After an illustrious career spanning 32 vintages, Ed Sbragia is leaving Beringer. The exact wording of his new association with Beringer will be wine master emeritus. But as he told me today, he’s effectively turning over winemaking duties to his long-time assistant, Laurie Hook, who has worked with him for 21 years, and he will be a paid consultant.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Sbragia, 59, said. “I’m not really leaving, but I need to spend more with Sbragia” – his winery in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley – and it’s time to turn over responsibilities to Hook, who is capable of maintaining the winery’s high standards of quality.
This rise of Beringer from the 1970s to today is one of the more remarkable turnaround and modern success stories in wine. While the winery in St. Helena is historic (it was founded in 1876 by the Beringer family), like most Napa wineries, it suffered through hard times from Prohibition on and by the 1960s and early 1970s made wines that were mostly ordinary--or less than that.
In the 1970s, the owners, headed by the family that owned Nestle, made a commitment to revamp Beringer. The entire team – from winemakers such as Myron Nightingale and vineyard manager Bob Steinhauer to the men who oversaw the entire company, including Mike Moone and Walt Klenz -- was on a mission. They set out to prove that they could make great wines and they did, first by eliminating marginal wines, and then by acquiring great vineyards and assembling a great wine team.
Under Sbragia’s tenure, two wines in particular – the Private Reserve Cabernet and Private Reserve Chardonnay – came to define the level of excellence. Also at the level of the Private Reserves, Sbragia created a Sbragia Limited Reserve Chardonnay, fine-tuned the Bancroft Vineyard Howell Mountain Merlot and continued to improved the Nightingale dessert wine, named after Myron.
And while the Private Reserves typically garnered the glowing reviews, the rest of the lineup – from the Knights Valley reds and whites to the more basic Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay -- has stood for great quality and value.
What made Beringer’s and Sbragia’s accomplishments even more telling was that they were able to create great wines on a grand scale, and two of Sbragia’s wines, the 1986 Private Reserve Cabernet and the 1994 Private Reserve Chardonnay, were named Wine Spectator Wines of the Year.
A couple of years ago, Sbragia hinted to me that he was ready to depart, after 25 years. But when Beringer’s brass got wind of that, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: His own wine company and, according to my sources, a handsome raise.
But now he’s ready to turn over the controls to Hook, who is a very talented, no-nonsense winemaker who knows the vineyards, the house style and how to maintain quality control. It’s the quality control issue that’s vital for any elite wine company, since the temptation for the sales and marketing departments is to increase production, and that typically means cutting some corners and sacrificing quality. I don’t doubt for a minute that Hook will seek to even outdo Sbragia. Here’s hoping she gets the same kind of respect and support from the corporate execs as they gave Sbragia and that Beringer’s wines will continue to represent the utmost in quality.