In a wine career that spanned more than five decades, Ernest “Ernie” Van Asperen blazed his own trail. He was involved in all aspects of the industry, and his résumé read vintner, retailer, négociant and restaurateur. Van Asperen was an avid flyer and a World War II veteran who commanded a B-24 bomber flying sorties over Germany and Italy. But it was wine that captured his imagination, and he spent much of his adult life in Napa Valley as a vintner. He died Feb. 11 at the age of 96.
In the early 1960s Van Asperen operated a successful chain of California-based wine shops, called Ernie’s Wine and Liquor, that would eventually grow to more than 80 stores. A savvy marketer, Van Asperen saw a niche in the market and decided to segue into bottling and selling bulk wine from Napa Valley, becoming one of the region’s most successful négociants. At a time when independent growers owned most vineyards and Napa was producing a surplus of wine, Van Asperen picked the best juice and bottled it at low prices, selling it at his shop under the Round Hill and Ernie’s labels.
Van Asperen’s approach was unique to the market and helped set him apart. As he told Wine Spectator in 2002, "I don't have very discriminating taste buds, but I can pick out bad from good." He was equally as innovative as a restaurateur and created two restaurants in Marin County, the Dock and Windjammer. The Dock featured daring prices on its wine list—all of the wines sold at retail cost.
In the late 1960s, as Napa wine was gaining a reputation, Van Asperen decided to move to the valley with his wife, Virginia. The couple bought a ranch and vineyard west of St. Helena. With the help of several partners, the Van Asperens founded Round Hill Winery in 1977 and later built a winemaking facility in Rutherford along the Silverado Trail.
Round Hill mainly focused on Bordeaux varieties and Chardonnay. Between Round Hill and his Van Asperen and Rutherford Ranch labels, Van Asperen produced more than 400,000 cases a year. Van Asperen also helped popularize custom labels and produced wines for clients such as Meadowood and Auberge du Soleil resorts in Napa Valley that were a short distance from his winery.
A native of Oakland, Calif., Van Asperen retired in 2000 and sold Round Hill and its associated brands to wine merchant Marko Zaninovich, the owner of Arroyo Seco Vineyards in Monterey County.
Van Asperen is survived by his children, Patty, Richard and Bill. His wife, Virginia, died last year.
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