I first met Fritz Hatton in New York City when he was working for Christie’s in the mid-1990s. After five minutes I understood his success as an auctioneer. His outgoing personality, quick wit, and great sense of humor, delivered with just a tinge of Ivy League, old-boy demeanor, suits him well when he is hammering down lots of DRC for six figures. Tasting in the cellars is never dull as he takes you through the wines — humorous, entertaining, self deprecating — loving what he does and jumping into each story about the wines with his typical energy. He has created quite a successful brand with Arietta, crafting beautiful wines with a nod towards balance and finesse. And if all that wasn’t enough, he is quite an accomplished musician too, a true renaissance man.
In his role at Christie’s, and now as the principal auctioneer for Zachys, Fritz has been no stranger to some of the greatest wines in the world. In my experience, folks that have tasted the classics seem to truly embrace elegance and proportion, and there is no doubt that those elements are what Fritz is looking for in his wine. The “Haut-Brion Blanc” or “Cheval Blanc” of California are his role models when he speaks of his Sauvignon/Semillon blend “On the White Keys,” or his “H Block Hudson Vineyards” Red Wine. But he is also a realist, readily admitting, “This is California, a totally different terroir, and you have to let the grapes express themselves.” But he never sold out to the fad of over-ripe, over-extracted and heavy-handed wines, keeping to cooler regions like Carneros and Coombsville as his primary grape sources to temper California’s natural proclivity towards ripeness. The wines are deep and rich, with California fruit and character, but balanced too, with as much elegance and finesse as winemaker Andy Erickson can imbue them with given the sunny California climate.
The winery was founded in 1996 by Fritz, his wife Caren, John Kongsgaard, and his wife Maggy. In 1995, when he was just going back to Christie’s, John asked Fritz if he wanted to make a little red wine together. “John called me and said he had a chance to snatch some great Cabernet Franc.” A small parcel of Lee Hudson’s H Block that had previously been blended into Newton was available, and John felt it was too good to be blended away. “Have to get it at 6 a.m., you gotta let me know right now — $200 for the wine, $600 for the barrel,” John said. “I’m in,” came the reply, and Arietta was born.
They made an experimental lot in 1995, with the first commercial release coming in 1996. Their goal was to craft mainly Bordeaux-influenced wines from superb blocks of vineyards in cooler-climate regions of Napa, starting with the Hudson “H Block.” This tiny 2.3-acre block has some of Lee Hudson’s oldest vines, planted in 1986, and it became the foundation for the winery’s flagship H Block Red Wine. It was made by John (who made his reputation at Newton in the 1980s and ‘90s) until he sold his shares in 2006 to move on to other projects, including his own successful eponymous label, Kongsgaard.
The winery never missed a beat during the transition, and in 2006 Andy Erickson, arguably one of the top talents in the Valley, took the reins. His resume reads like a Napa Valley “Who’s Who,” including stints at Harlan Estate (as assistant winemaker), Staglin (as winemaker), Dalla Valle, and Ovid, as well as Favia and Leviathan, which he runs with his wife, Annie.
The winery makes two white wines, the “On the White Keys” and a Reserve version, four Bordeaux varietal-based reds (“Quartet,” Cabernet Sauvignon, “H Block” Hudson Vineyard Red Wine, and Hudson Vineyard Merlot), a Syrah/Merlot blend called Arietta Red Wine “Variation One,” and a very tiny amount of “88 Keys” Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
The wines are unique, expressive and beautifully crafted, with the team seeking Bordeaux-inspired elegance combined with Napa ripeness and concentration, from fruit grown in superb parcels of vineyards mainly located in cooler regions of Napa. Definitely a winery to seek out, with the caveat that production is small, demand is high, and the wines can be difficult to find.