Napa Valley AVA
Notable Napa Valley Vineyard Spawns Tiny Whitford Cellars
Staring success in the face wine after wine, year after year was gratifying at first for Duncan and Pat Haynes. The frustrating thing was, it wasn’t their wines that were getting all the praise, but it was grapes from their vineyard that were being used to make the wines. Most wine enthusiasts know that good wine can only come from good grapes. No matter how talented of a winemaker you are, you simply can’t make a good wine from poor quality grapes. At one time or another throughout their vineyard’s almost twenty year history, Duncan (“Dunc”) and Pat watched high profile wineries like Stag’s Leap, Joseph Phelps, and Louis Martini, bottle award winning wine using grapes from their Haynes Vineyard. “It was time to make our own wine,” says Dunc.
Remarkably, the Haynes’ Napa Valley parcel has been in the family for over 100 years. Dunc’s great uncle James Whitford bought the 43 acre parcel in 1885 (at a cost of $95.25 per acre!), presumably to use as farm land. Sometime in the 1920s the property was converted largely to prune orchards and then leased out to other parties over the next few decades. Meanwhile the land’s ownership was passed down through several family members until the 1960s when Duncan, his sister and his mother, Irene Whitford-Haynes, all inherited the property. “I remember picking prunes on the farm in the 1950s,” recalls Dunc. “Then in the mid-1960s as the Napa Valley grape boom began, the taxes we had to pay on the property were suddenly higher than the rent we were getting from leasing it out,” he continues.
So, in 1967 the Haynes’ took a cue from their Napa Valley neighbors and began converting the land to vineyards. “Louis Martini advised us not to plant the vineyard all at one time,” remembers Dunc. “He was absolutely right. When we planted half the vineyard the first year, we ran into all sorts of problems that were avoided the following year when we put in the other half.”
The Haynes’ had no experience in farming grapes. Even the small number of established local growers were still trying to figure out which varietals were best suited for the area and the best methods to farm them. So Dunc did a quick study by himself using the standard textbooks available at U.C. Davis and decided that his land was best suited for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He proceeded to plant roughly the same amount of each of those varietals on the 38 acres he set aside for the vineyard.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s the operation was strictly a farming enterprise. The vineyard gained wide recognition for its outstanding fruit. In fact many wineries that were buying Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Haynes Vineyard were promoting the vineyard name on their labels as a selling point.
At that point Dunc logically figured it was a pretty safe bet to start making his own wine using the very same fruit with which everyone else was having great success. So, in 1983 he erected a small winery facility on the vineyard property and the following year put his own label, Whitford Cellars, on 500 cases of Chardonnay. “I mainly just wanted to make some wine for friends and acquaintances,” says Dunc. “The plan has never been to make this a big commercial enterprise,” he states.
“We still only make about two to three thousand cases a year,” says Dunc. Some years less, some years more,” he continues. The production of Chardonnay is currently up to about 1,500 cases per year. When his Pinot Noir grapes started receiving successes similar to the Chardonnay, in 1992 he began bottling that varietal with his own label too. “I really don’t want to make any more than what we’re doing right now,” professes Dunc.
In the beginning years Dunc had Chuck Ortman (now with Meridian) help him with the wines. Then in 1987 noted wine industry pioneer Andre Tchelistcheff who lived just down the road from the Haynes Vineyard, began to consult for him. Andre continued to help Whitford Cellars until his death in 1994. Since that time Dunc has brought in winemaker Corey Sprott, who was instrumental in making many great wines at William Hill Winery.
“It’s purposely not a big oaky wine,” Dunc says about the 1990 Chardonnay we are featuring this month. “It’s a delicate but varietally intense wine—very characteristic of the Chardonnay fruit,” he states. Whitford Cellars Chardonnays are initially made to be high in acid. This helps the wine age longer than most which over time helps to develop a very smooth and flavorful wine. Indeed , most wineries will age their Chardonnays for 4 to 6 months then release them for distribution. “Our Chardonnay ages in the bottle for at least two years before we release it,” says Dunc.
This month’s featured Chardonnay from Whitford Cellars is ready to enjoy right now and over the next year or two. This delicious wine was bottled in 1991, bottle aged for two and a half years then released in 1994. In 1995 it won a Silver Medal at the Los Angeles County Wine Competition. Interestingly, the California State Fair recently awarded a Gold Medal to the vineyard itself in recognition of its contribution to the production of outstanding wines.
Duncan Haynes - winemaker
Duncan and Pat Haynes have no desire to make more than the 2,000 or 3,000 cases they make each year at their tiny redwood winery. Pat stays busy helping with the management of the vineyard while Duncan concentrates on the winemaking. ‘We only use about one-quarter of our grapes to make Whitford wines,” states Dunc. ‘We just sell to local area restaurants and retail stores and to friends and acquaintances. That pretty much takes care of what we have,” he adds. ‘We don’t even have a tasting room.”
As modest as that may sound, Whitford Cellars’, Haynes Vineyard has impressed a lot of winemakers and consumers over the past 20 years. It has earned one of the best reputations in Napa for producing superior quality grapes. In his book, American Wine, well-known author and wine expert, Anthony Dias Blue, calls it, ‘one of Napa Valley’s most notable vineyards.”
Duncan and Pat Haynes planted the property to grapes in 1967. Along with Dunc’s mother, Irene Whitford-Haynes, they had just inherited it from another Whitford family member. They had no agricultural background or winemaking experience but their decision to plant a vineyard was a shrewd decision and perfectly timed.
Duncan was born and raised in Berkeley, California. Both his parents were attorneys so naturally Dunc’s interest turned that way also. He attended U.C. Berkeley in the early 1950s then completed a two year stint with the U.S. Air Force as a pilot and officer. After the service he went back to Berkeley to earn his law degree, graduating in 1961. Out of law school he immediately joined a major law firm in San Francisco, Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, where he eventually became a partner.
In 1967, on his way home from a business trip on the east coast, Dunc stopped by to see a colleague who was teaching at the University of Minnesota. His friend talked him into taking a sabbatical from his practice to teach law there also.
Meanwhile Dunc and Pat had already begun to plant their vineyard in Napa. By the time they returned to California in 1970, their new vines were well on their way to producing harvestable fruit. At that point, Duncan returned to his old law firm to practice for another fifteen years.
Since leaving the firm in 1985, a year after producing his first wine, Dunc has taken numerous courses on winemaking at U.C. Davis and has fine-tuned his wines into medal winners. Pat has focused her learning in viticulture at Napa College and is closely involved with the management of the vineyard. ‘At crush, she stands at the stainless steel table on which the grapes are first dumped and sorts out the bad grapes,” reports Dunc.
The two live in nearby Calistoga and have three grown children. Barney is an artist and teacher in Oakland. Lori lives in Germany and is a tax accountant and advisor. Geoff is an attorney in San Francisco. All three kids have helped with the making of Whitford wines over the years. Dunc’s mother has gotten into the act too, publishing a book in 1980 called, Ghost Wineries of Napa Valley. It is a photographic history of many old wineries that have come and gone over the ages.