We caught up with Richard Ward, co-founder of Saintsbury winery in the Napa Valley.
Tell us a bit about what led you to making wine in the Napa Valley
I’m a ‘refugee’ from a structural engineering degree. After university, I spent 3 years in Charleston in South Carolina teaching high school physics and physical science, and during this time I began to discover the world of wine, reading about it in earnest. This propelled me to do a Masters program in Enology and Viticulture.
In a brewing class there, I met David Graves. We quickly became friends and in 1981, after several years working at wineries to gain experience, we started making wine together – plunging ahead with very little money and a lot of ignorant optimism. We needed a name to put on our labels and christened our venture ‘Saintsbury’, after the English scholar and wine lover, George Saintsbury.
We have spent the last 34 vintages perfecting the art of making fine Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In the beginning we did everything ourselves, but as we grew we hired more and more people. Suddenly we were making 400,000 bottles.
What is the best thing about what you do?
We’re confronted with a new different growing season each vintage, so it’s great seeing how that is expressed in each wine— they all retain their sense of place. Plus we get to drink them!
What does a typical day involve for you?
Espresso – emails – blend tastings – market analysis – lunch – accounting – team meetings – another espresso – problem solving – market research (also known as opening a bottle of wine).
What do you love most about the Napa Valley?
I love the physical beauty of the valley; I also love the fact that no matter how warm it gets during the day, the proximity to the cold Pacific means that the temperature drops into the mid-fifties at night, which is perfect for sleeping and for fine grape growing.
There is incredible potential here. There is so much diversity within this one valley; the geography, climate, grape varieties, wines, food, art, architecture and beauty. It’s amazing to have so much variety packed into one five by thirty mile slice of heaven.
If you had just one day, how would you give visitors a taste of the diversity in wines here?
Starting in Calistoga early in the morning, drive south down Highway 29 and see the fog covering the peaks of the Mayacamas Mountains to the west, with their green conifer-laden hillsides. Stop off for breakfast at Model Bakery in Saint Helena, they do wonderful buttery English muffins and Blue Bottle Coffee espressos.
Spottswoode is a great place for a tasting a rich, classically proportioned Cabernet that defines the best of what ‘upvalley’ red wine has to offer. Further down Highway 29 you will notice that Howell Mountain has mostly scrub oak on its west facing slopes – the Mayacamas Mountains rob Pacific storms of their rain and these hills also bake in the late afternoon sun. These changes in landscape can help visitors understand why Spring Mountain Cabernet tastes so different than those of Howell Mountain just 5 miles away. South of Saint Helena the valley broadens; nestled in the western foothills I would recommend stopping off at a new gem of a winery, DaNa, which has spectacular, understated architecture, just like its delicious Cabernet.
At Yountville the valley turns slightly to the southwest, more aligned with the prevailing breezes off the ocean and you can see the dramatic rocky palisades of Stag’s Leap to the east home to Cabernet said to represent an “iron fist in a velvet glove”. Heading to Carneros you leave the Cabernet-centric upvalley behind and move into gently rolling hills that are ideal for producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here you will find our winery, Saintsbury, located in a beautiful garden setting.
What is your favourite Saintsbury wine?
Our straight Carneros Pinot Noir. After fifteen years or so of ageing, especially in a magnum, it is the most perfect drinking — great perfume, lovely balance and proportion, it has feminine mystique encapsulated.
What’s your favourite time of year in the wine country?
Harvest time, as pent up expectation finally gets revealed. Is it decent? Delicious? Magnificent?
And finally… do you have any insider tips from the Californian wine country?
2014 is a wonderful vintage—perfect growing season, moderate crop, fantastic wines.