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Whitehall Lane - Napa Valley

Whitehall Lanes' New Team Hits the Ground Running

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 had purchased the property a year earlier and completely replanted its 21-acre vineyard to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. The vineyard was there since before the turn of the century but the varietals that had been planted were not well suited for the area and were in poor shape. While the new vines matured, wine was produced with grapes purchased from numerous other Napa Valley growers. In 1985 they started to incorporate their own grapes into their wines and for years put together an impressive array of Merlots, and Cabernet Sauvignons upon which their reputation is largely 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 we now know, many of these investments did not work out that way. And so it went with Ando and Whitehall Lane. 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. Between 1988 and 1993 the number of different wines increased as did overall production. At its production peak of about 20,000 cases, nine different wines were offered, including 3 different bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, also a Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and red Meritage. The wines were still very well thought of by the wine world. If anything, the overall wine program suffered from lack of focus and direction. Tom Leonardini knew this. And he was 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. American oak barrels were brought in to use exclusively. A sophisticated night air cooling system that uses a fraction of the energy than before, was built to control the temperature inside the winery. He brought in new General Manager Mike McLoughlin and all new support personnel to run the winery on a day-to-day basis. He also hired veteran winemaker Gary Galleron who earned a first-rate reputation for making wine at Grace Family Vineyards and S. Anderson Vineyard.

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. A 14 acre vineyard in Napa was acquired last year to strengthen the already formidable Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot programs. That strategic move ensures these two programs will stay in the forefront of the winery’s offerings. In fact Whitehall Lane’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are destined to be the wines that Whitehall Lane will forever etch its reputation into the Napa Valley wine lore.

Production today is about 12,000 cases per year. There will be a gradual increase through the rest of the decade before settling into a comfortable 15- 20,000 case output. “I’m just not interested in growing beyond that point,” says Tom Leonardini. “Above that, 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. And by dramatically improving the plant and equipment, the winery can run more efficiently, allowing them to keep their wines in an affordable price range. “We don’t want to be the highest priced guys in the market,” says Tom. “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.”

Galleron Takes Key Role At Whitehall

One of the first things owner Tom Leonardini did after acquiring Whitehall Lane Winery was to call Gary Galleron. Tom had met Gary a couple of years earlier at a dinner party. That night he met a guy with high energy, someone he knew was a hard worker and intelligent about winemaking. He already was aware of and respected his track record for making some of the best Cabernet Sauvignons made in California.

Gary has worked in the wine industry since 1976 after earning a degree in Viticulture and a minor in Enology at Fresno State. He went to work right away at Chateau Montelena, studying under Mike Grgich. After nine years, Gary left to become winemaker for Lenz Winery in Long Island, New York. He came back to California in 1988 and worked briefly again with Mike Grgich at his Grgich Hills Winery. But it was primarily during the following five years that Gary earned his solid reputation for crafting stellar wines at both S. Anderson Vineyards and at Grace Family Vineyards.

Tom quickly offered Gary the winemaker job at Whitehall Lane and he took it. Gary has already made a huge impact on the quality of wines coming out of Whitehall Lane. Although both the 1991 and 1992 vintages were in the barrel when he arrived, his influence in the final product is apparent. He introduced both wines to additional oak then expertly blended each to reflect his own style. The 1993 vintage will be the first wine made exclusively by Gary, so look for that one to set yet another high standard for Whitehall Lane wines.

Tom Leonardini

Tom Leonardini turned the tables. A couple of years ago he claimed back a bit of California real estate from foreign owners by buying Whitehall Lane Winery.

Whitehall Lane’s owner was Japanese businessman Hideaki Ando. The winery proved to be too much of a cash drain to his real estate investment company in Tokyo where a recession hit as hard as it did in the U.S. The company’s cash crunch together with poor management of the winery fueled the sale of Whitehall Lane. Tom successfully negotiated a deal with Ando to purchase the winery. Success, though, is not new to Tom Leonardini.

Tom was born and raised in San Francisco. He attended college nearby at the University of San Francisco where he studied business accounting. His mother’s family had founded major car rental firm, National Car Rental. After graduating, he worked there as their northern California General Manager. He left two years later at the ripe old age of twenty-four to start his own car rental service which he called Pacific Car Rental System. Then five years later sold his interest in that company to start yet another car rental company!

He named his new venture American International Rental Car. During the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, Tom grew his new car rental company to 16 offices throughout California. In 1985 he again sold his company, this time to Capital Southwest, headquartered in Dallas, Texas.

He muses about how he and his wife Karen used to buy a lot of Ruffino Chianti when they were married almost 30 years ago. They graduated to finer wines after they bought a new house that came with a small makeshift wine cellar. ‘The ‘cellar’ was cooled by a Sears air-conditioner. ‘We used to fill up the cellar up then give the wine away as presents to our friends and family,” he smiles.

Over the years his palate grew more discriminating. So much so, that after he sold his American International car rental company, he opened up a fine-wine shop in downtown San Francisco. His wine shop, the Napa Valley Winery Exchange, gave him convenient access to some of the best wines in the world. Accordingly, he built a home wine cellar as impressive as his wine collection. His state-of-the-art cellar has motion and temperature detection devices, complete with smoke and fire sensors that are wired directly to the fire department! A few years back The Wine Spectator even wrote a full-page article telling about it.

Tom and Karen Leonardini live in the community of Hillsborough just south of San Francisco. He goes up to the winery during the week and is back home again on the weekends, often commuting several times during the week. Tom Jr., the oldest of their two sons was brought on recently as Whitehall Lane’s National Sales Manager. Kristen, the oldest of their three daughters opened up their retail wine shop in San Francisco. Their other kids, Katie, Kimberly and Tony, are not presently involved in the wine business. ‘We’re not your typical new winery owners who only spend weekends at the winery,” insists Tom. ‘This is not just a hobby. We’re committed to making superior wines.”