Edna Valley AVA
"We are a real team and I'm very proud of that fact..."
More than thirty years ago, a visionary couple placed their confidence and family’s money into some undeveloped acreage in the then unobtrusive Edna Valley with the expectations that the area would one day develop into a top caliber wine producing area.
The intuitive pair was Jack and Catharine Niven, at the time in their 50s, and their dicey venture into the rich soils of San Luis Obispo County is now the stuff that often produces legend in the wine world.
To be sure, the Nivens road to success wasn’t all that easy.
As part of an old Scottish seafaring family, Jack Niven’s father John had founded the large Purity Stores chain that existed successfully in California during the 1930s through the 1960s. As the new 1970 decade approached, Jack looked for outside investments as a hedge for his family’s long-term security. Catharine prompted her husband to explore a particular area known as Edna Valley that she found particularly attractive. Always the prudent businessman, Jack Niven hired the heads of UC Davis and Fresno State’s viticultural departments to conduct sight tests on the property during their summer vacations. When he received glowing reports about the area’s future promise from both sources, he immediately purchased a six-hundred-acre tract about four miles from the Pacific Ocean.
The couple built a house there and planted their first varietals as the Paragon Vineyard on what they called the Tiffany Ranch. By the mid-1980s, Catharine Niven started producing a small amount of wine that she began selling as Tiffany Hill Winery, after their property’s name. As such, she became the first female winery proprietor in the Central Coast and one of the first in the entire country. Most of her production was sold locally, or within California, and eventually a contract was made to sell some wines in New York.
Everything went smoothly until the president of New York jewelry icon Tiffany’s, happened upon the new wine brand. Incensed, he threatened the small winery with a suit if the name wasn’t immediately changed.
Catharine Niven considered the alternatives and decided against a costly court battle that could conceivably hurt her fledgling winery. She looked around for another name and finally settled on a street name from Hillsboro, California where the family maintained another home. The street was named Baileyana and her winery name was soon changed.
Meanwhile, the Niven family had continued its investment both in the wine business and also in the emerging Edna Valley. Paragon Vineyard Company was established to sell wines throughout the country and the Niven family acreage had now grown to nearly a thousand acres. During the period, a mutual partnership with Edna Valley Winery was also forged. Fifteen hundred additional acres in Paso Robles and Santa Maria were also planted and, along with increased vineyards in Edna Valley, were placed under the Niven family’s immediate care.
As Jack and Catharine Niven advanced in age, the next generation of Nivens assumed the role of leadership in the Baileyana Winery. Sons John and Jim became involved in various aspects of the business and slowly grew the winery until it reached the 3,000 case mark in the mid to late 1990s.
By then, another generation of Nivens had indicated a willingness to become involved in the family’s wine business. John Niven’s son, John H. (see spotlight for explanation of Niven family names) Niven entered the business along with his cousin, Michael Blaney and decided to advance Baileyana Winery to the next level.
The pair sought out international help and was successful in luring veteran Burgundian winemaker Christian Roguenant to cast his lot with Baileyana. Roguenant utilized his wine experience gleaned from five continents to design and build a state of the art winery that must be considered the finest such facility existing on today’s Central Coast. The complex is perched on a knoll overlooking the entire Edna Valley and is a testament to Roguenant’s vision for the dramatic and unusual and the Niven family’s willingness to embrace a project that will be considered innovative by most onlookers.
The winery’s focal points are huge double paneled windows at each end of the winery’s massive bays that permit sunlight and incredible vistas to an area that is usually dark and damp in most winery environments.
Roguenant views the situation simply. “While keeping mildew down, we can turn off rows of lights and conserve energy while enjoying the view,” he states flatly. “I’ve seen wineries all over the world and our winery is compact, versatile and easy to operate.”
From Baileyana’s early success, it is evident that Christian Roguenant’s words are probably an understatement.
John H. Niven
Even as a toddler, 30-year old John H. Niven has wonderful memories of his grandparents home surrounded by vineyards in California’s superlative Edna Valley.
‘From the time I was little, we used to go there for our summer vacations,” he recently related. ‘ Even though I wasn’t aware of the business associated with the place, I knew in my heart that it was special and that I was intended to be involved with it one day.”
After growing up in California’s Bay area, Niven completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California, earning a business degree with a focus on entrepreneurship. He tried his hand at real estate but soon felt the calling of the grape. Niven spent a year taking courses at both UC Davis and Santa Rosa JC in order to broaden his knowledge about the wine business. With his family’s full endorsement, he completed his wine industry studies and accepted a job with an Australian wine company as a marketing manager based in Monterey.
John H. Niven is the tenth generation of the seafaring clan that originated in Scotland. Interestingly, all generations of males have been named John even though John H.’s grandfather was generally known as Jack. The family moved west in the early 1920’s from the Midwest, and has been a mainstay in Northern California for well over eighty years). By 1998, Niven was ready for full involvement with the Niven Family’s wine company, and specifically the Baileyana Winery. Niven’s cousin Michael Blaney, 38, was already an integral part of the growing business. Blaney was a Las Vegas native who was formerly a high-ranking pit boss for several casinos, and who had graduated from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Blaney loved the wine industry and specialized in the operational side of the business.
Along with Niven, the two were instrumental in coaxing Christian Roguenant into joining their team and designing the world-class winery that bears Baileyana’s name.
‘I thought the three of us complemented each other quite remarkably,” Niven added.
‘We built the winery from the ground up and the three of us agreed on practically everything. Around Baileyana, there is very little ego involved. We are a real team and I’m very proud of that fact.”
Niven also refers to a ‘young energy” within the winery that allows Baileyana to pursue its destiny at its own pace. Niven acknowledges the turning point in his career was the 1999 coming out party for Baileyana’s first release that was made from start to finish at the winery.
‘It was the first time that everyone involved felt that Baileyana was ready to meet the outside world,” he continued. ‘The wines were really world-class down to the modernistic label that my Uncle Jim designed.” We used about eighty percent of the grapes from our Estate vineyards and the finished wines were actually delightful. We intend to continue this winning formula for some time in the future.”
Niven relies on his hard earned business expertise to continue growing the winery from its present 15,000 cases to a 40—50 thousand case level some time in the future. He is in no particular hurry, for Niven considers Baileyana Winery to exist within the best of both worlds.
‘I realize that most people consider us a really high tech winery,” he explained. ‘And, they are probably right. What most people don’t realize is that Baileyana possesses a most traditional approach to winemaking. We do not cut corners and take care to insure that the basics are well covered. Christian, Michael and I agree most conclusively on that and we are unlikely to change our minds.”
John is particularly proud of his Firepeak Vineyard, a low yielding parcel of land that produces particularly intense fruit. His family’s thirty years of research and grape growing expertise is centered on Firepeak, which is expected to be the Niven Family jewel of estate vineyards. Its soil content includes clay loam and marine sediment that is joined by volcanic elements from Islay Mountain, at whose base Firepeak Vineyard sits.
While Niven smiles confidently when mentioning Firepeak, he is more concerned with the impending birth of his first child. Niven’s wife Lucy will soon deliver the couple’s first child and have already been told the baby is a boy.
The name had already been chosen, and to no one’s surprise, his first name will be John.
For obvious reasons, the parents intend to call the baby Jack after his great-grandfather.