In 1976, when Ned Smith bought 6 acres of land in central Napa, he imagined planting fruit trees on the sloping hillsides of the property. Ned was a real estate developer, and to his credit, he anticipated the tourist boom to come in the valley (another project of Ned’s was the Wine Country Inn in St. Helena). He wasn’t a farmer, however, and shortly after they were planted, the fruit trees died. The truth is, they never really stood a chance in the poor, rocky soils at Hourglass. Next came Zinfandel vines, selected because Zin was Ned’s favorite wine. He figured to trade or sell the grapes to neighboring wineries in return for finished wine. This worked out until the early 1990s when phylloxera resurfaced in Napa, eventually wiping out all production in the tiny vineyard. Not long after, following a bout with cancer, Ned tragically passed away. After the loss, Ned’s wife, Marge, didn’t have the desire to replant the vineyard and decided she wanted to sell the property.
Her son, Jeff, pushed back. The valley was teaming with energy and new wineries, and he was pretty certain the land had the potential to become a great vineyard. He dreamed of creating a small Cabernet-based domaine, but first he would have to convince his mother not to sell the property. To be certain about his hunch, Ned sought the advice of long time friend, Kelly Maher (enrolled in the viticulture program at UC Davis at the time). On her visit, she brought along none other than Dr. Mark Kliewer, the dean of viticulture at Davis, who, after surveying the property and assessing the soils, exposure, aspect, and location, voiced his opinion: This was a truly unique site — possibly some of the finest terroir in the valley, and perfectly suited to Cabernet Sauvignon. That was pretty much all Jeff needed to hear. After convincing his mother to keep the property, he gave up his job in San Francisco and headed north to realize a lifelong dream. In 1992 he replanted the vineyard’s four best parcels to Cabernet. He also brought on Bob Foley to launch the project and produce the wines. This particular choice was an easy one. Not only was Bob a star winemaker, he was a friend of the family’s and a former bandmate of Jeff’s!
The Hourglass vineyard lies in the St. Helena AVA, rising from the valley floor to a 70-foot knoll top. It is mainly composed of Hambright soils and fractured bedrock. There is a unique microclimate here, characterized by cooling breezes, which increase diurnal temperature swings. As it were, the cooling breezes and the name of the vineyard share a common origin: the hourglass-like shape of the valley. On his visit, after he was finished raving about the soil properties here, Dr. Kliewer explained to Jeff that the Napa Valley takes the form of an hourglass, and that his vineyard was located at the precise point where the hourglass comes to a pinch. This funnel-like shape creates the cool breezes that define the microclimate and also gives the vineyard its name.
The first Hourglass wines were produced in 1997, a great year in California. The warm growing season resulted in opulent, deeply layered and concentrated wines that delighted critics. Bob Foley made a truly stunning Cabernet that year, but no one knew it until 2001 when a bottle was included as a “ringer” in a tasting of several 1997 Napa Cabernets that had scored 100 points in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. The unknown wine shocked tasters when it stood its ground against cult giants Harlan, Screaming Eagle, and Bryant Family. Days later, the still unreleased wine was sold out from pre-orders! Jeff’s dream had become a reality.
Seven years later, after continued success, Jeff and his wife, Carolyn, began to think about expanding beyond their small 4-acre vineyard. Not just any site would do, however, they wanted it to be as unique as Hourglass. The trouble was, vineyard land was becoming scarce. Finding the right site proved difficult. Then one day, on a trip to the dump of all places, Jeff stumbled upon a for sale sign for a property on the east side of the Silverado Trail, across from Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard. It was a prime location, and with 41 acres (22 under vine) it would dramatically increase production.
Better still, this site was distinctly different in terroir than Hourglass. Blueline Vineyard, as it is now called, is located in the Calistoga AVA, nearly even with the valley floor on the lower-west side, rising up steeply to the east. Its name comes from two streams that meander gracefully through the property. Over thousands of years, the same streams have created a range of soils — Perkins, watershed alluvial gravel, sand, and loam — which leave a distinct imprint on the wine. The microclimate here is also unique, influenced by two canyons above the vineyard. During the day, heat rises up and through the canyons, pulling cooler air in behind it. Despite higher temperatures overall, the fluctuation throughout the day helps to keep the grapes balanced and allows them to mature beautifully.
In 2009, an elegant, modern winery was built into the hillside of the Blueline property, completing the domaine. Since then, all winemaking has been done on site. Bob Foley continued at the helm until 2011, when Jeff and Carolyn, out of need for a full-time winemaker, brought on Tony Biagi (formerly of PlumpJack and Cade). Today, the wines continue to impress with their deep, ripe, opulently layered style. They are plush and powerful, but also balanced and focused, pointing towards a bright future.