Under the Umbrian Sun

A son of old Napa relocates to an underrated corner of Italy

Under the Umbrian Sun
Rollie and Sally Heitz sold Midsummer Cellars and their Napa home to move to Todi and start a new label, Concinnate. (Robert Camuto)
Jun 24, 2022

Rollie Heitz is not the first American to move to Todi—a stunner of a medieval hilltop town (pop. 17,000) in Central Italy’s Umbria region that has often been cited as one of the most pleasant towns on earth.

Yet from a wine perspective, Heitz, 64, who was raised in Napa and helped grow his family’s legendary Heitz Cellar (now under new ownership), is arguably the town’s most notable resident.

Four years ago, Heitz and his wife, Sally, picked up stakes and sold their house in Napa County to move to a new home and small vineyard at Tenuta Montorsolo, nestled on a bluff with dramatic views over the Umbrian countryside.

Now he’s working on the fourth vintage of his Concinnate wine label in the 12-year-old Todi appellation, where the primary red varieties are Sangiovese and Merlot and the main white variety is Grechetto.

“There’s a huge potential here,” enthuses Heitz, a soft-spoken, white-bearded bear of a man, as he looks over his vineyard of 2.5 acres—half of which was replanted this spring.

So how and why did the Heitzes land in Umbria for their semi-retirement years? After all, they weren’t Italophiles or regular European travelers. They are “old Napa” folks whose roots (and those of their children) are among California’s pioneering wine families.

The move represents Heitz’s second big career move away from his familial nest. Back in the 1990s, after working at Heitz Cellar for nearly 20 years and overseeing estate vineyard growth from 30 to 350 acres, he struck out on his own as a winemaker. In 2000, he and Sally founded Midsummer Cellars, making 1,000 cases a year of single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as rosé from Grenache and Viognier.

Then a decade ago, Heitz was visited by Ev Thomas, a California artist who had started making wine in earnest near Todi. (Read my column, “The Tale of Terramante.”) Heitz says Thomas was particularly interested in Midsummer Cellars at the time because “it was the smallest winery he could find,” at about 500 square feet.

The men struck up a friendship. Heitz’s curiosity was piqued, and he and Sally began visiting Thomas and his Italian wife, Claudia, in Umbria.

“What they were doing here was appealing to say the least,” Heitz comments.

The Heitzes were smitten by the rural Umbrian lifestyle—more laid-back and less famous than in neighboring Tuscany—and began casually real-estate shopping.

On one trip, they visited Montorsolo and what had been a bed-and-breakfast with a separate garage-sized winery, the small vineyard and many more acres of forest.

“In about five minutes, we decided we should make an offer,” says Heitz.

Pushing them out of Napa was the economic reality of the boutique-winery rental market. “In 18 years at Midsummer, we moved eight times,” Heitz says. “Napa is still a beautiful place, but the congestion and rents were getting so high that we would always be in a position of being renters.”

They shuttered their winery and sold off the wine, as well as their house and home vineyard in Deer Park.

 Winegrower Rollie Heitz standing in his microwinery in Umbria's Todi appellation
Working in a true microwinery, Rollie Heitz is attentive to how every inch of space is used. (Robert Camuto)

Their move came in 2018. Vintage 2019 was Heitz’s first in Umbria, and he threw himself into it. From Montorsolo’s vineyard, he produced varietal Sangiovese as both a “crisp red” and a rosé, along with a Merlot, which he says is “the richest variety here—it’s been a bit of a surprise.”

He made Cabernet Sauvignon by harvesting the 2.5-acre vineyard of near-neighbors from Norway: “It doesn’t have the might of a Napa Cab, but it’s got balance and a long, lingering finish.”

Heitz also experimented with Central Italian grapes like Pecorino and wrestled with Montorsolo’s Sagrantino—Umbria’s big red variety that stars in Montefalco, about 18 miles to the northeast.

“It’s just not my grape,” Heitz says with a shake of the head. “It’s just too tannic.”

Soon after that first harvest, their new life was turned upside-down. First there was a small house fire (from an overheated battery of a recharging drill) when they were away. The smoke damage forced them out of their home into a rental for a couple months.

Then, just after returning to their home in early 2020, “COVID arrived and threw a rather large wrench in everything.”

With a full winery and reduced trade from tourists and local restaurants, Heitz sold that year’s rosé to a distillery. “I guess it became hand-sanitizer,” he says dryly, “and that was too bad because it was really nice.”

The travel restrictions also posed personal setbacks—like having to watch their son’s wedding via Zoom.

In Heitz’s tightly packed, one-man winery, every square inch counts—right down to the space-saving, cuboid steel fermentation tanks he uses instead of cylindrical ones. Reds are aged 15 months in stacked French oak tonneau and barriques.

“Every year the barrels do get heavier,” Heitz quips.

Concinnate, labeled with a golden bear reminiscent of the California flag, sits at the value end of boutique wines. Direct-to-consumer prices listed on the website range from €10 (about $11) for his 2020 Sangiovese rosato to €18 (about $20) for his Todi Merlot. Heitz has been experimenting with shipping to the U.S.

When I visited the Heitzes, a heat wave had gripped Central Italy after Rollie and his vineyard hand had planted new vinestock, requiring them to hand water hundreds of nascent plants daily. While keeping a Merlot and Sangiovese plot, he had pulled out Sagrantino and some diseased Sangiovese to make room for Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and a small amount of Viognier.

“We want to get it working so it’s a little easier to manage,” he says. “Once the vineyards are all established, we should be caught up.”

Heitz has discovered some dramatic differences between Umbria and Napa. In the vineyard here, with its poor, rocky soils and a climate marked by summer heat and rains, he has found he has a shorter growing season. “It’s a fairly warm climate and you’d expect acidities to drop, but that’s not the case,” he says. “You get really good acidities here.”

When it comes to the bureaucracy of winemaking, both Napa and Umbria have their complications. Italian law, he observes, is particularly restrictive about the handling of wine pomace after pressing—all but requiring sale to distilleries.

On the other hand, he says, winery licensing in Italy is generally much easier. “Here alcohol is not viewed as the great evil it is in the States,” Heitz says with a chuckle. “Nor is it viewed as a great revenue source.”

People Merlot Sangiovese Italy

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