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Wearing a battered straw hat that has shielded him from the Napa sun down many a vineyard row, Randy Dunn navigates his pickup truck along Highway 29, bound for a luncheon meeting. He passes Mustard's, Brix and Pinot Blanc on the left, Rutherford Grill and Tra Vigne on the right. The accelerator never wavers. None of those upscale restaurants suits his plans, his attire or his attitude.
Dunn, 55, started making wine in Napa Valley in 1975, at Caymus. Since 1979, he has worked his own vineyard on Howell Mountain, a world away from the boutiques selling bath salts and scented soap that dot the valley, not to mention the traffic that periodically brings the highway to a standstill. Dunn disdains the lifestyle today's Napa engenders, just as he disdains the style of wine it produces.
To help make the point, he schedules his luncheon meetings at Taylor's Refresher, a 21st century send-up of a hamburger joint, with a walk-up window and picnic tables beside the parking lot. It isn't that he can't afford the posh places. But Dunn is a maverick, a man who has largely ignored the changes that have occurred in Napa over the last quarter-century and gone about his life and his business his own way.
Rather than pay high prices for space on the valley floor, Dunn chose mountainside land on the other side of Angwin, Napa's Siberia. The drive to town was longer, but the wine he made turned out better. "People thought we were nutty wanting to live all the way up there," Dunn says. "They said, 'Why go up there and grow grapes, when down here almost anything will grow?' Well, that's the point. As the Europeans know, you grow the corn and the melons on the valley floor. You grow the grapes up in the hills."
His wines are Cabernets built to last, unlike the fleshy, easy-drinking, short-lived Cabernets that have become fashionable. "People really want this forward, drink-it-now stuff," he says, sitting on a plastic bench outside Taylor's. "I've tasted some wines lately that were softer than this iced tea."
His sturdy wines were so good that the world beat a path to his door, but Dunn refused to open it. He didn't build a tasting room, he didn't put his logo on T-shirts. He has refused to expand his winery's production beyond 4,000 cases a year, though he believes he could do it easily, with no loss in the quality of his wines. "I could make 10,000 cases in a heartbeat, but it's a matter of how much I want to work," he says. "I could have done it differently. It's just the level of crap I want to put up with."
He takes a bite of his hamburger, smearing avocado deep into his bristly white mustache. "I basically never changed," he says. "I do things the way I've always done them. Take it or leave it."
Dunn is fortunate. Even as Napa Valley was transformed from a simple, cheerful place of fruit orchards, farm supply stores and virgin woodland into the home of more than 300 wine companies and one of the most successful wine tourism destinations in the world, Dunn managed to succeed on his own terms. With a private plane and a vacation home in Mexico, that success is both moral and material.
Dunn is not the only maverick to blaze his own trail through Napa Valley. Some have been even more successful. Justin Meyer set out to make serious Cabernet Sauvignon that consumers could actually buy and drink near-term. He built Silver Oak into a juggernaut, and cashed out last year for $110 million.
Others who tried to forge a path have struggled as the ground shifted beneath them. Bernard Portet strove to make the equivalent of a classified-growth Bordeaux in the Napa Valley. By most accounts, he succeeded -- but his wines haven't gained the acclaim, nor the mass following, that he envisioned. In the same sense, the Chardonnays and Cabernets of Bob Travers' Mayacamas Vineyards are underappreciated. Their austere style stands outside the American mainstream, even as Travers occupies a lonely perch high up Mount Veeder.
Peter Mondavi ascended to complete control of his family's Charles Krug winery in 1967, when his brother, Robert, left to start his own winery. More than a generation later, Robert Mondavi is an American icon. Charles Krug, still owned by Peter Mondavi and his family, stands in the shadows, a successful brand all but forgotten by connoisseurs.
Ernie Van Asperen is forgotten as well, but he doesn't mind. Van Asperen followed his own business insights to a unique place in the market throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, buying and bottling bulk wine under a proprietary name. He never wanted to make the finest wine in Napa, merely a good living. Now he owns a million-dollar yacht, docked in Florida.
Like Dunn and Travers, Philip Togni believed in the soil and slope of mountain vineyards. In 1983, not long after Dunn's first bottling, Togni ended a career as a winemaker-for-hire and set out on his own, making complex, ageable Cabernet-based blends under his eponymous label. The wines are unquestionably successful, but Togni isn't. He makes only a few hundred cases, but can't quite command cult-wine prices. As a result, he says, he can't afford to drink his own wine more than occasionally.
Tweak a personality here, the tastes of the wine-drinking public there, and these mavericks might sit squarely in today's mainstream. As it is, they've been marginalized or have willfully marginalized themselves. Their stories, set around a valley that has evolved with the wine industry over the past three decades, help explain what Napa is today, and what it might have been.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Wine Spectator.
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