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California's New Stars

A Handful of Small Producers Are Creating Some of the Golden State's Greatest, and Most Elusive, Wines
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

(continued from page 2)

By the time Phillips purchased her own acreage in 1986, she had created a niche as Napa's premier listing agent for vineyards. The daughter of a Florida real estate broker who vowed she wouldn't end up in real estate, she had traveled a circuitous route there and back again. She worked as a dressmaker, owned an antiques shop and learned to fly airplanes, then found her calling selling land. She developed such a feeling for those parcels of vineyards, she ultimately yearned to work one herself. "I'd sold so many, I had wine in my blood," she says.

The temptation is to perceive Phillips, 54, as a mere real estate broker who has, in effect, purchased the fame and respect her wines have received. In fact, although the esteemed Heidi Barrett, the wife of Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena and the daughter of former Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker Dick Peterson, is her winemaker, not a single task in the tiny winery takes place without Phillips supervising--and, in most cases, actually doing--the work. "I was down there this morning putting CO2 in the tanks and it was cold and my hands were like chipped ice," she says, hugging herself against the chill of the memory. "I was thinking, 'This is fun?' But it was beautiful in the valley, and I looked around at where I live and what I do and I said, 'Yes, this is fun. This is what I want.' "

At her winery's size--it produces an average of some 200 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine a year--she can do almost everything herself. After the harvest, when the grapes proceed by conveyer belt to the crusher, Phillips sorts them by hand. "I've touched every grape that goes into my wine," she says. "I've done it from day one. The wine doesn't move without me moving it. Ever."

The tangible reward for more manual labor than she'd ever possibly considered is a remarkably rich yet balanced wine that is sold in a wooden box for $100 a bottle. She could double the price and it wouldn't matter--"It wouldn't be a blip; it would be gone in a minute," she says--but like Colgin, she knows that the higher the value, the less chance that anyone is drinking the stuff. So when Phillips allots her wine to a few Napa-area restaurants, she stipulates that it must not only be sold there but appear on the wine list.

When the wine can fetch a lot of money, it feels even better to give it away. Phillips donates bottles of Screaming Eagle for charity auctions as small as Napa Valley school fund-raisers, where one bottle can provide seed money for a new library. She's now packaging a single bottle of her '92, '93 and '94 vintages, each worth at least $579 according to the latest auction results, and asking for bidders from her mailing list, including prospective buyers who've been on the waiting list for as long as four years without getting to taste a single bottle. The money will pay for schooling for the children of a family of farm workers who live on her property and help with the field work.

Uncorking a bottle of the 1992, Phillips's face beams with expectation. One sip, and it is evident why. This is not a standard-issue California Cabernet, almost too mathematically perfect to be interesting, but every true winemaker's ideal: a wine from somewhere. Rich and intense, with cascades of red fruit, it is undoubtedly a California wine, but a special one, a specific one. Will it age as long as a great Bordeaux? There may not be enough left to ever know. Though its nose remains muted and almost half an hour in the glass is needed for it to fully open, the wine is irresistible right now.

"Every time I drink this wine," she says of the '92, "I pray I'll never run out. It will be gone someday, but the memories I will always have." She lifts a glass to eye level and gazes into the deep garnet color of the wine. "Not many dreams come true like this," she says, then takes a drink.

Ten years ago, Phillips met Bart Araujo, a Harvard Business School graduate who had arrived in Napa looking to buy property. He had sold his home-building company in 1988, when he was 44, and after staying on to run it for four more years, found himself at a turning point. "I was 48, and too young to retire," he recalls. "I was a wine fan, though not a wine geek. But Napa seemed like a good idea."

In 1990, Araujo and his wife, Daphne, purchased a vineyard and property through Phillips with the idea of growing grapes and selling them in bulk. At the same time, he mentioned to her that he was distressed by the number of northern California's best-known vineyard properties that were being bought by corporations. He would love to bid against them, he said, if the opportunity ever arose. Two months later, when the Eisele Vineyard--which since 1971 had been producing fruit for Joseph Phelps, Conn Creek or Ridge at one time or another--came up for sale, Araujo bought it and revised his plans.

Ultimately, he decided to create an estate-grown brand rather than sell the grapes, as was done there before. He built a compound of wood buildings with pea-green corrugated roofs to serve as a winery.

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