago.
  • GENERATIONS Harrison Heitz's grandfather, Joe, bottled the first Heitz Cellar wine over 40 years ago.

Among the words that may be used to describe makers of Napa Valley luxury wine, "moral" is not the first to pop up in the mind. But that's how Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, characterized Heitz Cellar during a presentation of lesser- known Napa Valley wines.

Heitz's moral fortitude, as it were, is supplied by a little-known grape called Grignolino. Like most Napa Valley producers, Heitz is known best for Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly its Martha's Vineyard. The fruit of a handshake deal between Joe and Alice Heitz and the May family, Martha's was first made as a single-vineyard wine in 1966, and has been acclaimed as one of the top wines of the 20th century.

When Heitz Cellar was founded, in 1961, in what was basically a garage on Highway 29, the property came with eight acres of Grignolino that had been planted by one Leon Brendel. Called "the little strawberry" in Piedmont, Grignolino is enjoyed as an early-to-bottle table wine while the Nebbiolo ages.

Brendel's 1949 wine label includes a logo with an index finger pointing upward above the motto "Only One" —it's either curiously reminiscent of Dr. Bronner's "All-One," or a forerunner of the zany label trend of recent years. Throughout Napa Valley, oddballs like Brendel's Grignolino, no matter how delightful, have been replaced with popular varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Heitz 2012 Grignolino is exotically aromatic, expressing the sweetness of flowering vines, the foxiness of wild grapes, and bright berry flavors. It's both different and easy to like.

But is it moral?

"We don't really see it that way," says Harrison Heitz, a third-generation member of the family business. "It's something we enjoy drinking."

The rosé of Grignolino, Harrison says, was inspired by a particular demand: "My grandmother's edict was, 'It has to be ready by Easter!'"

The winery was relocated to the hills above the Silverado Trail in 1964. Opening the door to a pre-Prohibition stone cellar, Harrison shows off the hallowed place where Martha's sleeps—and does it with an unstudied lack of flourish, like someone pointing out his grandfather's tool shed.

The élevage program is unusual in this press-to-barrel era; Heitz stores new wine in old, upright wooden tanks for a year before transferring it to Limousin oak barrels. The current release is the 2009. Heitz keeps more than a decade of vintages in reserve, allowing buyers to enjoy an older wine like the 2005 Martha's, with its warming, soft and integrated palate and hint of dried mint tea, without worrying about how it will age in their own possibly suboptimal cellaring conditions—the back of a kitchen cabinet, for instance.

A vineyard occupies a gently sloping bowl behind the winery. The yellow-green leaves budding out on this first day of spring belong to Grignolino. Because conditions are better for Grignolino up here, says Heitz, cuttings were brought to the home ranch for replanting. They have treated it with great care indeed—even if Heitz won't admit to an obligation to preserve this varietal in California.

Cabernet is now planted beside Heitz's public tasting room, where there is still no fee charged. "Like in the golden age of Napa," says the tasting room host. "Walk up and taste it, buy if you like it."

Perhaps Heitz has taken a moral stand, after all.

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