By Beth Novak Milliken & Lindy Novak, Excerpt from the 2012 Newsletter
The year 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of our move to St. Helena (in 1972) and the 30th anniversary of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery—our first Cabernet Sauvignon was bottled in 1982! Thankfully, our mother, Mary Novak has kept treasured family files as well as old winery records intact — the faded vineyard photos, purchase notes, and winery correspondence helped us remember life during those first years at Spottswoode and in the Napa Valley, from the early 1970s through the 1980s.
We found handwritten grape receipts reminding us about the Petite Sirah, Napa Gamay, French Colombard, and Green Hungarian varietals that had been planted in the vineyard when our parents first acquired Spottswoode. We sold the grapes to Souverain (now Burgess Winery) in 1972 and 1973, and in 1974, Robert Mondavi purchased ten tons of Napa Gamay while Souverain took the other varietals. The next year, we brought all of our fruit to the Napa Valley Cooperative (now Hall Winery) in St. Helena. The wine made there ultimately went to Gallo who, amazingly enough, purchased a great deal of Napa Valley fruit in those days.
Between 1973 and 1976, we replanted all but the Napa Gamay to Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Zinfandel. A neighbor, Ric Forman, founder of Forman Winery, steered us toward Cabernet Sauvignon, as did our friend Justin Meyer. (Justin later founded Silver Oak with our long-time family friend, Ray Duncan.) In 1976 Allied Grape Growers purchased all of our Napa Gamay and we sold 7.05 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon — our first Cabernet crop ever !— to Oak Knoll Cellars (now Rutherford Hill Winery).
All of this replanting yielded acres of vines that needed suckering throughout the summer months, and so the five children were put to work from 8:00 a.m. until noon each day removing suckers from the vines and cleaning the emitters (clearing silt from the irrigation hose gaskets). Our dad felt that we had lived “too high on the hog for too long,” and so a work routine and ethic were instilled. It was hot, tedious labor, but we were paid for our time and, in hindsight, we learned a great deal from the experience.
In 1977 we sold 16.2 tons of Napa Gamay to Charles Krug Winery, 47.86 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon to Spring Mountain Vineyards, and 16.8 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon to Rutherford Hill Winery.
After our father, Jack Novak, died unexpectedly in November of 1977, our mother determined to carry on with the life they had built here. Mary had already fallen in love with Spottswoode and the Napa Valley, and she recognized that she had a true passion for the property and its vineyard. And so she continued to sell grapes to myriad wineries in Napa Valley in 1978 and 1979, earning enough to keep Spottswoode sustainable as a grape growing estate. In 1980, the Spottswoode Estate Vineyard provided fruit to numerous wineries including Spring Mountain, Duckhorn, St. Clement, Forman, Keenan, and Round Hill, and in 1981, Frogs Leap and Burgess joined the list.
In 1982, Mary achieved the dream that she and Dad had shared — producing the first-ever vintage of Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. We harvested a bumper crop that year and kept 20 tons of fruit for ourselves, selling the remaining grapes to our buyer list with the new additions of Shafer, Chateau Chevalier, Whitehall Lane, Heitz, and Hafner Vineyard. Tony Soter joined forces with us as our inaugural winemaker. In that first year, we crushed our fruit at Hafner Vineyard in the Alexander Valley and brought the finished Cabernet back to age in barrel in the cellar of the estate home. An added bonus to finally producing our own wine was the ripe blackberry aromas of our wine in barrel emanating from the basement cellar — just incredible!!
The following year we decided to keep 7.5 tons of Sauvignon Blanc in addition to Cabernet Sauvignon, and in 1984 we harvested Cabernet Franc and Merlot, as most of the Zinfandel vines had been converted (T-budded) to these varietals a few years earlier. Tony was interested in adding layers and dimension to our estate Cabernet and we loved the aromatic and structural characteristics that Cabernet Franc brought to the wine. We chose not to use the Merlot as it seemed to stand apart from the wine, rather than enhance it, so that acreage was eventually replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Trial and error was — and still is — the norm.
We were one of the first wineries to introduce organic farming practices. In 1985, when Tony became Vineyard Manager, he urged us to embrace organic production methods, leading to our Estate receiving CCOF certification in 1992. We are extremely proud of our land stewardship and feel deeply passionate about organic farming.
From 1985 through 1990 we continued to use just a portion of grapes for our own wines, selling the remaining fruit to Duckhorn and Shafer. Both of these winemaking families inspired our mother to start Spottswoode Winery, and we are truly grateful for their encouragement and support.
The dreaded phylloxera was discovered in our vineyard in 1990, but fortunately we were prepared. Several years earlier Tony had warned us about this root louse, and at the time, like most of the Napa vineyards, we were planted entirely on AxR1 rootstock; he knew it was only a matter of time before it would appear in our vineyard. Immediately after the 1990 harvest, we removed the Sauvignon Blanc vines and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon (Blocks 1–8) on four different rootstocks. Later, we ripped out more of the older vines and planted blocks 9 –14 to additional Cabernet Sauvignon and a small amount of Cabernet Franc. Between 1996 and 1997, we used the last of the fruit from our old vines for the Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and then, in 1998, completed our replanting.
Over the years we’ve learned that a vineyard is never “complete,” rather, like a garden, it is a work in progress, with blocks in and out of production as we fine-tune and continuously make improvements. We are committed to farming our land organically, and as we steward our property into the future, we are mindful of how our choices affect the environment and surrounding community. We have added chickens and cashmere goats to the Spottswoode menagerie, and they are happily residing on (while naturally replenishing) the one-half acre of land that we have left fallow.
Reflecting on all that has transpired over these last decades, our family looks with gratitude and a sense of awe over how much our estate and Napa Valley have grown and at what we have all accomplished during such a relatively short period of time.