Bighorn Cellars

North Coast AVA

Impetus to succeed in the highly competative wine industry


While Bighorn Cellars can actually trace its inception date back to a relatively recent 1994, it is necessary to reach back into Napa Valley’s immediate wine history to understand the exact reason for its existence.

It all started some thirty plus years ago, when Bighorn founder Bill Hill first came to the Northern California. Like many before and after, the lure of California’s wine country was simply to compelling for the Stanford Graduate student to resist. Hill had also traveled to Europe where he had noticed the charm and grace of several of France and Germany’s wine producing regions. His closeness to California’s liquid treasures and frequent trips to Napa and Sonoma while he was still completing his studies was all that it took. He soon found himself involved in what many have termed the “mystical lure of the almighty grape.”

When Hill completed his Masters degree in business in December of 1974, he acutely determined his future lay somewhere in agribusiness. He set out to make his mark in the emerging wine business that was just beginning its meteoric rise, both in the imagination and lifestyle of the American consumer.

Money was scarce at the time and Bill Hill opted to gather together a number of investors to finance his fledgling operation. The William Hill Winery then commenced a long and steady development, releasing its first wines in 1978 and maintaining steady growth for the next decade plus. Along the way the winery moved its operation until it finally settled in Napa Valley, on a site not far from the well known Silverado Country Club and Spa. William Hill’s wines also continued to improve until they were considered among the finest in the entire area.

But the growth and relative prosperity was accompanied by a number of problems, not to mention the fact that Hill’s multiple partners often proved unwieldy on matters that affected the future of the business.

Weary of such occurrences and having devoted almost a decade and a half to its development, Bill Hill decided to sell the winery in 1992 to a European concern that had persisted in its offers for buying William Hill.

After the transaction, Bill Hill found himself out of the wine industry for the first time in his business life. He wouldn’t be out of the wine business for very long.

Over the next two years, Hill spent a great deal of time evaluating a number of growing areas within his favorite region, the lower Napa Valley. He had become enthralled with the area due to its mountainous, rugged terrain and had a nagging feeling that really great grape vines could be grown within its confines.

He next secured the rights to three of the best vineyards in the area and started a new winery concern that he named Bighorn Cellars. He dedicated the winery to producing only estate grown wines, the type of wines he had dreamed of being able to produce his entire career.

He now believes the future will be good to Napa Valley and, in turn, to Bighorn Cellars.

“I honestly think that Napa’s best wines are ahead of it,” he recently remarked. “The technological advances that have been made are pushing us toward even better wines. We now have choices in several different areas that weren’t available as recently as ten years ago. The wineries that take advantage of these current developments should be able to produce even more world class wines, much better than we have in the past.”

Such optimistic thinking is an integral part of Bill Hill’s mindset and provides him with the impetus to succeed in the highly competitive wine industry. A number of Napa insiders are willing to bet he will be successful.

So do we at Gold Medal Wine Club.

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Bill Hill - Owner, Winemaker & Vineyard Developer

Bill Hill considers himself a very fortunate man, for all the right reasons.

In 1992, after laboring in the wine business for the better part of fourteen years, Hill sold his highly successful Napa operation, known as William Hill Winery, to a European concern and decided to start all over. To insure that his assessments regarding the new business were correct, Bill Hill spent another two years before actually starting.

The wine industry unanimously agreed that the former Oklahoman and Stanford MBA graduate had all the tools and expertise to insure his new venture complete success.

The product of Bill Hill’s labors is the already prestigious Napa Valley producer named Bighorn Cellars, a name that honors the Carneros Region of lower Napa Valley. Carneros means sheep in Spanish and the name Carneros historically signified the “sheep land” aspect of the area to the early settlers of Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Its Bay-related cool climate is also the site of some of the finest vineyard land that exists in Northern California.

“I realized early in my career,” Hill related recently, “that without the presence of great vineyards, it is practically impossible to make great wines. I learned this first in Europe and gleaned the rest through the experiences of my first two decades in the wine business.”

Hill credits a number of excellent vineyard properties in the area for the ultimate success of both of his wineries. Upon the establishment of Bighorn Cellars, three specific vineyards were selected due to the incredible quality of their fruit. Hill was familiar with their locations as well as their excellent quality. These superior vineyards also allowed Hill to produce only vineyard designated wines at his winery, a prime requisite for his high caliber operation.

The advent of phyloxera and the emergence of Bighorn coincided to provide Bill Hill with a unique opportunity to replant his three favorite vineyards.

“Redeveloping the vineyards was something we would have done anyway,” he explained. “But with the phyloxera present, we decided to go ahead and start it earlier than we would have. Besides, there are many new aspects to planting that have been developed in the past decade.”

Besides high density planting, Hill lists a number of new clones available to growers along with a number of new rootstocks that have been deemed superior by viticultural experts.

This will all be welcome news to fans of Bighorn Cellars who released its first wine, a 1994 Carneros Chardonnay, a mere seven years ago. Bighorn’s first release was around 2,000 cases and the winery’s present production is between 16-18,000 cases, a figure that has varied due to grape availability and replanting.

While Bighorn has already garnered its share of plaudits from its peers, Bill Hill emphatically feels that great things are in store for Bighorn in the future. He has utilized the southern part of Napa Valley for his recent Cabernet Sauvignon plantings, and has chosen the rocky domain of Soda Canyon and Coombsville as the home for his prized Cabernet Sauvignon.

“It is evident that the really great Cabernets are coming from this area,” Hill added. “Take the recent success of Screaming Eagle, Phelps Insignia, Della Valle and Schafer just to name a few. The climate and the soil tend to favor the Cabernet Sauvignon above all others. My vineyards are even rockier than most, a fact that makes the equation even more interesting.”

Hill also expects Napa Valley to reach new heights in the future. He considers the technical improvements and developments in the industry to fuel this quality increase for some time to come.

Personally, Bill Hill and Bighorn Cellars will probably be at the forefront of such happenings.