Napa Valley Legend Joe Heitz Dies

Dec 18, 2000
Napa Valley winemaker Joe Heitz, whose Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon became a symbol of excellence in California wine and helped catapult Napa Valley wine to international fame, died on Saturday, Dec. 16 at the age of 81.

"He was a legend, one of our leaders," said Al Brounstein of Diamond Creek Vineyards. Heitz had suffered a major stoke earlier this year and never fully recovered, his friends said.

For many wine lovers, the Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet was long the most collectible wine made in the United States, up into the 1990s, when auction prices skyrocketed for the new breed of "cult" California wines. Vintages such as 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1974 are considered by many to be among the finest wines made in that era, at a time when few outside northern California knew much about Napa Valley wine.

Heitz and his wife, Alice, founded their winery in Napa Valley in 1961, and by 1970, Heitz Wine Cellars was synonymous with distinctive Cabernet.

A hardworking man with strong convictions, Heitz produced many benchmark wines during his 40-year career. But he was best known for his Cabernets -- particularly the Martha's Vineyard bottling and its signature minty currant aromas -- which came from a 34-acre vineyard in Oakville owned by Tom and Martha May. Heitz was one of the first vintners in California to put a vineyard designation on his label, acknowledging the importance of recognizing a specific vineyard that produces a distinctive wine. He also insisted on picking his grapes at optimum ripeness, a trend that is once again popular in California.

A native of Princeton, Ill., Heitz grew up on a farm and came to California in the 1940s while serving in the Army Air Corps. At night and on weekends, he worked at a winery near Fresno and later worked for Gallo. In 1951, he joined Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley as a winemaker, where he worked for seven years with the legendary AndrH Tchelistcheff and developed a passion for Cabernet. In 1958, he and his wife moved back to Fresno, where he helped establish the Research Center for Viticulture and Enology at Fresno State College.

In 1961, he and Alice returned to Napa and started Heitz Wine Cellars; located on Highway 29, south of St. Helena, the small winery is now a popular tasting room. Heitz's first bottlings came from bulk Cabernet purchased from the Christian Brothers winery and from two vintages of Chardonnay made at Hanzell Vineyards, in Sonoma Valley. At one time, he made or sold everything from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir to Zinfandel, as well as sparkling wine, sherry, port and even a Grignolino rosH from a vineyard planted near the winery.

Along with the Martha's Vineyard Cabernet (which was not made in '93, '94 and '95 because the vineyard was replanted), Heitz is currently known for its Bella Oaks and Trailside Vineyard Cabernets.

The Heitzes' three children, David, Kathleen and Rollie, have been involved in the family business, which produces about 40,000 cases of wine a year and has vineyard holdings of more than 300 acres. David has been the winemaker for about a decade.

A private service is planned this week for family members. A memorial service is slated for Jan. 12 in St. Helena.

-- James Laube

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Check our recent ratings of Heitz wines.

Learn more about Heitz Cabernet:

  • Jan. 31, 1999
    Wines of the Century

  • Feb. 9, 1998
    Next Martha's Vineyard Release Not Until 2001

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