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Reginald Oliver of El Molino Dies

Napa vintner demonstrated that California Pinots and Chardonnays could age

Posted: June 27, 2005

Reginald Oliver, the owner of El Molino Winery in Napa Valley, died of melanoma on June 24, at his home in St. Helena. He was 66.

Oliver founded El Molino in 1981, refurbishing a defunct 1880s winery that had been converted from a mill. His passion was for Burgundian-style wines, and he excelled with both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With Pinot Noir, he was a bit of a maverick, growing it in St. Helena, a place many considered too warm for that variety.

But the proof was in the bottle, and his Pinots and Chardonnays routinely earned very good to outstanding reviews in Wine Spectator tastings. Both wines also aged well, which gave Oliver a sense of pride since many people were convinced California wines wouldn't age.

Scott McLeod, who worked with Oliver as a consultant through the 2004 vintage, said it was the late André Tchelistcheff, the legendary winemaker, who provided the seed for his Pinot vineyard.

"Andre Tchelistcheff told Reg about the Pinots that were grown in Rutherford by Inglenook in the '30s and '40s and how good they were," said McLeod, winemaker at Niebaum-Coppola, the former Inglenook winery. "That was the only spark necessary for Reg. He's always been a contrarian, and, from the outside, planting Pinot in Rutherford was contrarian. He was a great champion of the Rutherford appellation."

"He was iconoclastic and often singular in his business decisions, but he could also be accurately viewed as a visionary," said Tor Kenward, a Napa Valley vintner.

A native of Berkeley, Calif., Oliver loved St. Helena, having spent a Christmas there in 1939 at the home of his aunt. After graduating from San José State University, he attended the master's program at New York University's Stern School of Business and later became a partner of Pershing & Co., an investment firm in New York.

Along with his interests in Napa, which included ownership of the Star Vineyard in Rutherford, Oliver was involved in two wineries in New Zealand: Dry River in Martinborough and Te Awa in Hawke's Bay

"Dad was very involved and passionate about wine," said his daughter, Lily, general manager of El Molino. "He flew down to New Zealand three or four times a year, and if they were buying a new tractor, Dad would be buying it and making sure it had a cup holder on it."

Oliver is survived by his wife, Marie Mason, daughter Lily, son Jack, adopted son Nicholas Muir and two grandchildren, as well as his parents, sister and brother.

A memorial service is scheduled for June 30 at 11 a.m. at St. Helena Catholic Church. The family requests that memorial donations be sent to the Napa Valley Wine Library, Napa County Landmarks or Hospice of Napa Valley.

--James Laube

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