When you’ve been making wine for more than 60 years, that’s not such a big deal in Italy, France or several other European countries, but when you’re dealing with Napa Valley, six decades is a substantial period of time. Heitz Cellar, founded by Joseph Heitz in 1961, is among the most celebrated of all producers in Napa Valley history, with their Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, being among the most legendary wines ever made in this region.
Martha’s Vineyard is still bottled today, but other than that, there aren’t too many things here that remain the same after all these years. The Heitz family, led by his son David and his daughter Kathleen, added a few new wines, and managed the estate for the past few decades, maintaining its role as a leader of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. But as has frequently happened with local family wineries over the last several years, an interested party purchased the winery. That individual is Gaylon Lawrence, Jr., a businessman who owns farmland in several states; he also owns several banks and is involved in other businesses as well. The sale took place in 2018 and includes several hundred acres of vineyards.
Along with new ownership, new philosophies are currently taking hold at Heitz Cellar; the most important change focuses on a distinctive type of hospitality. There are many Napa wineries that have tasting rooms that let visitors taste a range of wines, sometimes at the front desk, or sometimes in a private room, where reserve wines are part of a special lineup that give consumers a glimpse of the best the valley has to offer; all of this for a specific price.
Recently at Heitz, a stunning looking tasting salon was opened in a new structure a few miles away from the old stone cellar that houses the winery cellars. It is at this new salon that the winery has organized one of the most innovative hospitality programs in all of Napa Valley or anywhere in the world, for that matter.
I recently spoke with Estate Director Erik Elliot as well as Chloe Tyler, Director of Membership & Guest Experience, about the new direction Heitz Cellar is taking with welcoming guests from around the world to the winery. Elliott, who learned a great deal about hospitality during his six-year tenure working at The Little Nell, a famed luxury hotel in Aspen, Colorado, was excited to take on this challenge at Heitz, especially as he knew and respected Lawrence, whom he met at the hotel. “It was this unique combination of being able to learn new skills, and working with someone I believed in who had a different vision and gain a better understanding of arguably the most important New World wine region, which is Napa Valley.”
The focal point of hospitality at Heitz is the tasting salon, which Elliott describes as “pretty small, maximum capacity is about 90 guests. The best way to describe it would almost be like a Michelin star in terms of its aesthetic, its attention to detail and hospitality, but really, very welcoming. I think you sometimes visit these high-end resorts or Michelin-starred restaurants, and there’s a stuffy nature to them, where you don’t feel you can let loose and be yourself.”
As Tyler comments, “there’s an intimacy about the space. I think the way that it’s been designed and reimagined, with all these nooks and crannies you get to explore as a guest walking through and there’s this sense of reveal.” She notes that when you enter and turn a corner, someone greets you with a cold glass of the winery’s Quartz Creek Chardonnay; “you’re welcomed by name, and then you’re seated in our Quartz Creek garden.”
Remarking that 80% of the seating is outside (clearly taking advantage of Napa’s typically beautiful weather), Tyler says “it’s a really intimate special experience; it’s not like anything else we experienced before in Napa Valley.”
While the basic tasting experience highlights a specific vintage – currently the 2016 vintage of the various Heitz Cabernet Sauvignons – there is a special package called Vineyard to Bottle. Elliot explains that guests that sign up for this are driven to some of the vineyards in Napa – both valley floor and mountain site – to get a look and feel of the sights and smells of northern Napa Valley. The guests are then driven back to the tasting salon to taste the wines from these vineyards, and learn about the winemaking approach at the winery. This lasts from three to four hours, and is clearly one of the most special encounters any visitor to Napa Valley will ever enjoy.
The bottom line of course, is for Elliott, Tyler and their team to educate consumers about the traditions and history of Heitz Cellar, and to sell more wine. “We want to capture the imagination of that younger consumer, remarks Tyler. “Why they should buy Heitz is that we have a 60-year history and tradition, a legacy of incredible wines and we’re building on that.”
For Elliott, much of his work is about bridging the gap between older customers and newer ones. “We’re fortunate to have so much support from an older demographic, but we know that we need millennials and younger people to drink wine to shepherd us into the future. I think a big part of what we are looking for now are unique experiences. So many people my age (Elliott is 32) and millennials don’t own homes and don’t have the ability to collect wines the same way people did 20 or 30 years ago. We have a saying that ‘older generations buy cases, while younger people buy bottles.’ They don’t even have cellars anymore, as they’re buying wine to consume.
“So I think that experiences are a huge driver for that, which is offering unique things. We also spend so much time bringing in great hospitality professionals and people that can connect with different guests … We talk about why we use certain toast levels (for their oak barrels); transitioning from organic farming to biodynamics. As of 2021, probably 80% of our vineyards are biodynamic. I think that’s a really big driver for people nowadays, as they’re paying more attention to what they’re putting in their bodies and they used to.”
For more information about a visit to Heitz Cellar, go to their website.