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Highflyer Wines - Priest Ranch

Napa Valley AVA

A pair of sister artisan wineries under the Somerston Brand

This month’s Gold Wine Club selections come from a pair of sister wineries, Highflyer Wines and Priest Ranch, both of which are under the reputable Somerston Wine Company brand based in the all-important Napa Valley. The company traces its roots back to 2004 when Somerston’s principal owner, Allan Chapman, purchased the 638-acre Priest Ranch property and a contiguous accompanying parcel of 990 acres called Elder Valley.

The land that comprises Priest Ranch traces its ancestry all the way back to 1849 when a young man named Joshua James Priest arrived in California as part of the gold stampede of that era. Then 23, Priest mined for more than eleven years and gained title to a parcel of the original Rancho Catacula land grant that today bears his name. For the record, Priest fathered nine boys and for a time, marketed a natural spring water product that was removed from his land.

The area was then known as Soda Valley and is located on the eastern side of the Vaca Mountain Range that serves as Napa Valley’s eastern boundary.

The second piece of property under Somerston Wine Company is comprised of rolling, volcanic land and was originally settled in 1841. It became known as Elder Valley in 1877 and its first grapes were planted in 1970.

The combined properties sit at elevations of between 800 and 2,400 feet and provide an incredible number of potential growing sites. At this point, there are some 215 acres under vine to over fifteen different varietals.

After purchasing the properties, Allan Chapman met wine industry veteran Craig Becker and the pair decided to enter the wine business together. A search for names for the new venture finally settled on Somerston, which is an ode to Chapman’s English family history in tea shipping. George Somers was a major figure in the British shipping business. To further honor this piece of history, many of the Somerston vineyard blocks are named after ships and tea clippers.

There were two distinct wine labels formed under the main Somerston Wine Company brand – the Somerston Estate which features high end, premium wines, usually from single vineyard sources, and Priest Ranch, which exclusively features wines from the historical Priest Ranch property. Craig Becker later merged his own Highflyer Wines brand to round out the trio of wineries that make up the Somerston Wine Company. He serves as General Manager and Director of Winemaking and Viticulture for each entity.

Highflyer Wines began in 2003, born out of the idea that Becker could use his aviation hobby to support his winemaking work. As a private pilot, Becker discovered he could see AVA’s throughout California from a unique perspective. From the window of his airplane, Becker could scout out interesting vineyards based on the unique characteristics of the vineyard topography and location. In a day, he could tour distant vineyard sites down state, meet with various vineyard management teams, and be home in time for dinner. It became the perfect passion project for Becker, blending his two loves of wine and aviation. Highflyer Wines has grown into an eclectic line up of wines that represent regions as far north as Napa Valley and as far south as Santa Barbara County.

The first wines under Somerston Wine Company were released in 2008 with a tiny release of around 500 cases. The wines were met with great critical acclaim and the new winery entity was on its way to prominence.

"We have been quite selective about our releases," Becker recalled. "We believe we are really good at what we do with our fruit and our intention is to showcase our incredible property as well as the special regions and climates that makes wines remarkably distinctive."

Priest Ranch and Highflyer Wines are excellent examples of artisan winemaking at its very finest. Careful attention to terroir and its application to certain varietals assures the brands of ongoing success.

The pair of wineries, and its encompassing Somerston Wine Company, are ones to closely follow in upcoming years. We look for continued achievements from this exciting addition to the Napa Valley wine community.

Wine Region - Napa Valley

Picture of Wine Region - Napa Valley

The fruit for Allan Chapman and Craig Becker’s Priest Ranch wines is exclusively sourced from the Priest Ranch property which makes up 638 acres on the eastern side of the Vaca Mountain range. The vineyards here are mostly hillside and range in elevation from 850 feet to 2,400 feet. A huge range in soil types also gives Priest Ranch the ability to produce a number of different varietals. The focus is on Bordeaux-style wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Petite Sirah) plus a few Rhône varietals (Syrah and Grenache Blanc) as well.

Highflyer Wines takes a different approach, sourcing fruit from Priest Ranch and Somerston Estate, but also from a variety of vineyards throughout California. The idea is to highlight some of the best AVA’s in the state, from as far north as Napa Valley to as far south as Santa Barbara County. The currently Highflyer line up includes a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley, two Syrahs (one from Sonoma and one from Santa Barbara County), and Centerline, a red blend from Somerston Estate fruit, blended with other Napa Valley vineyards.

The common denominator with these two brands is the high quality fruit and the remarkable winemaking talents of Craig Becker whose wines are consistently distinctive, complex, balanced, and compelling.

Craig Becker - Co-Founder, Winemaker & General Manager

Picture of Craig Becker - Co-Founder, Winemaker & General Manager

Craig Becker, a Southern California native, is the Director of Winemaking and Viticulture, General Manger, and a founding partner of Somerston Wine Company and its brands of Somerston Estate, Priest Ranch, and Highflyer Wines. Becker has been heavily involved in the wine industry for nearly two decades and brings enthusiasm, passion, and an incredibly innovative, entrepreneurial spirit to his business. He states it was his love of the outdoors that brought him to winemaking many years ago.

After growing up in Long Beach, California, Becker moved north to attend Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma out of a desire to be surrounded by nature and, as he says, for the unlimited mountain biking opportunities. While there, he discovered the joys of science and met his future wife during a wine appreciation course. Once bitten by the wine bug, Becker transferred to the heralded University of California Davis to study plant physiology and soil science. He took a harvest internship at Robert Mondavi Winery, which solidified his career path.

Upon graduation in 1997, Becker accepted a job at Spring Mountain Vineyard, one of St. Helena’s most revered wineries. While at Spring Mountain, Becker worked under the direction of famed winemaker Craig MacLean and learned about the integration of vineyard management practices and winemaking. Eventually, he was promoted to winemaker when MacLean left to start his own brand. Becker was just 23 years old at the time and his wine career literally took off.

By 1999, Becker had started his own vineyard consulting business and it lead him to develop esteemed vineyard sites for Peacock, the Central Coast’s Dierberg and StarLane properties, the Kelleher Family, and the Balcom Family, among others. Becker Wines and Vineyard Management was a quick success and Craig Becker was now an established, reputable name in California’s wine industry.

In 2003, Becker started creating his own wines, including those for Highflyer Wines, an ode to his passion and hobby as a private pilot. In addition to Highflyer, Becker was making wines for a number of high-end wineries and he was always on the hunt for premium fruit. On one of these such hunts, Becker met Allan Chapman regarding fruit at the grand Somerston property. On his first visit to the property, Becker says, “I was blown away.”

Chapman was looking for a winemaker to produce his wines and Becker was the man for the job. The two teamed up to create the Somerston Wine Company and its family of wine brands, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Over the years, Priest Ranch and Highflyer Wines have grown into admirable brands that beautifully represent the Somerston property and the top AVA’s of California, respectively. While Becker focuses on Bordeaux-style blends and varietals for Priest Ranch, to really showcase what brought Napa its fame and international notoriety, he gets to really test his creativity and have fun with more obscure and eclectic varietals with his Highflyer wines. Each brand has become successful in its own right, which has been very rewarding for Craig Becker.

When Becker isn’t at the winery or walking the vineyards, one can find him spending time with his family and flying planes. We look forward to many great future vintages and achievements from this all-star winemaker. Cheers!