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Whitehall Lane Winery - Napa Valley


93-Points - The Insider’s Wine Line

San Francisco wine merchant, Tom Leonardini, had just a casual interest in owning a winery. A casual interest that is until 1993 when he heard that Napa Valley winery Whitehall Lane was up for sale.

Tom was well aware of Whitehall Lane. The original founders, architect Art Finkelstein and plastic surgeon Alan Steen built the winery in 1980. The two purchased the property in 1979 and completely replanted its 21-acre vineyard that was planted before the turn of the century and not well suited for the growing region. By 1985 they started to blend their new estate grapes into the wines, resulting in a string of impressive Merlots, and Cabernet Sauvignons. These two varietals quickly emerged as their flagship wines upon which Whitehall Lane’s early, high quality reputation was built.

In 1988 Japanese businessman Hideaki Ando approached Art and Alan with an offer to buy the winery at a price they couldn’t turn down. Foreign investment in California real estate was still running rampant. Many overseas investors, it seemed, had developed a “Donald Trump” syndrome buying up everything in sight and counting on double-digit real estate inflation to justify their top-dollar purchase. As the economy worsened, the all-too-familiar story of not being able to service the debt started to slow things down. To make matters worse, the winery was being managed remotely from Japan, and it languished from lack of attention.

Amazingly, though, the quality of wines produced at Whitehall during this time period did not suffer nearly as much as the winery’s cash flow. Between 1988 and 1993 the number of different wines increased as did overall production. The wines were still very high quality and continued to sell well. The basic problem was that the winery suffered from lack of focus and direction. Tom Leonardini knew this. He was also aware of Whitehall Lane’s reputation for great wines. So when it went on the block in 1993, Tom jumped at the opportunity.

Immediately, Tom made sweeping changes in both the physical plant and strategic direction. All of the buildings were completely renovated. Virtually all of the old, outdated winemaking machinery was thrown out and replaced with state-of-the-art equipment. New oak barrels were brought in. A sophisticated night air cooling system to control the temperature inside the winery was constructed. Then he brought in a new General Manager, Mike McLoughlin, and all new support personnel to run the winery on a day-to-day basis.

In the vineyard, strategic changes also took place. Plantings were shifted around and added in different spots of the vineyard to take advantage of the ideal soil composition for each varietal. Over the next few years additional vineyard land was acquired to strengthen the already formidable estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot programs. The total vineyard acreage now stands at about 112.

Currently there are three versions of Cabernet Sauvignons—an extremely limited Leonardini Vineyard bottling, a Reserve offering and a Napa Valley version. The 1995 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was rated as the best red wine in America and Number 5 in the world by Wine Spectator magazine. The Wine Spectator also anointed the 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon the Number 3 wine in the world. Due largely to the winery’s superlative Cabernet Sauvignon program, Whitehall Lane also won Winery of the Year honors from Wine & Spirits magazine an unprecedented five years in a row from 1996 through 2000. Without a doubt, Cabernet Sauvignon is the wine that has forever etched Whitehall Lane’s reputation into the Napa Valley wine lore.

Production today is about 40,000 cases per year, which is about the maximum their facility can handle right now. “I’m just not interested in growing too much more,” says Tom Leonardini. “Above this point, it requires a whole new level of overhead, then all of a sudden it’s not fun anymore.” Tom is committed to improving quality even beyond what it is today. “It is important to me that the quality is maintained year-in and year-out,” he says. “We aren’t selling mystique. We want to sell very good wine that people buy to drink and enjoy, not necessarily to cellar away for years and years.”



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