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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Robert Craig's Affinity Vineyard

RC: (con'd) The real shift for me came when I began working in real estate.  With that, I ended up in an asset management company in San Francisco as a real estate specialist.  A colleague and I did a study on vineyards as a form of partnership investment.  We soon decided that that what we really wanted to do, so we quit our jobs and put together an investment group.  By 1978, we finalized the purchase of a 300 acre vineyard property up on Mount Veeder that was partially planted — it had about 20 acres of vines and was prepared for another 40 acres.  The group had owned the property for about three years when Donald Hess came to Napa on a visit from Switzerland.  He actually came to look at the water [in consideration of a bottling facility], but he ended up not liking the water at all.  On his way out the valley, though, he and his team stopped at a little restaurant for lunch and had some wine — and that he did like!  Donald discovered the Mount Veeder vineyard we were managing, and then purchased it.  He asked me to stay on as general manager.  For the next ten years, I worked intensively with mountain vineyards and learned a lot.

NM:  So you really began your wine career as a commercial grower selling grapes for Hess.

"Donald Hess came to Napa on a visit from Switzerland. He actually came to look at the water, but he ended up not liking the water at all."

RC:  Yes, from about 1978.  And then in 1982 we did a little bit of experimental winemaking — but nothing serious, less than a thousand cases.

ST:  {to RC} So, you took Hess from ground zero to 1990…

RC:  Those were the real beginning years of developing vineyards and starting a brand.  At the same time, we had all of the construction going on to build the winery.

NM:  What led you to leave Hess, after a decade, and go off on your own to start your own brand?

RC:  A couple things.  By that time, after doing something for ten years that I really poured myself into, I thought it would be really nice to have my own brand.  I also think that Hess was heading in a different direction.  He was just introducing his Select wines, and I wasn't sure I wanted to do that.  Plus, when I left there, I had a real stroke of good luck.  Someone was planting a vineyard up on Mount Veeder, and they had a sense it wasn't going quite right, they asked John Shafer to recommend somebody to complete the vineyard, and he recommended me.  The owner is a well-known entertainer who wasn't interested in going out and presenting wines.  He just wanted to have a place in Napa, and I think his interest in the vineyard was more to help pay for the property.  So, I established the [Pym Rae] vineyard in 1991.  It was kind of a handshake agreement: if I planted the vineyard, I'd be able to get the grapes.  And it's been a really good relationship; I got to be extremely good friends with the guy who manages the property — Brian Nuss.  He and his wife Lori have their small brand, Vinoce, and so we've been getting grapes from that same vineyard.  At the same time, I'd become really good friends with winemaker Dennis Johns of White Cottage Ranch on Howell Mountain.  When I started making wine, Dennis helped to sort out our wine style and introduced me to Howell Mountain fruit.

The Refinement of a Brand

NM:  Interestingly, it sounds like you were clear very early on about the wines that you wanted to make, as far as the vineyard locations and their appellations.

Robert Craig's Howell Mountain Vineyard

RC:  When we started our own brand in 1992, it was just a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at only about 300 cases.  We were still in the process of defining what we wanted to do, and so I'd made some experimental wines from different parts of the valley — that's how I ended up on Howell Mountain.  The program really came together about a year later, in the sense that we knew we were going to make both a Mount Veeder and a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.  Those two [appellations] were in our minds from the very beginning.  But then as we thought about an overall wine program, we figured that since those were mountain wines, we might also want to make a Bordeaux-style Cabernet from the foothills, which we could offer to good restaurants as an elegant, versatile wine: the Affinity Cabernet.




wine in the news

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