It seemed like a good trade to Manuel Frias.
Back in 1977, Frias made a real estate swap: three houses in San Francisco's Mission District for 100 acres of land in the heart of Napa Valley wine country.
At the time, the Mission was a poor neighborhood, and Napa was only just establishing its reputation -- but in today's market, Frias made out. A hundred acres of prime undeveloped Napa real estate can fetch $4 million to $5 million, while the Mission homes could be worth about $2 million.
Vineyards, of course, were in the plan for Frias; he'd been passionate about wine since his college days. But he had other reasons for the deal. Born in Jalisco, Mexico and raised in the Mission, Frias had a different vision for his children.
"The Mission was pretty hairy back then," Frias said. "I wanted to have a place on the weekends for the kids to play and not be on the streets of the Mission. I had no idea that Napa would take off."
For the better part of 24 years, Frias was a weekend warrior, planting the vineyards, then tending to the grapes and finally making wine. He retired last year after more than 20 years as an administrator at San Francisco City College to devote his full attention to his wine.
With his neatly trimmed mustache, Frias could almost pass for Claude Rains in Casablanca. At age 62, he still commutes between his home in San Francisco and the vineyard, located in the hills west of Highway 29, just north of St. Helena. His 85-year-old father, Miguel, is a partner in the property and lives in a 100-year-old farmhouse there, helping oversee things day to day.
After planting 3 acres in 1985, Frias "traded grapes for wine" with Bob Levy, then winemaker at Merryvale (now with Harlan Estate), who oversaw Frias' vinification in the early days. Later, Frias moved his modest production to Rombauer Winery before settling in at Ballentine Vineyards. Frias' first commercial wine was a 1991 Cabernet.
His latest releases are the 1997 and 1998 Frias Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve. The 1998 vintage (87 points, $60, 500 cases) offers a tasty core of red cherry and plum fruit in a simple, direct style that doesn't try to jazz things up with oak or high extract. The 1997 Frias Cabernet (87, $60, 500 cases) is ruggedly tannic and backward, showing lots of dill and coconut-scented oak. It's a wine that needs time in the cellar.
Ballentine winemaker Jim Moore, who has been making Frias' wine since the 2000 vintage, says taming the tannins is his top priority. Cabernets grown in the area, Moore said, "are more fruit-forward, almost like a Zin." He hopes to bring that quality out more distinctly in the Frias Cabernet.
In Napa Valley, where many Hispanics are farm workers, not vintners, Frias is a rarity, but that isn't something he dwells on. He concedes he's too obsessed with wine and too driven by success to think otherwise.
After expanding his vineyards in 1998 and '99, Frias now has 11 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, along with 1 acre each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. His goal is to expand production to 2,500 cases within a few years. By then, Frias hopes that at least one of his four children will join him in the business.
"It has been a family affair," Frias said, remembering those summer and fall days that the kids helped out in the vineyard. "I would like to pass this along to them."
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