Amidst the myriad of wines being swirled in the Napa Valley today, the legacy of Joe and Alice Heitz continues to stand out.
With their independent spirit and boundless energy, they were a great match for each other and a primary force in the renaissance of winemaking in this country. The two discovered their passion for wine in the 1940s when Joe's part-time job as a cellarman trumped his plan to become a veterinarian.
After earning a master's degree in enology from UC Davis, Joe practiced the basics of winemaking in a series of wineries near Fresno and Lodi. In 1951, the couple moved to the Napa Valley where Joe became the right-hand man for revered winemaker André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard. A second chapter in Fresno followed, but this time Joe had a much more significant role when he launched the Department of Enology at Fresno State College.
In 1961, Joe and Alice finally purchased their first vineyard, 8 acres just south of St. Helena. Working out of the small winery attached to the parcel, they put in round-the-clock sweat equity to build their business.
Heitz Wine Cellars rapidly established a reputation as home base for one of the Napa Valley's most innovative and brilliant winemakers, and the unassuming winery soon became a prestigious destination for wine connoisseurs.
In 1964, the Heitz family acquired a 160-acre vineyard property in Spring Valley, a small fold in the eastern hills of St. Helena. Joe sharpened his focus on Cabernet, and the following year, he and Alice made a serendipitous connection with Tom and Martha May who owned a young vineyard in Oakville.
After a handshake deal firm enough to last decades and a single harvest of the May's remarkable Cabernet grapes, Joe and Tom agreed to reserve the fruit from the next harvest for a singular production. In 1966, Joe crafted the first Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon --- a wine so remarkable that the two families decided to add a vineyard designation to the Heitz Cellars' label, initiating that concept in the Napa Valley.
Joe's winemaking genius was clearly in the bottle, and the acclaim for Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which has continued for over 48 years, helped to usher California wines onto the world stage.
In 1989, the inaugural offering of Trailside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a bold and opulent wine from the distinguished Rutherford appellation, added further luster to the Heitz family's winemaking reputation. By this time, their portfolio of wines included not only their signature Cabernets, but also Chardonnay, Zinfandel and their inherited specialty, Grignolino.
Although world-renowned figures were among those who savored Heitz wines over the years, Joe and Alice did not succumb to the limelight. They preferred to run an unpretentious family business even though they both enjoyed their winemaking journey immensely.
Their indelible contribution to the history of winemaking in the Napa Valley resulted in a treasure-trove of wonderful friendships and worldwide recognition. One of many highlights was their invitation to an extraordinary 1997 gathering in France hosted by Champagne Louis Roederer to honor Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon as one of "The World's Thirty Greatest Wines."
Joe Heitz lived with spirit and passion, savoring every year as a Napa Valley winemaker to the fullest extent. Along with Alice, Joe also derived great pleasure in the successful transition of Heitz Wine Cellars to the second generation before his death in December 2000.
Today, Alice Heitz continues to lend support at the winery with her keen palate and quick wit.