By James Laube, senior editor
It was his dream to own a vineyard. It was his passion for Merlot that led to the vineyard's replanting. The old house underneath the towering oak tree had a basement for a future wine cellar and, well, what more could a winemaker ask for? A loving wife, three beautiful daughters, muddy boots and a tractor. He had them all.
Greg Upton lived that dream ever so briefly. Two years after he and his wife Tracey moved into their home on Big Ranch Road, in Napa, Greg died of leukemia, at age 39. The end came on Thanksgiving Day, 1997, 11 months after he was diagnosed with the disease.
"This place was Greg's dream, not mine," says Tracey, 36, slim, pretty and blond, staring out at their vineyard on a bright, warm February morning. "Part of me wants to stay, and part of me wants to go. It's an older house, there's a lot of work to be done and there are times when I'm overwhelmed."
The 10-acre Upton Family Vineyard is now mostly Merlot. Out behind the house sits the boat they bought. The tractor is in the shed. The front and back yards are decorated with children's toys, tiny chairs, tables and bikes. Their three daughters are growing up fast. Soon Samantha will be 7; Montana, 6; and little Dakota, born three months before Greg died, will be pushing 2.
Greg Upton was one of those people you never forget. Handsome, friendly, smart and personable, he was as gifted a winemaker as they come, only beginning to fulfill his potential. His years as a winemaker at Concannon and Franciscan had prepared him for what turned out to be his last assignment, overseeing Kendall-Jackson's new winery, Lokoya, and its vineyard-driven Cabernets.
The last few wines he made turned out to be dandies. The 1995 Lokoya Rutherford Cabernet is a rich and seamless wine, layered, textured, graceful and blessed with wonderful fruit flavor. Greg wouldn't have liked the fact that it sold for $100 a bottle, says Tracey, and he'd be even madder if he knew she spent $2,300 for several cases of Greg's 1995 wines. "Greg would have fought K-J tooth and nail about [the price]," she says. "Greg didn't think any wine was worth that much."
But when Wine Spectator rated the '95 Lokoya Rutherford at 97 points, she wanted to buy as much of the wine as she could. "It was one of those bittersweet moments. I want the girls to be able to taste the wine when they grow up. I just wish he could have been here to experience the excitement."
At last year's Napa Valley Wine Auction, a 5-liter bottle of the Uptons' 1996 Chardonnay drew an astonishing price. Pete Wittman from Dallas bid $100,000 for the wine and then promptly gave Tracey the bottle and a huge hug, which was captured in many news photos. "I was a nervous wreck before the auction, and when the bidding passed $30,000, I couldn't believe it. When it passed $80,000, I was in disbelief. When it hit $100,000, I was sobbing. I couldn't believe anyone would ever pay that much for one of Greg's wines."
Wine lovers admired Greg for his winemaking; Tracey remembers him as a friend, husband and father. "He was so sweet with his girls. His family was always his highest priority." He didn't like the sales and marketing meetings, and he didn't like to travel, she says. "He'd get home and want to get into his jeans and muddy boots and drive his tractor around."
Thanks to K-J, the vineyard has been well-groomed. Jess Jackson, K-J's owner, "is the most generous man I've ever met," she says. Jackson made sure all Greg's medical bills were paid and kept him on the payroll, even for periods when Greg was in and out of the hospital, unable to work.
In 1998, Tracey had her Merlot crushed and vinified by a winemaker friend, Peter Franus, and it's bright and juicy. "We'll see how it goes, if I can stick it out," she says of future wines from Upton. "I still don't understand why this happened to Greg, but I'm moving on. I try to focus on the positive. I have to be strong, and I want to hold onto things that were his."
Though his memory remains a precious mix of pleasure and pain, on this day, with the sun shimmering, the dormant vineyard and vibrant young wine in her glass give her some small consolation.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a column also appearing in the current issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
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