Whitehall Lane Winery
Napa Valley AVA
Whitehall Lanes' New Team Hits the Ground Running
San Francisco wine merchant, Tom Leonardini, Sr. had just a casual interest in owning a winery. A casual interest that is until 1993 when he heard that Napa Valley winery Whitehall Lane was up for sale.
Tom was well aware of Whitehall Lane. The original founders, architect Art Finkelstein and plastic surgeon Alan Steen built the winery in 1980. The two purchased the property in 1979 and completely replanted its 21-acre vineyard that was developed before the turn of the century, and not well suited for the growing region. By 1985, they started to blend their new estate grapes into their wines, resulting in a string of impressive Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons. These two varietals quickly emerged as flagship wines upon which Whitehall Lane's early, high quality reputation was built.
In 1988 Japanese businessman Hideaki Ando approached Art and Alan with an offer to buy the winery at a price they couldn’t turn down. Foreign investment in California real estate was still running rampant at the time and many overseas investors, it seemed, had developed a “Donald Trump” syndrome buying up everything in sight and counting on double-digit real estate inflation to justify their top-dollar purchase. As the economy worsened, the all-too-familiar story of not being able to service the debt started to slow things down. To make matters worse, the winery was being managed remotely from Japan, and it languished from lack of attention.
Amazingly, though, the quality of wines produced at Whitehall during this time period did not suffer nearly as much as the winery’s cash flow. Between 1988 and 1993 the number of different wines increased, as did overall production. The wines were still very high quality and continued to sell well. The basic problem was that the winery suffered from lack of focus and direction. Tom Leonardini knew this. He was also aware of Whitehall Lane's reputation for great wines. So when it went on the block in 1993, Tom jumped at the opportunity.
Immediately, Tom made sweeping changes in both the physical plant and strategic direction. All of the buildings were completely renovated. Virtually all of the old, outdated winemaking machinery was thrown out and replaced with state-of-the-art equipment. New oak barrels were brought in. A sophisticated night air-cooling system to control the temperature inside the winery was constructed. Then he brought in General Manager, Mike McLoughlin, and all new support personnel to run the winery on a day-to-day basis.
In the vineyard, strategic changes also took place. Plantings were shifted around and added in different spots of the vineyard to take advantage of the ideal soil composition for each varietal. Over the next few years additional vineyard land was acquired to strengthen the already formidable estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot programs.
The winery now owns 110 acres of prime Napa Valley vineyards that are the cornerstone on which Whitehall Lane’s wines are produced. Three wines from these vineyards have been rated among the top five in the world by Wine Spectator magazine. The 1995 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was rated as the Best Red Wine in America and Number 5 in the world. The 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was anointed the Number 3 wine in the world, and the 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon was another Top Five finisher. Due largely to the winery’s superlative Cabernet Sauvignon program, Whitehall Lane also won Winery of the Year honors from Wine & Spirits magazine an unprecedented five years in a row from 1996 through 2000. Without a doubt, Cabernet Sauvignon is the wine that has forever etched Whitehall Lane's reputation into the Napa Valley wine lore.
Production today is about 45,000 cases per year, which is about the maximum their facility can handle right now. “I’m just not interested in growing too much more,” says Tom Leonardini. “Above this point, it requires a whole new level of overhead, then all of a sudden it’s not fun anymore.” Tom is committed to improving quality even beyond what it is today. “It is important to me that the quality is maintained year-in and year-out,” he says. “We aren’t selling mystique. We want to sell very good wine that people buy to drink and enjoy, not necessarily to cellar away for years and years.”
In short, Whitehall Lane has developed into a world-class winery. The efforts of the Leonardini Family are evident in the recent run of 90+ accolades from wine publications, but are even more apparent in the beautifully made, elegant wines they continue to make.
A Note from Thomas Leonardini Sr.
Dear Platinum Series Members,
Please enjoy our 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I take great pride in all of our wines, but the Reserves are truly special. In 2005, we isolated a few vine rows in our Leonardini Vineyard in St. Helena and in Rutherford’s Morisoli Vineyard to create this delicious wine.
Our goal is to make a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that marries elegance and power. Too many Cabernets today are crafted to make a statement: too much science and not enough art, too much structure or oak and not enough fruit. We make an elegant Reserve wine that tastes great by balancing jammy, ripe fruit with dark, structured grapes. In this 2005 Reserve, the elegance shines through with a nice underlying layer of tannins that, at six years old, are just starting to melt away.
I would like to remind you that you don’t need a corkscrew to open this special bottle. Simply cut the capsule below the drip right and remove the ‘glass cork.’ We started using the stylish Vino-Seal as an alternative to cork and synthentic stoppers. Designed to look like a decorative decanter stopper, this innovative closure provides an ideal seal that ensures the wine will retain its purity of flavor and aroma when you choose to drink it.
We very much enjoyed making the 2005 Reserve, but we enjoy drinking it even more. I hope that you will also enjoy this classic offering.
Thomas Leonardini Sr.
Gary Galleron - Winemaker
One of the first things owner Tom Leonardini did after acquiring Whitehall Lane Winery was to call Gary Galleron. Tom had met Gary a couple of years earlier at a dinner party. That night he met a guy with high energy, someone he knew was a hard worker and intelligent about winemaking. He already was aware of and respected his track record for making some of the best Cabernet Sauvignons made in California.
Gary has worked in the wine industry since 1976 after earning a degree in Viticulture and a minor in Enology at Fresno State. He went to work right away at Chateau Montelena, studying under Mike Grgich. After nine years, Gary left to become winemaker for Lenz Winery in Long Island, New York. He came back to California in 1988 and worked briefly again with Mike Grgich at his Grgich Hills Winery. But it was primarily during the following five years that Gary earned his solid reputation for crafting stellar wines at both S. Anderson Vineyards and at Grace Family Vineyards.
Tom quickly offered Gary the winemaker job at Whitehall Lane and he took it. Gary has already made a huge impact on the quality of wines coming out of Whitehall Lane. Although both the 1991 and 1992 vintages were in the barrel when he arrived, his influence in the final product is apparent. He introduced both wines to additional oak then expertly blended each to reflect his own style. The 1993 vintage will be the first wine made exclusively by Gary, so look for that one to set yet another high standard for Whitehall Lane wines.
Tom Leonardini - Owner
Tom Leonardini turned the tables. Seven years ago he claimed back a bit of California real estate from foreign owners by buying Whitehall Lane Winery.
Whitehall Lane’s owner was Japanese businessman Hideaki Ando. The winery proved to be too much of a cash drain to his real estate investment company in Tokyo where a recession hit as hard as it did in the U.S. The company’s cash crunch together with poor management of the winery fueled the sale of Whitehall Lane. Tom successfully negotiated a deal with Ando to purchase the winery. Success, though, is not new to Tom Leonardini.
Tom was born and raised in San Francisco. He attended college nearby at the University of San Francisco where he studied business accounting. His mother’s family had founded major car rental firm, National Car Rental. After graduating, he worked there as their northern California General Manager. He left two years later at the ripe old age of twenty-four to start his own car rental service which he called Pacific Car Rental System. Then five years later sold his interest in that company to start yet another car rental company!
He named his new venture American International Rental Car. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Tom grew his new car rental company to 16 offices throughout California. In 1985 he again sold his company, this time to Capital Southwest, headquartered in Dallas, Texas.
He muses about how he and his wife Karen used to buy a lot of Ruffino Chianti when they were married almost 30 years ago. They graduated to finer wines after they bought a new house that came with a small makeshift wine cellar. ‘The ‘cellar’ was cooled by a Sears air-conditioner. ‘We used to fill up the cellar up then give the wine away as presents to our friends and family,” he says smiling.
Over the years his palate grew more discriminating. So much so, that after he sold his American International car rental company, he opened up a fine-wine shop in downtown San Francisco. His wine shop, the Napa Valley Winery Exchange, gave him convenient access to some of the best wines in the world. Accordingly, he built a home wine cellar as impressive as his wine collection. His state-of-the-art cellar has motion and temperature detection devices, complete with smoke and fire sensors that are wired directly to the fire department! A few years back The Wine Spectator even wrote a full-page article telling about it.
Tom and Karen Leonardini live in the community of Hillsborough just south of San Francisco. He goes up to the winery during the week and is back home again on the weekends, often commuting several times during the week. Tom Jr., the eldest of their two sons was brought on recently as Whitehall Lane’s National Sales Manager. Kristen, the oldest of their three daughters opened up their retail wine shop in San Francisco. Another daughter, Kimberly, recently joined her father to manage the winery’s tasting room. The Leonardini's other children, Katie, and Tony, are not presently involved in the wine business. ‘We’re not your typical new winery owners who only spend weekends at the winery,” insists Tom. ‘This is not just a hobby. We’re committed to making superior wines.”