Posts From October 2007
image courtsey Quintessa

October 24, 2007

A veteran wine maker who bears watching

By Holly Hubbard Preston
Friday, October 19, 2007

OAKVILLE, California: 'The life of a vintner is probably the most personally life-consuming of all businesses that I know of," said Agustin Huneeus, settling into an upholstered armchair in the high-ceilinged living room of his Napa Valley home. "Your person has to be out there."

That may go a long way to explaining why after nearly five decades, Huneeus, 73, is still in the game. The Chilean native has turned around troubled wineries in Chile (Concha y Toro) and California (Franciscan Vineyards, now owned by Constellation Brands) and restructured the multibillion-dollar wine division of Seagram.

Today, he and his wife of 44 years, Valeria, a viticulturist with a doctoral degree in biochemistry, own Huneeus Vintners, which owns the well-regarded Veramonte vineyards in Chile and Quintessa Estate in the Napa Valley.

The couple and their son, Agustin Francisco, actively manage both wineries, dividing their time between Chile and Napa. Veramonte, a winery created in 1990 with its flagship label Primus, pushed Chile's Casablanca Valley into the limelight, while Quintessa, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, has secured a place among the Napa Valley's top estate wines.

Those who know wine, and Huneeus's career, say that his moves bear watching. Huneeus is a "quiet kind of planner," said Karen MacNeil, author of "Wine Bible" and an authority on all things grape. "He combines phenomenal business acumen with an almost intuitive sense of where the wine industry is headed."

"Agustin Huneeus is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the wine business," said Chris Fehrnstrom, president of Icon Estates in Napa, formerly known as Franciscan Estates until it was purchased by Icon's parent, Constellation. His "intuition and intellectual curiosity results in his ability to 'see' opportunities where others don't."

The son of a Chilean fishing industry magnate, Huneeus entered the wine business in 1960 at the age of 23 by purchasing a majority stake in Concha y Toro, which was founded by one of his ancestors in 1883. The move was intended as a short-term investment: Huneeus, as acting managing director, planned to liquidate the winery and hold onto its land. But the more he studied the winery, the more excited he became by its export prospects throughout the Americas.

Over the next 11 years, Huneeus transformed the winery from a jug wine producer into an export label, complete with foil-sealed corks and European-style glass bottles.

When Huneeus gave up the winery in 1971, it was not for profit but politics: Salvador Allende, a Socialist, had been elected president of Chile. Huneeus handed the winery over to the state and left for a job in Argentina working for Seagram, taking his young family with him.

"At that time, we thought maybe socialism was a way to give these people a better life," he said.

Seagram quickly tapped Huneeus to lead its global wine division, a sprawling fiefdom of 16 wineries spread across eight counties. After creating the first consolidated balance sheet for the division, he discovered it was losing money.

"It was a time when the corporate strategy among beverage companies was to buy whatever it could," he said. "The digestion part was not being done adequately."

Huneeus stayed at Seagram for six years, during which time the wine division became profitable.

Perhaps because of his dual background in private wineries and big beverage companies, Huneeus is circumspect on the subject of corporate ownership of wineries, a hot topic in world wine making centers.

"The instincts of the corporation run counter to wine industry," Huneeus said. "The corporation wants to have brands and market share and control of the distribution channel, and the wine industry does not inherently operate that way."

He believes that modern beverage corporations understand the importance of personal history and local flavor in wine making, which is why, he said, they are now making greater efforts to give autonomy to their individual wine holdings.

As for his own business, Huneeus wants his son to take over and grow it as he sees fit. His own preference, though, is clear.

"The corporate way," he said, "is not how I want to go."

Editor’s Note: For additional information contact Pam Hunter- 707-258-1699 x 15 or
[Posted: 10/22/2007]

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October 4, 2007

Meyer, Wattle to lead Yorkville Highlands appellation into second decade

YORKVILLE HIGHLANDS, CALIF. – The Yorkville Highlands Growers and Vintners Association in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley has named Matt Meyer of Meyer Family Cellars and Kristine Williams of Wattle Creek Winery to its two top leadership posts (

The nearly ten-year-old Yorkville Highlands appellation has earned a growing reputation for outstanding cool-weather wines that mingle “old world” balance and acidity and “new world” ripeness and forward fruit.   With some of the coldest evening temperatures along the North Coast and thin, gravelly soils, the Yorkville Highlands district covers approximately 40,000 acres in southern Mendocino County.

Most of its 400 acres of vineyards are planted on a continuous string of bench land where hot, sunny days are tempered by the cooling afternoon fog drawn in from the Mendocino coast at the northwest end of the Anderson Valley.

“The first year we fermented we had a refrigerant system, like any good
North coast vintner would. It turned out we only used it once that year, and instead had trouble keeping the must warm during the surprisingly cool nights,” Meyer recalled.

Meyer Family Cellars and Wattle Creek Winery both specialize in cool-climate syrah, mostly grown at elevations from 900 to 2,200 feet on both sides of Highway 128 northwest of the Alexander Valley.

“When I visit our seven growers in the same day, I climb over 2000 feet three times, drop below 800 four times, put on my jacket a least twice, and spend most of my time on dirt roads,” Meyer said.

 “We think the potential is that we can make this exceptional syrah in Yorkville Highlands,” Meyer continued. “As the afternoon heat arrives, so does the coastal breeze, cooling the vines into the evening.”

Wine writer Thom Elkjer has called Yorkville Highlands “a grownup appellation which exhibits a clear and coherent regional signature in its wines irrespective of grape or producer.” (  

The Australian connection
The Growers and Vintners Association was founded to promote grapes and wines from the district formally recognized as an American Viticultural Area in 1998. The group numbers more than two dozen commercial vineyards, family wineries and olive groves among its members.

Meyer and Williams were named president and vice-president – Williams for her second three-year term – in September.

Both family-run wineries, Meyer Family Cellars and Wattle Creek Winery share another trait in common: Williams, her husband Chris and Meyer’s wife Karen are all Australians whose passion for winemaking – especially syrah – led them to settle in the hills of southern Mendocino County in the 1990s.

It was in Australia that Matt Meyer, too, discovered the delights of shiraz, as syrah is known Down Under. When Matt and his father, famed Napa Valley vintner Justin Meyer of Silver Oak Cellars, founded their Yorkville Highlands winery in the late 1990s, they determined that the district’s cool night air and sunny elevations made it the perfect spot to grow the kind of syrah Matt likes best:

“Slightly lower alcohol, a little more acid – I tend to like the blueberry-violet-spicy syrahs,” he said.

Kristine and Chris Williams had already come to a similar conclusion, planting their vines in 1997.

“We were looking for a cooler climate,” said Kristine Williams, who began making syrah in the Alexander Valley before moving north to Yorkville Highlands. “We wanted a different-tasting fruit for what we envisioned for our wine, and we’ve been thrilled with it.”

The Willams and Meyer families led the way: By 2006, syrah – which nobody was growing in Yorkville Highlands ten years earlier – accounted for 17 percent of the district’s production, second only to cabernet sauvignon (20 percent).

“It went from not existing to being the second most-planted vine,” Meyer said.

Meyer and Willams, along with their families, believe that as the Yorkville Highlands appellation enters its second decade, the district has the potential to produce extraordinary reds that will place it squarely on the world map of wine.

“We love our sauvignon blanc, and our chardonnay has a real minerality,” Williams said. “But the pinots and cool-climate shirazes are going to be phenomenal.”

Meyer Family Cellars is open to the public for tasting, picnics and bocce at 19750 Highway 128 in Yorkville Highlands; call 707-895-2341 for current hours. ###

Map to Meyer Family Cellars winery

Images of Meyer Family Cellars

PDF fact sheet of Yorkville Highlands

Editor’s Note: For additional information contact Pam Hunter- 707-258-1699 x 15 or

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Vehicle for expression: "Art car" takes shape in Napa

The collaborative work of Oxbow art students and car artist David Best in its finished state.
Photo by Jorgen Gulliksen/Register Photo

Vehicle for expression : Burning Man sculptor helps Oxbow students' "art car" take shape

Register Correspondent
Wednesday, October 03, 2007

On the normally serene south bank of the Napa River Oxbow, a startling transformation has taken place.

What was once an autobahn-worthy Audi A4, the object of envious glances from fans of German engineering, has been reborn as an eye-popping “art car,” with its next destination likely to be a museum, gallery or private collection.

Over the past 10 days, the Audi’s original form has gradually disappeared under a thick covering of thousands of found and recycled objects, from tiny beads to seashells, rocks to parts from other cars, all painstakingly applied by teenaged Oxbow School students under the direction of artist-in-residence David Best.

“Do you like it?” Best asks a visitor.

It’s a disarmingly simple question, given the jaw-dropping spectacle parked at the west end of the Oxbow campus:

The Audi’s side mirrors now sport plated butter-dishes and glass fruit. Dashboard and steering wheel are lined with fur. The trunk has become a luridly-lit Inferno, complete with tiny sufferers; swirls of colorful Mardi Gras beads enliven the rear end where, grinning, a Buddha raises his arms in jubilation.

The car’s evolution from assembly-line product to elaborately detailed artwork recalls Ariel’s song from “The Tempest:” “Of his bones are Corrall made: Those are pearles that were his eies, Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a Sea-change Into something rich & strange.”

Like Shakespeare’s drowned mariner, the motorcar has gradually become a glittering sculpture: rich in materials, strange to see.

“We’re trying to make it unrecognizable, so you can’t tell it’s an Audi,” said 16-year-old Casey Gollan, an Oxbow student from Rye, N.Y., as he worked on the car last Wednesday.

Even then, with a week to go, it would have taken a shrewd eye to detect the auto’s original make; today, the sea change is complete.

Burning Man to Oxbow
A Petaluma-based artist, born in 1945 and widely known for his filigreed plywood “temples” set aflame at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, Best has created dozens of sculptures from cars and buses, using a profusion of recycled and found materials.

Two of his reinvented automobiles are in the collection at Napa’s di Rosa Preserve, most prominently the imposing “Rhinocar,” in the Gatehouse Gallery.

In the process — necessarily collaborative, with the sheer volume of work required — of transforming each vehicle inside and out, he’s engaged the help of more than 10,000 people.

Best’s latest act of group alchemy involves the 40 high-school students currently attending Oxbow’s semester-long residential program in fine arts.

The deeply-tanned, white-bearded sculptor kicked off his 10-day stay on campus with a public lecture at Copia Sept. 24, delighting the audience with his anything-but-stuffy presentation.

“The slides were the best part, because there was food and hair and dust all over them,” said Oxbow student Audrey Snyder, 16, of Tiburon.

It’s “part of his philosophy,” added classmate Gollan. “I guess he likes the spontaneity … of not having it be a perfect Powerpoint.”

The slides and narrative gave Oxbow students — many of whom had never heard of Best before enrolling, or only knew his recycled-plywood temples — an appreciation for the veteran sculptor they’d be working with over the next 10 days.

“I’ve never (before) met an actual, practicing artist,” Snyder said. “It was really cool to see what he was doing and to see the enormous body of work that he has, because it’s really impressive and really big.”

Bottles to sculptures
Before tackling the Audi last week, Best had his students start small, applying found objects and natural materials to wine bottles with adhesives and techniques they’d be using on the car.

Outside the Oxbow studios, the parked A4 was surrounded by tables, bins and boxes containing the stuff of its transfiguration:

Buckets filled with Mardi Gras beads, with chipped-glass finials, with cabinet handles and drawer pulls, with seashells. Bins of chopsticks, game pieces, marbles, plastic icicles, real starfish.

A box of colored balls; a litter of fiberglass auto-body parts; a heap of tiny plastic swans: These hardly begin the list of items that made their way onto the Audi as the bins and buckets gradually emptied and beads increasingly littered the ground.

Best is a devoted recycler, a frequent visitor to his local dump who believes that the fundamental impulse to create can make use of any material at hand — including pebbles from the Oxbow grounds.

He’s also apt to share his philosophy through parables:

“If we were all stripped of all our possessions … if this was our whole society, someone here would make shelter,” he said to the Wednesday afternoon Oxbow class as they worked on the car.

“Someone would be the historian, the chronicler, and write our stuff. Someone would create the mythology, or our religion, or develop us into a church,” he went on.

“Somebody would do food, someone would make art.

“Just like we need food and shelter and religion and literature, we need art,” Best continued. “If we didn’t have any materials we’d … go dig up the mud.

“It’s not about limitations, it’s about ‘I want to make stuff.’”

Funding more visits
This won’t be the students’ only opportunity this term to work with renowned sculptors: Artists-in-residence Deborah Butterfield and John Buck arrive Oct. 29 for a 10-day stay, and Oxbow director Stephen Thomas said Butterfield has already requested materials for a group project.

For now, the art-car endeavor has captured the imagination of Oxbow students like 16-year-old Julia Glennon of San Francisco:

“I’ve pretty much been glued to the car since we started it,” Glennon said Sunday afternoon, as she labored to attach tiny green beads to a passenger door with sticky black adhesive.

“The car takes on its own personality,” Glennon continued. “You can put into it what you want to put into it, but it still becomes what it’s going to be.”

Best’s Oxbow stay is part of the school’s visiting-artist series, which includes residencies and a series of free public lectures at Copia (the next, by Napa artist Lewis deSoto, is Oct. 8 at 7 p.m.).

When Best leaves Napa this week, the car will remain for up to a year, during which Oxbow School has leave to sell it to a museum, gallery or private collection at market price. The proceeds will fund future lectures from visiting artists, Best said.

If no legitimate purchaser is found within 12 months, the auto will go to its sculptor so that he can make sure it’s properly stored.

Best usually gives his art cars simple, serial names — this one he’s calling “D.C. 38,” or “Decorated Car 38.”

But it’s likely to be known best as Oxbow Car (Oxcar for short, suggested Glennon), in honor of its birthplace – and of the 40 fledgling artists who took such an active part in its creation on the Oxbow riverbank.

Oxbow School is taking applications from high-school students through the end of this year for its spring semester, which begins Jan. 23. For more information, contact the school at 255-6000 or visit

Editor’s Note: For additional information contact Pam Hunter- 707-258-1699 x 15 or

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October 3, 2007

How many people does it take to crush a grape?

Not every cluster of grapes is as perfect as the ones you buy at the market.

A dozen people stand on Quintessa’s crush pad at dawn during harvest to usher every single grape through the winery roof, into the gravity-fed tanks below.
Grape-filled bins arrive from the surrounding estate vineyards and Hugo, the crush foreman and Quintessa's longest employee with 17 years, drives the fork lift and dumps the quarter-ton bins onto the first sorting table.

Just after they're picked from Quintessa vineyards, the grapes make their way to the cluster sorting table, any imperfect clusters are removed.

Every bin of grapes harvested at Quintessa goes through a rigourous sorting process.After the grapes clusters are sorted, they go through the destemmer to remove the stems.

Eleven others stand around the two conveyor tables which move slowly as they hand sort individual clusters and grape berries not once, but twice, removing unripened or overripened grapes and any stems that remain on the belt.
After all that love, those grapes get a light squeeze as they pass through the roller crusher through the winery roof and into the oak or steel fermentation tanks below.

Next, the grapes are ushered to the shaker table, a vibrating table that lets tiny unripened or
shriveled berries drop away. Hand sorting continues to remove any remaining shot or dehydrated
berries and stem bits.

Finally, after no fewer than a dozen hands have touched them, the grapes fo through th roof, fed by
gravity, to the fermentation tanks inside the winery.

Where is the best place to get up-close and personal with the Napa Valley grape harvest? It’s at Quintessa, where every morning and some early afternoon tours see the action on every by-appointment only tour.  

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0
The Winery at Quintessa      

In 2002, Valeria and Agustin Huneeus' dream of the Quintessential Wine Estate, one vineyard that produces one singular estate wine, was realized with the opening of the winery at Quintessa. Walker Warner Architects of San Francisco designed the winery to reflect Agustin and Valeria Huneeus' desire for an inconspicuous structure that would blend into the contours of the property. The graceful crescent-shaped design was carefully considered for its environmental sensitivity and fits snugly into an eastern-facing hillside, disrupting little in the way of the aesthetics or natural beauty of the property. A facade of indigenous stone and natural landscaping of native plants and oak trees creates a subtle presence amidst the diverse terrain.

Winemaking Facilities 

Quintessa is truly a "winemaker's winery." The design facilitates a gravity-flow process and a state-of-the-art winery specifically tailored with fermenters and tanks sized to match the diverse blocks in the Quintessa vineyard. Additionally, the winery at Quintessa is outfitted with the latest in winemaking technology. French oak and stainless steel fermenters stand tall along the winery's front wall, providing the winemaking team with a choice of characteristics adding complexity and subtlety to the blend. Two Vaslin-Bucher JLB automated basket presses, designed to retain the benefits of gentle basket pressing while incorporating new efficiency and precision, are situated at the center of the tank room to receive the grape must following fermentation and maceration. At the heart of the winery and overlooking the tanks and presses below, sits the glass-enclosed blending room and adjoining modern lab where the winemaking progress is painstakingly monitored daily.

Behind the press hall lies the main entrance to Quintessa's caves, 1,200 linear feet (17,000 square feet) of caves and tunnels carved into the volcanic ash hillside directly behind the winery. Here the wine is left to age in French oak barrels in ideal cellaring conditions for 16-20 months before bottling. Quintessa's caves can be entered through one of four porticos from the winery and have a capacity to store up to 3000 barrels.

Address: 1601 Silverado Trail, Rutherford, CA 94574
  P.O. Box 505, Rutherford, CA 94573
Telephone: 707-967-1601
Tasting appointment: Visitors are welcome by appointment only. Tasting fee is $35 a person. Tours are offered at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m.
Architecture: Walker and Warner Architects
Proprietors: Agustin and Valeria Huneeus
Acreage: 280 acres of which 170 acres are planted
Consulting Winemaker: Aaron Pott
Director of Vineyards and Winemaking: Charles Thomas
Viticulturist Michael Sipiora
Varietals planted: Classic Bordeaux grape varieties in 26 vineyard blocks as follows: Cabernet Sauvignon (129 acres), Merlot (26 acres), Cabernet Franc (7 acres), Petit Verdot (4 acres), and Carmenere (4 acres)
Sales Inquiry: Jim Sweeney, Managing Director
Marketing Inquiry: Gwen McGill, Director of Marketing and Public Relations
Hospitality Inquiry: Lora McCarthy, Director of Hospitality

Editor’s Note: For additional information contact Pam Hunter- 707-258-1699 x 15 or

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