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Santa Barbara, California 93111
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Whitehall Lane Winery - Napa Valley

The winery’s Merlot offerings have made quite an impact

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 to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. The vineyard was planted before the turn of the century but the varietals 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 blend their 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 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, a Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and red Meritage. The wines were still very high quality and continued to sell well. Unfortunately however, the winery suffered greatly 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. A 14-acre vineyard in Napa was acquired in 1994 to strengthen the already formidable estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot programs. The additional acreage allowed the winery to expand production and keep these two varietals at the forefront of the Whitehall’s offerings. In 1995-96, two more parcels were added, the Bommarito and Oak Glen vineyards, both in Napa county. And now, one more vineyard is in the works, which will bring the total acreage to about 110. Without a doubt, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the wines that have forever etched Whitehall Lane’s reputation into the Napa Valley wine lore.

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 recently rated as the best red wine in America by Wine Spectator magazine, and the Leonardini version was not far behind. Both the Leonardini and Reserve wines are produced from estate vineyards. The Napa Valley Cabernet is made from both estate and contract vineyards.

The winery’s Merlot offerings have made quite an impact too, achieving 90+ point ratings every year this decade. Gold Medal Wine Club is very pleased to launch Whitehall Lane’s newest Merlot, Bommarito. Whitehall Lane purchased the storied Bommarito vineyard in 1995, and recently decided to bottle a Merlot bearing the same name to commemorate this historic Napa Valley pioneer. Dominic Bommarito who was born in Sicily in 1889, immigrated to America in 1903 and began farming his Rutherford estate in 1929. He was a founding member of the important Napa Valley Co-op at Greystone and tended to his Rutherford vineyard until his death in 1963. For decades the Bommarito 25-acre vineyard estate has maintained a solid reputation for producing outstanding fruit.

In addition to Bommarito, the winery produces a top quality Leonardini Merlot, made entirely with grapes from the Leonardini vineyard. The Napa Valley Merlot, is a blend of fruit from several vineyards in Napa. We can unequivocally state that all three Merlots are exquisite.

Sauvignon Blanc is becoming an increasingly important wine to Whitehall Lane. Fortunately, many of the same areas that do well with growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes also do well with Sauvignon Blanc. The winery will continue to boost Sauvignon Blanc production each year. The fabulous 1997 vintage featured this month is made primarily with fruit from the Bommarito vineyard, harvested from 46-year-old vines.

Rounding out the field is the always-important Chardonnay offering, along with small lots of Zinfandel. Winemaker, Dean Sylvester is responsible for all phases of winemaking as well as overseeing the 110 acres of vineyards that the winery owns and contracts.

Production today is about 30,000 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. And by dramatically improving the plant and equipment, the winery has been able to 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.”

Owner Tom Leonardini has taken his winery to a new level of prominence

Tom Leonardini turned the tables. Seven 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 1970s and early 1980s, 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 says smiling.

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 eldest 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. Another daughter, Kimberly, recently joined her father to manage the winery’s tasting room. The Leonardini's other children, Katie, 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.”