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Heitz Cellar's Martha's Vineyard Cabernet: A California Icon
By Ed McCarthy
Apr 26, 2016
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The term “Icon” is badly over-used nowadays--in the wine world and elsewhere. But the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that Heitz Wine Cellars makes from “Martha’s Vineyard” truly is iconic because it was recognized from the beginning, in 1966, and continues, 50 years later, to be one of the very few outstanding California red wines every year.  Other wines come into fashion for a while, but their reputation slowly fades with time.  Yet, who can deny that Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon still stands out as one of the superb wines produced in California?  I certainly can’t, after tasting six vintages of the wine going back to 1978, and remembering how I was struck by its greatness from its earliest vintages in the late1960s and 1970s.

The story of Martha’s Vineyard is a remarkable one. Tom May, a teacher in Santa Barbara, and his wife Martha, from a family of farmers, moved up to Napa Valley in 1963 with the idea of buying a vineyard and planting grapes.  Their timing was excellent because this was a few years before Napa Valley started to gain its reputation for winegrowing.  The Mays bought 12 acres of a vineyard from Doctor Barney Rhodes and his wife, Bella (the Rhodes later became renowned as one of the earliest owners of excellent vineyard sites in Napa Valley).  The Rhodes family had planted vines in this 12-acre vineyard in 1960, but had not produced, or at least sold, any wine from the vineyard.  Fortunately for Tom and Martha May, the vineyard proved to be perfectly suited for growing Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Mays had absolutely no idea how great the vineyard would be.  Tom talked his wife into naming this special vineyard after her, “Martha’s Vineyard” (no connection to the island of the same name off the coast of Massachusetts).

Martha’s Vineyard is located on a now-famous stretch of land called the Rutherford Bench in western Napa Valley (west of Route 29) in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, just south of the town of Oakville.  The vineyard gets the morning sun, not the afternoon sun, which keeps it cooler than its neighbors to the east.  Nights are cool, and yields are kept low.  The berries are small and deep purple in color.  They are very concentrated in flavor with naturally high acidity. Eucalyptus trees grow around the vineyard; they might or might not
contribute to the minty flavor often found in the wine.  These grapes yield complex, intensely flavored wines that have spicy, minty overtones.  Martha’s Vineyard Cabernets have achieved a reputation for their longevity; the 1968, its most renowned vintage and the one that secured Martha’s Vineyard’s reputation, still remains at its peak.  Unfortunately, I have not tasted it in many years, but some wines you never forget; the 1968 Martha’s is one of them.

The other lucky people in this story of Martha’s Vineyard are the Heitz family.  Joe Heitz, an early graduate of the U.C. Davis wine program, worked as an assistant winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard for almost ten years in the 1950s, under legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff.  Beaulieu had already realized its own iconic reputation as the first winery to produce incredible Cabernet Sauvignons beginning with its 1936 Georges de Latour Reserve.  (BV today is not as great as it once was, but had a remarkable run of great Cabernet Sauvignons from 1951 to 1974).

In 1961 Joe and Alice Heitz bought a small vineyard planted with Grignolino grapes; interestingly, Heitz Wine Cellars still produces Grignolino wines, red and rosé, regarded as the best wines from this variety in California. 

In 1965, when the Mays moved to Napa Valley, they found two bottles of Heitz wines waiting for them with a note welcoming them.  Shortly after, the Mays    visited the Heitz Winery, and sold Joe Heitz some of its wine from the ’65 vintage.  Joe Heitz blended the wine with his own ’65 Cabernets, but realized the Mays’ wine was something special. In 1966 Joe Heitz made a deal with the Mays, agreeing to buy all of their grapes.  The deal was sealed with a handshake; that’s the way they did things then.  The 1966 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was excellent, and it made history in Napa Valley.  Martha’s Vineyard became the first single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley.  (The honor of making the first single-vineyard wine in California goes to Ridge Vineyards, by one year, as Ridge released its first Monte Bello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon in 1965.  Now, of course, many California wineries make a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.)

To this day, Heitz Wine Cellars still buys all of Martha’s Vineyards’ grapes.  The vineyards were enlarged in 1968 and 1969 when the Mays purchased 28 acres adjoining the original site.  The Mays family today uses 31 acres to grow grapes.  Martha’s Vineyard has always been organically farmed, and has been certified organic, although Heitz has chosen not to use the term on its labels.  Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons are 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Heitz Cellar “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, established in 1966, and the 55th Anniversary of Heitz Wine Cellars, founded in 1961, Heitz Wine Cellars recently had a wine dinner in New York’s Blue Hill restaurant, which featured six Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons. Here is a brief description of the wines:

2010 Martha’s Vineyard:  This is the current release; no 2011was made.  The 2010 is really aromatic, with floral and herb notes.  It is smooth and supple on the palate, with very good depth, and an enduring finish.  It needs time to develop fully.  Right now, I rate the 2010 92 to 93, with a strong possibility of its improving with time.

2009 Martha’s Vineyard:  A very different wine than the 2010 Martha’s in that it is riper, more velvety, and lush, with softer tannins, and is very dark-colored.  Its aroma is earthy, with great harmony on the palate.  More immediately pleasing; several tasters preferred it to the 2010, but I preferred the latter.  I rated the 2009 91, but I am sure it will be even better in a few years.

The 2010 and 2009 are currently available in many stores, with a suggested retail price of $225, but with an average retail price of about $215.  The older vintages below are available at a few stores around the country.

2007 Martha’s Vineyard:  The 2007, with nine years of age, was magnificent, showing us what this wine can do when aged.  It is concentrated, lean--so unlike many California Cabs--deep and dark in color, with some minty flavors. It is perfectly balanced now, with the sweetness of ripe fruit, and very harmonious.  A real beauty now, but it should age for a long time.  95

1997 Martha’s Vineyard:  Just when I thought the 2007 would be hard to beat, the 1997 was even better.  Its aromas of mint and spice took my breath away. It is very dark and concentrated, rich, and with great length on the palate.  The 1997 is still youthful; it will outlive many of us.  It is living proof of the greatness of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons.  97

1987 Martha’s Vineyard:  The 1987 Martha’s is rich and structured with high tones of mint.  Its tannins seem to overwhelm the fruit.  For me, this is a good, but not great Martha’s Vineyard. It is in big company in this group.  90

1978 Martha’s Vineyard:  A very good vintage in Napa Valley, and Martha’s Vineyard comes through with one of its best Cabernet Sauvignons.  It is lean and firm, concentrated, but with a delicacy, and enormous length.  No signs of aging.  An inspiring wine, one I would like to drink again.  98

Are there any better Martha’s Vineyard wines?  Probably the following: 1974, 1970, 1969, and 1968.  The 1974 and 1968 have been rated 100 point wines, with the 1969 and 1970 not far behind.  Joe Heitz is reputed to have favored the 1969 Martha’s to the 1968.  The few wine critics fortunate enough to taste these wines have referred to the1968 Martha’s Vineyard as one of the greatest wines ever produced in California.

David Heitz, Joe’s son, joined his father in the mid-1970s as co-winemaker, and officially became chief winemaker in the early 1990s.  Joe’s daughter, Kathleen Heitz Myers, is President ad CEO of Heitz Wine Cellars.  David Heitz’s son, Harrison, takes care of Business and Marketing. 

Joe Heitz suffered a debilitating stroke in 1996 and passed away in 2000 at the age of 81.

David Heitz is assisted in winemaking by Brittany Sherwood, enologist and Associate Winemaker.

The current generation of the May family, Laura May Everett and Richard May, are now running Martha’s Vineyard.  According to Laura, regarding, Martha’s Vineyard, “We’re here for the duration.”  Good news for Heitz Martha’s Vineyard fans.