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Ballentine Vineyards - Napa Valley


Ballentine upholds a rich history with Old Vine wines in prestigious Napa Valley.

While Ballentine Vineyards' Winery only dates back to 1992, it can be reasonably argued that the winery's roots can be traced back more than a hundred years. Ballentine's owners, Betty and Van Ballentine, are both descendents of Napa Valley pioneering wine families that had a hand in carving the reputation that Napa Valley has enjoyed for centuries.

Betty's grandfather, Libero Pocai, emigrated from Italy and found his way to Napa Valley in 1906, when he purchased a sixty-acre tract that eventually became the State's 115th bonded winery. Under the L. Pocai & Sons label, the winery reached its heyday during the 1940s and 50s. Van Ballentine's father, John Ballentine, was one of the first vintners to apply for a new winery bond after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. He called his new winery Deer Park and became commercially successful selling a large number of varietals that were popular at the time. Van Ballentine started working for his family's winery as a youth and continued as a grower after Deer Park ceased operations around 1960. Through it all, he maintained a desire to return to the winery side of the wine business.

In 1992, Ballentine decided to revive Ballentine Vineyards and had a portion of his harvest custom crushed. In 1995, Van and Betty built a winery, behind their 100-year-old farmhouse. They revived the original bonded winery number #3595 issued to Vana's father in 1933. Today's Ballentine Vineyards is a modest 10,000 case winery that produces excellent estate wines that are only sold in select, premium shops outside the winery. Ballentine Vineyards has won numerous medals and awards in competitions and is considered one of the rock-solid small wineries that are the true bases of the Napa Valley.

"I always had the desire to get back into the winery business,"Van Ballentine explained. "Wine was in my veins since I was a little boy who was used to clean the inside of the tanks. For many years we sold our grapes to the likes of Caymus, Ravenswood, Rosenblum and Robert Mondavi, but I always felt there was more to the business than just growing grapes and tending vines. I also felt all along that I had the true passion for the winery side of the business. It's a hard business, and you had better come prepared to work if you expect to be successful. "At this time, Ballentine Vineyards consists of more than 100 acres of prime Napa Valley vineyards. The land is divided into three separate vineyard tracts. The long-standing Pocai Ranch reaches between the Napa River and Silverado Trail and was part of Betty's family's original vineyard land bought by her grandfather more than a century ago. The well-known Crystal Springs Vineyard at the base of storied 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 Ballentine's residence that are both located on the property. Almost ten years ago, Ballentine hired an apprentice winemaker that had just returned to the United States and who had graduated from UC Davis. The young winemaker, Bruce Devlin of nearby San Jose, stayed on and is now the full-time winemaker for Ballentine Vineyards.

"We pretty much agree on most things," added Van Ballentine plainly. "Bruce does a really great job and his winemaking approach is basically a continuation of the same style we originally developed for our wines. "Betty Ballentine continues to operate the business side of the winery. Van confided that he "hopes she's never gonna quit," and finished the statement with a chuckle. After dealing almost exclusively with red varietals, Ballentine Vineyards has recently entered the white wine side of the business, an area of expertise that Van Ballentine cedes to Bruce Devlin. Chenin Blanc is already being produced and a new Malvasia Bianca will debut later this year.

The biggest project currently underway at Ballentine Vineyards is the remodeling of the tasting facility that will greatly expand the visitor capability of the winery. The extensive remodeling is designed to enlarge the facility "much as possible," according to Ballentine. It is scheduled to be completed sometime next Spring, but an exact date has not yet been established.

In many ways, Ballentine Vineyards and its owners are the continuation of the Napa Valley wine tradition, producing high caliber wines in the shadow of their higher profile neighbors



Napa Valley winemaker, Bruce Devlin

Like many other preeminent Napa Valley winemakers, Bruce Devlin is a graduate of UC Davis. He also has worked for wineries in South Africa, Germany and Australia before returning to California. In South Africa, he became familiar with the venerable Chenin Blanc grape and now considers it his signature grape and wine. He has also consulted for a number of other Napa Valley wineries.

Van and Betty Ballentine

One might think that at age 81, Van Ballentine would begin to slow down a bit. Happily, this is not the case with the laid back owner of Ballentine Vineyards. "I can't really remember being interested in anything else since I was a child," Ballentine recalled in a recent interview. My father was dedicated to the wine business and I guess it just rubbed off on me." For the record, Van Ballentine has recently completed his 64th consecutive harvest, a number that puts him in rarified air amongst Napa Valley growers and vintners. While he admits to slowing down a bit, he remains a formidable outside force when his prized vineyards are picked each year. His wife of many decades, Betty, herself a descendent of an original Napa Valley pioneering winery family, tells it this way: "No one in Napa Valley tends to their vineyards like Van does," she said proudly. "And what's really more important is the fact that he really enjoys doing it. He says it's something that is in his blood and anyone who knows him knows it is true. Van recalls that he was either seven or eight when he began helping his dad around the winery. At first he simply followed his father helping wherever he could. Then, his small statue was put to good use when he was able to fit through the small opening that allowed him to clean the inside of the empty tanks. As with most Napa Valley wine families, the Ballentines have had their share of ups and downs. Van remembers times in the valley during the 1950s when money wasn't very available and a really good bottle of wine could be bought for under a dollar.

Vana's career included a stint as the vineyard manager for the huge Christian Brothers facility just north of the town of St. Helena, a period that Van described as "eye opening to see wines made on such a large scale. It sort of made me appreciate the fact that as a small winemaker you tend to have a great deal more flexibility in making decisions about your wines." Van Ballentine is also proud of his no-nonsense approach to wines. He pleaded his cause with a direct approach to the business.

"I just want to make something that is good to drink. I place a good deal of emphasis on the fruit content and have stayed away from over-oaking the finish. Betty and I have done a huge number of public tastings and from the feedback I get from many consumers, the type of wines I make actually taste better to many of them. After all, the idea is when you drink one of my bottles I want you to want another right away. In the end, isn"t that what it"s all about’" At an age when many of his peers have retired and taken a seat on the sidelines, Van Ballentine continues to perform on the playing field that is the wine industry. His wines are as subtle as his personality and are among the true values of the Napa Valley. The wines of Ballentine Vineyards reflect a period of times past in Northern California and of an era that allowed Napa Valley to emerge as one of the great wine producing regions in the entire world. Happily, Van Ballentine was around during those times and reflects it well with his lovely wines.

About The Region

All of Ballentine's estate grown grapes come from two of Napa Valley's most prestigious appellations, St. Helena and Calistoga. Both are located in what is considered the upper valley, at Napa's northern end. The three separate vineyards that comprise Ballentine's estates provide an excellent cross section of micro-climatization that is important to the style of wines that Ballentine Vineyards continues to produce.


Van's Rack of lamb in Merlot Sauce


Ingredients

Serves 3-4

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 in recipe
1 Glass Merlot for chef
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 Fahrenheit 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.



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