Mount Veeder Through Time
Winemaking on Mount Veeder dates back to the 1860s, when the first European pioneers chose the mountain’s steep, thin-soiled slopes over the flat, rich earth of the valley. Since then, the mountain’s old stone wineries and hardy vineyards have been passed on from generation to generation, from one winemaking family to another. Each new Mount Veeder vine, wine and vintner reaffirms Europe’s centuries-old belief in the quality of mountain grapes.
Captain Stalham Wing presented the first six bottles of Mount Veeder wine at the Napa County Fair in 1864. Wing’s interest in wine was second only to his penchant for carp, which he raised in artificial ponds by the tens of thousands in and among his Mount Veeder vineyards. The mountain’s first serious vintner was a man named Hudeman. Hudeman planted 12 acres of vines off today’s Redwood Road, built a small stone winery in 1870, and named the property Sprout Farm.
Clearing the land with horses and mules, the mountain’s early vintners faced a far more difficult task than their counterparts in the valley. By the late 1800s, however, Mount Veeder had at least six wineries and 20 vineyards.
Many of these early viticulturalists were of German or Swiss-German extraction. Hein launched the mountain’s first commercial wine operation in 1878; the Streich family started another. Rudolf Jordon, one of the first winemakers in California to use pure yeast and cool temperatures to control fermentation, used Streich’s winery. During the next decade, a German sword engraver and pickle merchant named Fischer arrived and constructed a stone building not only for winemaking, but also as a summer house and horse stable. Others, like Henry Grimm, simply planted a few acres of grapes in the back corner of the farm.
Ranches and Resorts
Life on Mount Veeder at the turn of the century was not all vines and wines, however. Some settlers planted orchards and grazed cattle. Many operated modest resorts or rented rooms, for Mount Veeder was then renowned as a place to regain “that rosy hue of health so desired by all.”
Paging through the Napa Register in the 1880s, you’d find entire columns devoted to the mild climate, garden spots and magnificent vistas to be found on Mount Veeder, then known as the Napa Redwoods. The columns extolled the “grand rugged scenery that at times reaches the sublime…” Napa Redwoods, as an appellation, even appeared on a few wine labels of the day.
The First Big Winery
At the turn of the century, Oakland businessman Theodore Gier began Mount Veeder’s most ambitious winemaking enterprise to date. Gier took what had once been the Sprout Farm, imported fine European varietals, planted 150-200 acres on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, and built a large winery in 1903. Gier was soon producing 150-200,000 gallons of wine and winning gold medals – five at the 1909 World’s Fair alone.
Crippled by Prohibition in the 1930s, Gier sold his operation to Christian Brothers, who wanted to expand sacramental winemaking. Their Mont La Salle Vineyards followed in Gier’s footsteps, their wines winning many gold medals between 1935 and 1941 and ranking alongside George Latour’s Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Brother Timothy still lives at Mont La Salle today.
The Small Growers
Between 1920 and World War II, dozens of small ranches lined the road up Mount Veeder. Most scraped out a modest living not only growing grapes, but also prunes, plums, peaches, apples, cherries, and hay. Varietals included Zinfandel, Petit Syrah, and Alicante Bouschet – a grape used to color white wine for a public suddenly clamoring for reds. When harvest time came, woodcutters and trappers came out of the woods to help pick the grapes. As the big valley wineries only paid about $12 a tons, growers like Brandlin and Lippi used to haul all their crop down to the Bay Area. There they found many an Italian willing to pay $30 a ton for mountain Zinfandel.
The Last Half Century
Many of today’s successful wineries have firm roots in the mountain’s past. Mayacamas traces back to Fischer, their ancient winery restored by predecessors Jack and Mary Taylor. The Hess Collection operates out of Gier’s original winery on lands first cultivated by Hudeman. The Streich winery where Jordon experimented with bold, new techniques still stands, carefully maintained by the Yates family. Brandlins still grow grapes on the mountain. Grimm’s and Lippi’s hayfields are now Rubissow-Sargent’s Cabernet and Merlot.
In the 1960s and 1970s, new vineyard lands and wineries were developed by modern mountain pioneers such as Lore Olds of Sky, the Bernsteins of Mount Veeder Winery, Al Baxter of Veedercrest, and Hamilton Vose of Vose Vineyards. In 1979 Chateau Potelle took over Vose’s house site and winery, and five years later Villa settled on 220 acres of wild ridgetop. In many ways, Mount Veeder hasn’t changed much since the turn of the century. You can still count the number of wineries on your fingertips; you can still see the old stone buildings and vineyards sruggling to produce wines in the spirit of their mountain.
This article was produced by the Mount Veeder Appellation Council, P.O.Box 4140, Napa, California 94558, (707) 255-1144.