Central Valley region
Producing prized reds that are still considered among Napa's best
As wine industry resumes go, Dennis Fife’s version would undoubtedly be placed near the head of the class. Fife, now 59 and the owner of Napa’s Fife Vineyards, holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California Berkeley and also an MBA in Marketing from much heralded Stanford. And that’s just for starters.
Fife is a product of tiny Reedley, California, known mostly as the home of the giant Christian Brothers Brandy facility. It is a small San Joaquin Valley town that reveres its grape growing tradition and affords a warm welcome to outside guests. Reedley was also Dennis Fife’s first insight into the possibilities and potential of the wine business.
Fife worked part time in the wine industry while a student and in 1974 began a corporate career with industry giant Heublein, Inc. in their San Francisco office. There he was involved in most of Hueblein’s wine portfolio and eventually became Vice President of Planning and Development for the Hartford-based company.
In 1979 Fife was tapped to be the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for legendary Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford and four years later became President and General Manager of the diversified Inglenook winery located just across the road from BV. Inglenook was one of Napa Valley’s oldest and most prestigious entities and Fife set about restoring the aging entity to its former prominence. During the next five years he implemented a number of changes including the celebrated Neibaum Collection of single vineyard Chardonnays that won wide critical acclaim.
Toward the end of 1988, Dennis Fife purchased his first vineyard on Napa’s esteemed Spring Mountain with the thought of one day producing his own wines. Another addition a year later increased the property to around 50 acres, of which twelve acres were under vine.
Fife subsequently left Inglenook and spend the next few years consulting in Napa where his services were in high demand. Harlan Estate Winery, Stags Leap Winery and Château Potelle were only a couple of the top caliber wineries that Fife helped, but his mind was set on making his own wines.
In his own words, “When I finally made the decision to start Fife Vineyards, I only intended to make red wines because those were the wines I really liked. I surveyed the market and the only whites that were selling were the overtly oaky (?) chardonnays, and I didn’t really like that style of wine.”
Fife planted his vineyards and released his first case of wine in 1995. With the economic spiral turning upward, the new winery experienced immediate success and rave reviews. A year later, another incredible property that was the former Konrad Winery came up for sale in Mendocino’s Redwood Valley area and Fife jumped at the chance. Prosperity continued and Fife Vineyards continued to ride the wine boom until the turn of the century.
As business slowed following the advent of the new millennium, the disaster that was 9/11 struck Dennis Fife and Fie Vineyards particularly hard.
“A great deal of our business was concentrated in the New York---Washington corridor,” Fife explained. “After the tragedy occurred we saw an immediate drop off in business. In the immediate area of the crashes, a total of 42 different restaurants were put out of business, including one of our biggest accounts, the famous Windows of the World. 9/11 hurt us terribly.”
Fife was in New York at the time of the attack at a distributor’s meeting on 14th Street, just a few short blocks from the World Trade Center itself. It took him another week to finally be able to leave the city once air travel was finally restored.
Since that time Fife has patiently restored his winery and recaptured its all-important marketing position. Along with his writer wife Karen MacNeil of The Wine Bible and more recently PBS wine series fame, Fife Vineyards now stands comfortably at the 20,000 case level. More importantly to Dennis Fife, Fife continues to be an all-reds entity.
“Considering the fact that both BV and Inglenook were both classic Bordeaux-style wineries, I guess my making reds was natural,” Fife added good-naturedly. “ Besides, it has taken me a good deal of time to learn enough to do it all correctly.”
Fife Vineyards has a breath of fresh air and a new partner (from Dennis Fife’s Stanford days) that bodes well for the future. His prized reds are still considered among Napa’s best and his wife is basking in her new series’ exposure.
All this makes for a great story and truly great drinking. Enjoy!