Clos Fontaine du Mont Winery
Napa Valley AVA
Clos Fontaine Content to Keep Small Production Winery Low Profile
When it began its productive life back in 1992, the regally named Clos Fontaine du Mont Winery was intended to provide an insight into Napa Valley’s top pair of grape varietals, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos Fontaine, as it is known to everyone involved, was designed to be a small production label that would be made available to certain big city markets throughout the country. When one of its first releases garnered a 92 from the revered Wine Spectator, Clos Fontaine was on its way to exceeding its initial expectations.
Cleverly named for a gigantic well that sits adjacent to a seismic fault line on part of founder Bill Hill’s Napa Valley property between Soda Canyon and the area called Broken Rock, Clos Fontaine almost turned out to be a label affixed to a private water product. When Hill realized that his new well produced over 700 gallons a minute, he first thought that he might enter the expanding artesian water business. Hill eventually thought better of the idea and soon Clos Fontaine du Mont became a working entity within Hill’s small portfolio of wineries. It had all started more than thirty years before when Bill Hill first ventured to Northern California from his native Oklahoma. While studying for his advanced degree from Stanford in the early 1970’s, Hill succumbed to the compelling hills and valleys of Sonoma and Napa Valleys. Opportune enough to have traveled to a number of France and Germany’s top wine producing regions, Bill Hill soon began to explore the possibility of venturing into the wine business after college.
Soon after completing his masters work in 1974, he was again fortunate to be able to ride the incredible wave that engulfed the California wine business during both the decades of the 70’s and 80’s. Hill was able to scrape together enough money from friends and investors to open the initial William Hill Winery, and in 1978 was able to release first wines to the general public. His company maintained a rather steady growth for the next decade and eventually settled on a wonderful location in Napa Valley that was adjacent to the historic and picturesque Silverado Country Club in lower Napa.
But persistent financial problems and uncooperative partners finally forced Bill Hill to sell his company to a European concern in the early 1990’s. Out of the transaction Hill kept three important parcels that contained either vineyards or a potential future home site for his family. More importantly, he also kept the fledgling brand that he had begun to develop in 1992 called Clos Fontaine du Mont. In its embryonic stage, a little more than 1100 cases of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon had been produced, and as alluded to above, the original release had been greeted by top-caliber accolades. When Bill Hill returned to the wine business in 1994 and opened his adventuresome and wildly successful Bighorn Cellars, it was quite natural that Clos Fontaine was accorded a prominent spot in the planning.
“I was convinced that Napa’s future lay ahead of it,” stated Bill Hill, “and I wanted to be able to produce wines that were significant in their own right. By utilizing Clos Fontaine in certain specific situations, I was able to achieve a degree of flexibility that was truly important to my company’s development.” Clos Fontaine will produce a little over 3,000 cases in 2005, and doesn’t expect to exceed that number in the foreseeable future. Its wines are still available in certain markets, (California, Chicago and New York for example), markets that appreciate its sophisticated, well-balanced style of wine.
“As far as growth is concerned,” said Barry Marshall, Clos Fontaine’s national sales manager, “we are in a posture where we never say never as to Clos Fontaine’s growth. We will certainly let the market dictate that aspect of our business. We are delighted with what we have achieved so far and are in no hurry to expand our operation.”
The reason for Clos Fontaine’s producing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon exclusively rests with founder Bill Hill. It seems that those two varietals were the only ones Bill Hill truly liked personally. For many years Hill lobbied, somewhat unsuccessfully, for other Napa Valley wineries to concentrate on only producing his two favorite premier grape types.
We are convinced Bill Hill was definitely on the right tract. From the quality that he has achieved with Clos Fontaine, we at gold Medal Wine Club are delighted that he was able to stick to his convictions. Enjoy!
Don Baker - Winemaker
It can easily be said that Clos Fontaine winemaker Don Baker has taken a most circuitous route to become the winemaker at this stylish Napa Valley winery. Baker, now 62, is a Philadelphia native (he was duly upset with this year’s Super Bowl outcome) who took Horace Greeley at his word in the mid 19th Century and indeed went west as a young man.
Baker became interested in nature and first enrolled at Colorado State University. He then transferred to the University of Montana and received a degree in Forestry. He joined the US Forestry service, fought fires, became a smoke jumper and battled infernos as far away as Alaska. During the Vietnam War, Baker enlisted in the US Marines and served as a forward observer for the 5th Marines ending his service with the rank of Captain. He had met and later married his college sweetheart, Lynne, and the Bakers set about the task of raising their family. Don also became an avid home winemaker to the delight of his family and friends. For a birthday gift in 1968, Lynne gave Don a new copy of Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine and the proverbial grape seed was planted.
‘I was completely enthralled with the book,” Baker recalled. ‘I’m not sure if it was the pictures or just the way all the vineyards were presented, but it made an incredibly lasting impression on me.”
Sometime in 1978, Lynne’s family moved to Sacramento, California, and Lynne prompted Don to follow suit. He listened to her sage advice and moved the family later that year. Don Baker found Sacramento’s proximity to nearby UC Davis too good to believe and enrolled in the school’s wine program. He received his Oenology degree in 1980 and promptly went to work for Joseph Phelps in Napa.
From there he spent various time with a number of wine entities around Napa and hooked up with Napa wine icon Bill Hill in 1988. He assisted in making the William Hill Winery operational and remained with Hill until 1992. Four years later, Hill bought the old Parducci Winery in Ukiah and Don Baker was sent to put it in working order. Bill Hill’s Napa operation suddenly encountered problems that affected Don Baker.
‘When things got a bit tumultuous around Napa, I had to put things on hold,” Baker added. ‘When events settled back down I joined Bill Hill again and helped him launch his Chilean project in 1998.” Don’s Chilean adventure lasted the better part of 2 ½ years, during which he was partially separated from his family. He returned to Napa Valley in June of 2000 where he assumed several different duties that included winemaker and development director for Clos Fontaine du Mont. He considered Clos Fontaine his opportunity to ‘completely express myself through the grapes.” He used an old analogy to make his point.
‘Let’s say you had a really nice pot of soup,” He explained further. ‘It was just sitting there on the stove, ready to serve. Then someone came up and put a handful of salt into the pot, completely ruining the soup. It wouldn’t make much sense to me.” Don Baker feels it is most important to let the fruit express itself in his wines, much as the soup in the pot. It can be slightly enhanced by oak and malolactic fermentation, but never to the detriment of the fruit.
‘I don’t use too much of anything,” he said flatly. ‘I try to bring out the essences that are complimentary to each particular grape.” Baker is also content that Clos Fontaine du Mont’s small production is an ideal fit for his winemaking philosophy. A larger operation would not allow him the ability to control his wines in the manner that such a small winery provides.
‘I am delighted to have the chance to make some wines in my own style, ‘ Baker added. Not all winemakers can say that due to the pressures their individual wineries place on them. At Clos Fontaine, I guess it’s mostly up to me.” Don Baker has traveled a long and winding road since his firefighting and Marine Corps days and continues to exude a strong sense of pride and accomplishment in his work. It seems entirely fitting that he is at the helm of this emerging winery, much to the continuing delight of his friends and family.