As an entrepreneur, George Vare liked doing new things. As a vintner, he introduced bag-in-box wine to America in the 1970s, fiddled with low-alcohol sparkling cider, helped broker two of the biggest wine deals in Napa Valley history and pursued Cal-Ital wines—Italian grapes in California terroirs—with a passion. He spent his final years spreading the gospel of Ribolla Gialla, an Italian grape few have heard of, but that Vare believed showed how varied and exciting wine could be.
Vare died April 12 in Napa at age 76, after a lengthy battle with melanoma. He began his career in wine by convincing the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. to buy an old vinegar works in northern Sonoma and turn it into a winery, creating Geyser Peak. He was president of the winery from 1972 to 1979, during which time it grew into one of California’s bigger wineries, producing 700,000 cases a year. While there, he introduced bag-in-box wines, borrowing a technique developed in Australia. This combination of ambition and innovative thinking marked his whole career.
A native of Philadelphia, George Augustus Vare Jr. was born in 1936. He received his bachelor’s degree from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard before earning a degree in electrical engineering from Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. He worked in his family's electrical construction business, Vare Brothers, for five years prior to entering Harvard Business School, where he earned an MBA in 1966.
After his success at Geyser Peak, he created the Shadow Creek Champagne label in the 1980s, buying leftover sparkling wine made by Chateau St. Jean. He eventually sold the brand to Corbett Canyon. Next he launched Pomme de Vare, a méthode Champenoise sparkling cider with 3 percent alcohol. That venture, unlike most of Vare’s, “went belly up,” recalled his longtime friend and business partner Jim Elder. “George was an entrepreneur at heart,” said Elder. “He always wanted to do something new.”
In the 1990s, Vare formed a partnership with former Beringer president Mike Moone and two others called Silverado Partners. Working with Texas Pacific Group, Silverado hatched a deal to buy Beringer from Nestle, taking the company public in 1997, and then brokering the sale of Beringer Wine Estates to Australian drinks giant Foster’s in 2000.
In 1996, Vare and Moone established Luna Vineyards, buying the old St. Andrews winery north of Napa. They focused on Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio before later adding Cabernet and Merlot. During those years, Vare became fascinated by Italian whites, including an obscure, old Friulian variety called Ribolla Gialla.
“He wasn’t satisfied with the mainstream of wine, and his interest in the unusual caused him to look for the truth about wine in some very interesting parts of the world,” said John Kongsgaard, winemaker at Luna during its first five years. “Determined to get the Pinot Grigio right, George, [his wife] Elsa and I went all over Europe visiting the producers and vineyards—Alsace, Alto Adige, Slovenia, and especially Friuli. In Friuli, we met [producers] Radikon and Gravner, with whom George maintained close friendships, and through them he got so interested in Ribolla.”
"I just found the wine interesting," Vare told Wine Spectator in 2010. Vare smuggled some Ribolla cuttings into the United States and planted 3 acres at his home in Napa, where he made wine under the Vare label and sold grapes to a handful of vintners, including Michael Chiarello of Chiarello, Mark Grassi of Grassi Vineyards and Dan Petroski of Massican.
“Growing Ribolla Gialla didn't make sense for winemakers in Friuli any more than it did in Napa,” said Steven Matthiasson, one of the Napa vintners who made Ribolla from Vare Vineyards. “It is an idiosyncratic grape, tough to grow, different to make wine from, and hard to pronounce. But it is fascinating to taste, great with food, and represents a long tradition in Italy of toiling out of love, rather than following the latest trend. George loved this about the variety, and decided that it would be his retirement project.”
To Matthiasson and others, Vare was “a sort of godfather for the current new wave of California winemakers. Ribolla Gialla to him was more than just a grape variety. It represented everything impractical but meaningful about the wine business, the business he loved and help lead for 40 years.”
Vare is survived by his wife, Elsa, three children, three step-children and eight grandkids.