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Ballentine Vineyard - Napa Valley


Ballentine Vineyards - A Century of Grape Growing in the Napa Valley

It is remarkable that the families of the owners of Ballentine Vineyards, Betty and Van Ballentine, are similarly historic in nature and are emblematic of the type of people who played important roles in the development of California’s early wine industry. Betty’s grandfather, Libero Pocai emigrated from Italy in 1884, and following the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, found his way to northern Napa Valley. There he was able to purchase 60 acres described as bale gravely loam, otherwise known as prime vineyard land. He also acquired the 115th winery bond issued by the State of California.

Van Ballentine’s father John left his native County Tyrone in Ireland in 1910 for San Francisco and wound up in Napa Valley after a little more than a decade in the city by the bay. In 1922, he purchased 160 acres that included a defunct winery that had been built in 1921 by a relative of Napa pioneer John Sutter, and was the original Sutter Home winery. John Ballentine wisely saw the abandoned property as a future pot of gold. Time and circumstance have proved him to be entirely correct. When Prohibition ended in 1933, John Ballentine was one of the first to apply for a new winery bond that was immediately followed by his first vintage, released the same year.

Betty’s family originally produced wines under the L. Pocai & Sons name that reached about 25,000 cases at its heyday during the 1940’s and 50’s. Van Ballentine’s family label was called Deer Park Brand and was also commercially successful selling a wide range of varietals that were popular at the time. The initial Ballentine wine business lasted until around 1960 but the Ballentine family remained in the industry as growers after their winery closed. The world of grape growing was an arduous one, and Van Ballentine secretly yearned for the time when he could get back into the winery segment of his favorite vocation. That contingency came to fruition in 1992; nearly seven decades after his father had purchased his first vineyard property.

“I had always had the desire to get back into the winery business,” Ballentine explained further. “Wine was in my veins and I certainly felt I had the passion for the work. It’s a hard business, and you had better come prepared if you expect to be successful.” Ballentine Vineyards produced their first wines in 1993 and released their first 3,000 cases two years later. In addition to the case goods, Ballentine Vineyards continued to custom crush as much juice as their winery permit allowed. The custom crushing also allowed the Ballentines to pay some bills during the winery’s embryonic period; a major feat during particularly hard time for California’s rebuilding wine industry.

Through it all, Van Ballentine has remained a purist with regard to vineyard management and ultimate control of the wines that bear his name. He also steadfastly maintains that wine quality begins and ends in the vineyard and spends endless hours ensuring the vines he has literally grown up with receive as perfect handling and care as is possible.

“No one in Napa Valley tends to their vineyards like Van does,” a proud Betty Ballentine added. “And what’s more important is that he really enjoys doing it. It is truly in his blood.” Ballentine Vineyards’ production has risen steadily over the past decade and currently rests right around the 10,000 case level. Van is happy with the present numbers but is steadfast in his belief that market circumstances and nature will dictate further winery growth. The winery’s estate vineyards currently consist of three separate vineyards. The long standing Pocai Ranch that reaches between the Napa River and the Silverado Trail was part of Betty’s family’s original vineyard land bought by her grandfather. The celebrated Crystal Springs Vineyard at the base of Howell Mountain is the source of much impeccable fruit and the simply named Home Vineyard surrounds the present Ballentine Vineyards Winery as well as the Ballentines’ home that are located on the property. Two years ago Van and Betty Ballentine celebrated their 5oth-wedding anniversary at, what else, a wine tasting event. That time it was in Las Vegas, at a pouring occasion sponsored by UNLV that was cleverly dubbed UNLVino. The couple took it all in stride because they are incredibly content doing what they both truly enjoy---producing wine and making their customers happy.

Such a desirable climate has produced this month’s Gold selection from Ballentine Vineyards. We trust that you will enjoy it in the same loving manner from which it has come.



Van Ballentine

Van Ballentine, now at the tender age of 77, recalls that he was 7 or 8 when he began helping his father around the winery. He literally followed his father John around the winery on his dad’s daily chores, much to his youthful delight and also to any visitors who happened by the small winery. Additionally, his diminutive size allowed him to squeeze through the small manhole opening in the storage casks when cleaning time came around, a chore his entire family was happy to hand him.

‘At first I just sort of followed him around,” Ballentine explained recently. ‘But later, whenever Dad went to San Francisco to sell wine, I would take off from school and go with him. At first my mother wasn’t exactly pleased with my going, but soon she saw how much it meant to both of us and she relented a bit.” Van Ballentine reflects back on the fact that his entire life has been spent around wineries and vineyards and is satisfied with the prospect.

‘Grapes and wine are all that I’ve been around my entire life,” he remarked. ‘I guess I just don’t know how to do anything else.” The wine business hasn’t been easy for Van Ballentine and his family and he has worked hard through the many ups and downs that have occurred during the wine industry’s past seventy years. He remembers the times when money wasn’t all that available and they were periods during the 1950’s when a really fine bottle of wine could be bought for under a dollar.

‘This business can make even wealthy people cringe,” Van stated. ‘When you have to wait so long for a return, it’s extremely hard on your nerves.” For the past few years Van has been involved in the replanting of his 100 acres of vineyards that were devastated by phylloxera, a job he feels will be completed either this year or next. The vines couldn’t be replanted immediately following the outbreak because economic conditions simply wouldn’t allow the outlay of money. Van feels that similar conditions exist throughout the wine business, but that the public is basically unaware of what happens in many small businesses with limited funds and sometimes-inconsistent cash flow.

During the hard times of the 1950’s, Van became the vineyard manager for the huge Christian Brothers entity just north of St. Helena, but also had some input to their wines due to his close relationship with the winemakers. Van also knows that he is first of all a farmer, but that he enjoys the other salient aspects of the winery business. He works closely with his winemaker Bruce Devlin in selecting the final blends for Ballentine Vineyards and actually dictates the style of wines his company produces.

‘I guess I take a no-nonsense approach to wines,” he admitted. ‘I just want to make something that is good to drink. I place a specific emphasis on fruit and don’t load up with an oak finish. I feel the drinking public has come to the realization that these types of wines actually taste better.
After all, when you drink one of my bottles I want you to want another right away. Isn’t that what it’s all about’” The pursuit of people-friendly wines is most important to Van Ballentine who also said that it is important that his customers taste the wine and not the barrels. He uses the word ‘subtle’ when describing his wines. Most of his customers term the wines ‘delicious.’ With advancing age, the subject of retirement is Van Ballentine’s natural companion.

Ballentine sat back, thought a moment then replied again. ‘The thought of retiring has never really occurred to me and Betty,” he sighed. ‘Take a look around. The Mondavi brothers are in their early 90’s and still going strong. Betty and I have worked our entire lives and enjoy what we do. I don’t believe in retiring and am definitely not working toward that goal. Unless something happens I intend to be around a long, long time.” Such sentiment is refreshing in this day and age when many retire in their 50’s or even earlier. Van Ballentine is one of those understated people who actually enjoys hard work and who is also perfectly satisfied with his lot in life. His wines reflect his well-balanced frame of mind. They are rich, soft examples of the wine makers art gleaned from an era that time has reserved for unusually happy occasions. They fit Van Ballentine well.


Lamb Rack Merlot


Ingredients

4 double-thick large loin lamb chops, split
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 cup Merlot
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/3 cup water
8 large button mushrooms peeled


Instructions

Trim all excess fat from lamb chops. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Thread lamb chops on long skewer to resemble rack of lamb and place in shallow baking dish. Bake in moderate oven 350 degrees for 1/2 hour. Pour off melted fat. Mix soy sauce, wine, mustard and garlic powder; pour over chops, coating well. Bake 1/2 hour longer, basting two or three times. Add water and mushrooms and bake 15 minutes more. (Cooked whole baby carrots, peas and tiny crooked new potatoes may be added last 15 minutes, if desired. Serve with tossed green salad and dessert. Our choice of wine to accompany this dish: Ballentine 2000 Merlot.



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