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Gold Medal Wine Club
5330 Debbie Road, Suite 200
Santa Barbara, California 93111
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Napa Wine Cellars - Napa Valley

The winery, which was originally founded in 1976 under the name Napa Wine began as a very small sole proprietorship

The story of Napa Wine Cellars is one that takes a number of twists and turns over a two decade period before completing the proverbial full-circle. Napa Wine Cellars opened their doors in 1976 as a very small sole proprietorship under the guidance of Charles Woods. In 1978, the winery incorporated and took the first steps towards increasing production and distribution. Two years later Aaron Mosley, formerly of Chateau Montelena and Grgich Hills, was hired to develop the winemaking styles that would first gain the winery notoriety.

In early 1982, a new label design was brought in and Napa Wine Cellars became simply Napa Cellars. Almost a year later Napa Cellars took on a European flavor with the purchase of the winery by the DeSchepper-DeMoor family of Gent, Belgium. The new owners who had been international wine merchants since 1947, brought with them plenty of enthusiasm and great plans for the winery. In March of 1984 they undertook a complete facelift of the visitor’s center and the production facilities. After two years, all work was completed and the new Napa Cellars emerged as DeMoor Winery. However, the Napa Cellars label remained as their in-house brand, sold only at the winery tasting room in Napa.

Throughout the remainder of the 80’s the winery developed its line by focusing on Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays, Zinfandels and a popular specialty dessert wine they called Fie Doux. Mosely also maintained the winery’s tradition of purchasing 100% of their grapes crushed. By carefully choosing grapes from select Napa Valley vineyards and crafting the wines in his own unique style Mosely managed to build a loyal following. By the end of the decade DeMoor was among the most popular wine-tasting stops in Napa Valley. Yet with the start of the 90’s more changes were on the way. The winery was once again sold, this time due to the untimely passing of one of the managing members of the DeMoor Family. The new owners were a prominent Japanese family corporation (Sky Court Corp. ) led by Tetsuo Nishida of Tokyo. Mr. Nishida, a scratch golfer and international entrepreneur assisted by General Manager Jack Sakamoto, maintained the relationship with winemaker Mosley for the next two years before turning over the reins to assistant winemaker Michael Cox.

Under Cox, who supervised the wine making operations until 1995, DeMoor wines continued to be refined, winning 19 medals at national wine competitions, including six gold medals. With accolades and success coming their way Nishida and Sakamoto decided the time was ripe to make a significant investment in the winery’s future. Their first step was to bring in a veteran winemaker. Don Baker was the perfect individual to fit the bill. Don brought with him 25 years of winemaking know-how including stints at some of Napa’s finest wineries such as Joseph Phelps, Vichon, Ehlers Lane, William Hill and Merryvale. Since starting in July of 1995, Don’s hands-on approach and technical expertise has already helped the winery make giant strides in its production capabilities and quality control. The first order of business was upgrading the cooperage program. New French Oak barrels were brought in to compliment the existing American Oak barrels and a new refrigeration system allowed Don to cold ferment all of the winery’s white wines. Don has also took an active role in purchasing fruit from some of the area’s finest growers, adding Semillon to the Sauvignon Blanc to round out the flavor, and acquiring Zinfandel from 90-year-old vines to create what he envisioned becoming the winery’s flagship product.

In 1995 Don finished making and bottled the 1994 Napa Cellars Chardonnay which is one of our featured wines this month. “The 1994 vintage is a wonderful, fruity, lightly oaked wine,” reports Don. “My personal philosophy of winemaking is that less is more—don’t over manipulate the grapes. I let the fruit do the talking,” he relates. The result is a clean, crisp, citrusy Chardonnay that compliments a wide variety of food.

Don Baker has since gone on to other wine endeavors since yet another ownership change at the winery has taken place. In late 1996 the operation was purchased by Koerner Rombauer, owner of Rombauer Vineyards and Kornell Winery. Koerner immediately changed the name of the winery once again back to Napa Cellars.

This year winery production will be approximately 6,500 cases with 5,000 carrying the DeMoor label and the remainder getting the familiar Napa Cellars name. Next year and in the near future, Baker and General Manager Sakamoto hope to gradually increase production topping out at around 20,000 cases annually.

In addition to boosting production levels and distribution, the crew at De Moor also intend to serve the needs and thirsts of the thousands of visitors that stop at DeMoor each year. Known as Napa’s “gateway winery”, last year alone the tasting room saw over 25,000 guests sample and enjoy what may be some of the valley’s most popular wines. Sitting in the quaint picnic area surrounded by the winery’s tiny Chardonnay vineyard it’s hard to imagine a more pleasant way to spend a sunny spring afternoon. If your travels should take you to the Napa Valley, Don Baker, Jack Sakamoto and company invite you to experience the winery ambiance for yourself.

Don Baker - Winery Owner

At the age of 20, Don Baker left his Philadelphia roots to fulfill his dreams to study forestry, and to follow his father’s and brothers’ footsteps into the Marines. To achieve his first ambition, Don went to Colorado and eventually to Missoula, Montana where he studied forestry at the University of Montana. During his summer breaks Don trained as a firefighter and eventually entered an elite unit of smoke jumpers fighting wildfires throughout country.

After graduation Don enlisted. Following his tour of duty in Vietnam as a Marine Officer, he began his career with the Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Along the way, he got hooked on the hobby of winemaking. ‘It all started when I bought my wife a book on wines and the next thing I knew I was experimenting with my own wine lab,” says Don. Despite his new passion Don kept working in the lumber industry in order to help provide for his growing family of five. Yet, as each week passed he dreamed of retiring one day to the Napa Valley where he imagined he might dabble in the hobby he loved. In 1978 with the encouragement of his wife Lynne, Don decided to pursue his dream a little ahead of schedule.

The family moved to Sacramento and he enrolled at U.C. Davis where he completed his degree in viticulture and enology. In 1980 he got his first job in the field, working in the cellar and assisting with the crush at Joseph Phelps winery. There, he watched and learned from veteran winemaker Walter Schug. His next move was on to Vichon Winery where for two years he honed his production skills in the cellars. Still looking for greater responsibilities and input in the winemaking process, Don became the assistant winemaker at Ehlers Lane where he stayed for five years until financial difficulties closed the winery in 1988. His next move was to William Hill where during the next two years he rose from cellar foreman to assistant winemaker and finally in 1993 to winemaker. Itching to take on a bigger challenge, his path lead to DeMoor/Napa Cellars in 1995. ‘I saw the ad for winemaker in the paper and discovered a perfect opportunity,” says Don. After a meeting with the owner Tetsuo Nishida he got the green light to start immediately. His assignment: to make the winery a world class producer.

‘When I arrived the winery was creating excellent wines but they were doing it the hard way. The production facilities and cooperage arrangements left plenty to be desired, says Don. He had specific plans and a well formulated philosophy of wine making (‘less is more- let the fruit do the talking”), and he quickly implemented both. First on his agenda was upgrading the winery’s refrigeration process. With the new coolers in place he was able to use a cold fermentation process on all of the winery’s white wines. This slow meticulous process almost doubles the fermentation time, but the result is wines with the fruit flavors better preserved. Don also turned his attention to the winery’s red wines incorporating new French Oak barrels into the mix to add deeper, more complex flavors.

In addition to revamping the physical plant, Baker has also turned his attention to securing the finest fruit the Napa Valley can provide. While many of the contracts were already in place when he arrived, he has been using his connections to augment these commitments with outstanding grapes from leading vineyards around the area.

With all the changes implemented by Don during his short tenure at DeMoor, perhaps he made it a more attractive target for someone else to buy it! In any event, since the recent change of ownership Don has moved on to develop his own business helping other wineries that need effective course corrections implemented. Don’t be surprised though if you see Don’s name crop up again as winemaker for another wonderful wine selection we feature in the future.