How A Powerhouse Survived Disaster
Six years after purchasing their vineyard, Don and Barbara Bryant were nearly ready to call it quits. "If Helen hadn't worked out, we probably would have sold," Don Bryant says, referring to winemaker Helen Turley.
It's easy to forget that the most celebrated producers -- and their vineyards -- sometimes require years to get on track. The Bryants' experience is a case study of the mishaps that can plague uninitiated wine producers. "The real story is that when you don't live in the Valley or know the business, you're coming into a real difficult situation," says Bryant, 57, who lives in St. Louis.
In 1985, the couple bought some property on Pritchard Hill, east of St. Helena, to build a home. But Bryant, a wine lover with a collection of 4,000 bottles from France and California, wanted to grow grapes. He made inquiries and was told that the finest nearby vineyard happened to be adjacent to his property. Although the 10-acre site was run-down, it had previously produced outstanding fruit that was used by Chappellet in the 1970s.
The home was never built. After buying the vineyard, Bryant sold the grapes to a producer with the understanding that the wines would have a vineyard designation. Then, Bryant says, he learned that the producer had no intention of honoring their agreement. "I figured if I'm having all the hassles, I might as well make the wine myself," he says.
He hired a winemaker to make the 1990 and 1991 vintages. "I tasted the wines very young," says Bryant, "but back then I didn't have the experience to judge them." As time went on, it became apparent that both vintages were flawed by offensive barnyard aromas that Bryant attributes to inferior barrels selected by the winemaker.
Bryant sold the 1990 and 1991 efforts in bulk. "When I hired Helen [in August 1992] I told her, 'Listen, I'm a lawyer, so if you do to me what the others have done, I'll advertise it on a billboard in St. Helena.'"
Turley, fortunately, does not believe in advertising. "Industry people told me you should expect to spend 40 percent of the budget on marketing," Bryant says, "but Helen said, 'If the wine's great, people will come to you.'"
The wine has been great, with enough richness, complexity and fruit extraction to earn scores in the mid- to high 90s. Bryant hopes that replanting will increase the current 600-case production sixfold, and he plans to begin construction this summer on a state-of-the-art winery.
Vineyard manager David Abreu and Turley have been instrumental. "You can't make great wine without great grapes," says Bryant. "But you need good people. It looked so awful, and now it looks easy."
Bryant Family Vineyard
Owners: Don & Barbara Bryant
Winemaker: Helen Turley
99 Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1996
Release Price: $120
Current Auction Average: $434
Production: 600 cases
An immense yet amazingly elegant and graceful wine, packed with rich, concentrated, complex currant, plum, black cherry, blackberry and spice, turning floral and supple, with lovely vanilla-oak shadings, even as the tannins firm up on the finish. Best from 2001 through 2010.