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Rhymes With DRC

James Laube
Posted: August 15, 2002

The first wines from HdV -- the collaboration of the Hyde and de Villaine families -- are scheduled for release this fall. On paper, this venture has all the makings of a success story, with a can't-miss cast of characters. Pitfalls, however, may involve prices and expectations for the wines -- both of which could be unrealistic.

HdV is a partnership between Aubert de Villaine, head of one of Burgundy's premier domaines, and the Hyde family of Napa, who own one of California's up-and-coming properties, Hyde Vineyard, in Carneros.

The inspiration came from de Villaine, co-director of Burgundy's famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. De Villaine, 62, wants to downplay his DRC connection. But that's next to impossible. The letters DRC are magical in the wine world. It just so happens that they rhyme with HdV.

DRC's wines are the elite. They are also expensive. Its Le Montrachet is perhaps the most famous white table wine in the world. DRC's grands crus reds, including Romanée-Conti and La Tâche, are renowned for their individualistic styles. Moreover, de Villaine is a shrewd businessman, overseeing sales of his coveted wines.

Accordingly, he is involved in virtually all the details with HdV, much more so than he might let on. He visits the vineyard frequently, talks by phone with his staff in California almost daily, and pays close attention to grapegrowing and winemaking techniques. He even insisted on hiring a French winemaker of his choosing.

De Villaine's principal partner is Larry Hyde, a down-home farmer. His family's wine roots in California go back more than a century; his ancestors, the de la Guerra family, made wine in Santa Barbara as early as 1876. The new HdV label will bear the de la Guerra coat of arms.

For years de Villaine nudged Hyde about making wine because he is married to Hyde's cousin, Santa Barbara-born Pamela Fairbanks de Villaine. "We've been friends for years, but [de Villaine] couldn't figure out why I just wanted to grow grapes and not make wine," says Hyde, 57. But Hyde wouldn't budge. He considers farming to be a sufficiently risky and challenging endeavor, and after 22 years is still learning the lay of his land.

Two years ago, though, Hyde finally acceded to join the venture (although his percentage is small). The partnership includes the two de Villaines, Hyde's nephew, Rick Hyde, 30, who also has a vineyard in Sonoma, and members of Larry Hyde's family.

Hyde Vineyard can't touch the pedigree of DRC, but its reputation has been on the rise this past decade due to Hyde's diligence. He sells grapes from his 130-acre estate to more than a dozen wineries. Most produce brilliant wines. A few, including Paul Hobbs, Kistler and Ramey, feature Hyde's name on their labels.

The vineyard is mostly flat, with a mix of shallow, clay-laced soils and deeper, loamy areas. With its cool climate and proximity to San Pablo Bay, it is home to Burgundian varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also excels with Merlot. A small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon is also grown and sold to Hobbs. It produces an enormously complex wine, comparable in quality to the finest Cabernets grown in Napa Valley.

Both the HdV 2000 Chardonnay and 2000 Merlot are sumptuous wines, impeccably balanced, with rich, polished flavors and a sense of grace and finesse. They are classy and understated, almost more French in their refinement and texture than classically Californian, a style which tends to be riper, richer and often oakier. They are not, however, anything like DRC's wines, nor should they be compared. Carneros is not Vosne-Romanée or the Côte de Nuits.

The goal is to fine-tune Hyde Vineyard and zero in on the best sections of Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah; the first vintage yielded 2,500 cases. The hope is to make 5,000 cases eventually and build a winery. Already, the second vintage of Merlot, the 2001, shows progress. 2001 is a better vintage all around, and it showed greater depth and complexity than the 2000. The 2001 Syrah features ripe plum and beefy, earthy flavors.

One looming question is pricing. DRC is known for extravagant prices. Hyde wants HdV to be a "reasonable value." As for high expectations for the wines, that comes with the territory when one partner is bound by history and fame.

James Laube, Wine Spectator's Napa Valley-based senior editor, has been with the magazine since 1983.

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