In 1989, Tom Paine and Teresa Norton purchased a property on the west side of Highway 29 in St. Helena with plans to retire peacefully. As soon as they met the neighbors — Grace Family Vineyards — things changed course. The folks at Grace Family told Tom and Teresa, that they were on some pretty special soils, and suggested they plant some Cabernet Sauvignon. Unable to resist the wine bug, Tom and Teresa called up David Abreu to plant three acres with cuttings from Grace. This marked the birth of Vineyard 29. The first release came in 1992 to positive reviews. Gary Galleron was winemaker from 1992-1994, followed by Heidi Barrett, from 1995-1998, and then Philippe Melka, who has been at the helm since 1999.
As promising as the early wines were, it wasn’t until 2000, when the property was bought by former Intel exec and tech financier, Chuck McMinn and his wife, Anne, that it really began to shine. The McMinns expanded the vineyard, planting 1.25 acres of Cabernet Franc, and a half-acre of Sauvignon Blanc at the home estate, and purchased nearby Aida Estate Vineyards and Clare Luce Abbey Vineyard, coincidentally bringing the total to just about 29 acres. They also began construction of a state-of-the-art, high-tech winery that was completed in time for the 2002 harvest.
The philosophy behind the winery, and the approach to winemaking in general stems from Chuck’s experience in the tech world. He often mentions the lessons he learned early on from one of his mentors at Intel, who told him, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” In the winery, every step of the vinification process is quantified, examined, and methodically approached from a data-based perspective. Interestingly though, the bells and whistles are actually there to minimize the need for intervention in the winemaking process. It’s what I would call “high-tech low-tech” in its implementation. Gravity flow, severe selection, and extremely gentle handling of the grapes are key elements of the approach in the winery. In the vineyard, weather stations, water monitors and probes, deep in the soils and on the vines allow very precise applications when it comes to canopy management, water management, vine stress, and harvest decisions. In the end, it’s all geared towards obtaining grapes with perfect maturity in pristine condition.
Vineyard 29 produces two “Grand Vins,” both Cabernet Sauvignons, one from the 29 Estate Vineyard and the other from the Aida Estate Vineyard. Both bottlings are at the top of their genre — beautifully crafted, superb expressions of their individual sites. There is also an Estate Sauvignon Blanc from a tiny parcel above the winery, an Aida Estate Zinfandel, and a late harvest version of the Zin, of which only 50 or so cases are made each year.
After the Estate bottlings, the other half of 29’s production comes from its Cru program, an inventive arrangement between the winery and a few choice growers in the valley. Created in 2004, the program sources fruit from 14 small family vineyards on a long-term basis to allow 29 to produce less expensive, more approachable, but still high-quality Cabernet blends. As part of the arrangement, the 29 winemaking team makes a barrel or two of wine for the growers at their state-of-the-art facilities. Several participants, including Levenson and Knighton, have built on this arrangement to launch their own tiny production estate labels, (both made by Vineyard 29’s Keith Emerson), something that would never have been possible without the Cru program. The whole concept is a win-win-win arrangement, not only for the growers and Vineyard 29, but for the lucky customers who have access to one of Napa’s best buys in Cabernet, year in and year out.