F R I T Z M A Y T A G
Interview By Allan Bree
A Fascinating Conversation with Fritz Maytag
Fritz Maytag (left) isn’t exactly a household name.
A Google© search on his name will give you 1250 hits or so, the vast majority related to his Anchor Steam Brewery. Only a few even mention Spring Mountain and his York Creek Vineyards – none of them in depth.
I found this a bit surprising, since he has been growing premium wine grapes and supplying them to Ridge and other wineries for more than thirty years.
So, I was very excited to have him attend the tasting, and delighted that he agreed to an interview.
We sat down on the crush pad at Paloma as the event began to wind down.
c – "I know you’ve spoken about it a bit today, but could you tell us about the history of the property?"
FM – "I was involved in making wine with Paul Draper down in Chile in the mid 60s, and we had a long interesting project there – first trying to improve the quality and then realizing that we were young and inexperienced, and we weren’t going to influence anyone. Maybe if we were to make wine we could influence them by example.
Paul spent the harvest of Fall – I think it must have been '66 – with Lee Stuart at the old Souverain Winery, which is now the (Tom) Burgess Winery. Lee was a great pioneer back in the days when there were only 8 or 10 wineries in the whole state trying to make great wine, and Lee was one of them.
Paul worked there during the harvest and I was there a great deal also, visiting and talking and at one point I asked Lee "Where do the best grapes come from?" He pointed across the valley at Spring Mountain because he bought a lot of his grapes from Jerry Draper, who had what many people agree was the most beautiful vineyard in the Western Hemisphere starting in the 1940s.
I asked Lee ‘What’s the best grape?’, and he said: ‘Well, there’s a lot of good grapes, but the one grape that does the best in the hills as compared with the mudflats (which is what he called the Valley) is Petite Sirah.’ Lee made a Petite Sirah because when he bought his place there were Petite Sirah grapes there. It was his wines, I think, that introduced both Paul and me to Zinfandel, and also to Petite Sirah.
We quit our wine project, and I got married a little bit before that, and we had two children, and we were looking for a place to go camping. We said ‘Let’s go up to Wine Country and find some forested hillside land that we can go camping on now, and then someday when we have time, we can clear it and plant vineyards.’
We started looking at Wine Country properties in Sonoma and Napa and ended up in Napa – we thought that it was more like what we wanted. We ended up looking more at existing properties than at bare land, and it was purely by coincidence that there were a lot of properties for sale. I looked at the original Stag’s Leap property, at Mayacamas, at Chateau Chevalier and a whole bunch of other properties. We finally ended up looking at the Hummel Ranch – Herman Hummel was the owner – Herman had come to this country after the Russian Revolution - he had been a German in Russia when Communists came. He was in school in Germany and he got a letter from home saying: ‘don’t come home’.
His family owned a vineyard and walnut orchards in the Caucuses – I’m not sure exactly where – and he had nothing, he was all alone in Germany with nothing. He went to America and went to work as a field hand – ended up as a major foreman for a man named Lonca who owned major vineyards in the Central Valley and was a major figure in the wine business. Up here on Spring Mountain was his family’s summer refuge – it’s where they came for their summers. He had put together a property that was in fact what today I would call ‘Hummel and Draper property.’
Jerry Draper Sr. - whose vineyards were so beautiful and who sold grapes to Lee Stuart – he had also bought his property from Herman Hummel. Herman had ended up going from managing this property for Mr. Lonca to buying it from Mr. Lonca. So, in 1940 when he sold half of the property to Jerry Draper, he owned the other part free and clear. He went from about 1920 – when his family had probably been murdered by the Communists, and certainly had their land taken away – a young boy in Germany with nothing in 1920 to owning a property just like his family had had in 1940 and owning it free and clear."
c – "What a story."
FM – "An American story. A tiny little man with twinkley blue eyes and a heart of gold – he was hard working – he built the property entirely by himself. He was ready to retire, so I just fell in love with it the moment I saw it, partly because it has such wonderful wild land. We started out looking for a place to go camping – Hah! I don’t think I’ve ever spent a night on our property in a tent or in a sleeping bag. I’ve never gone camping on our property.
But if you look at our label – in modern times we started making our own wine – it has 24 native trees on the label which are the…we’ve identified at least 24 native trees. I love the forested parts – and the York Creek area, which remains untouched – it is just a completely unspoiled, untouched year-around creek that runs for about a mile and a half through the property. There are redwoods at the bottom and chaparrals at the top. There are a couple of crossings, but it’s basically just untouched – nothing’s ever been done. They cut the redwood trees back in the 19th century, so the ones we have are big, but they’re not huge. We don’t have any giant redwoods.
So we ended up buying this property – we bit off way more than we had originally intended. It became a country refuge for us, we came every weekend. I replanted gradually, and went to better varieties and started selling grapes to Paul Draper who became the winemaker at Ridge.
So, we had kind of thought about
and studied and made wine decisions – both marketing and winemaking – at
least, basic, simple decisions – together in the mid 60s. He then
became really serious and became certainly one of a handful of great
winemakers in the late twentieth century. I became just a grower, but I
like to think I added a little something to it because I was very eager
to experiment. We grew Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, which were already
there in some measure, but I planted more over the years, because I’ve
always been a believer in both of those grapes, partly because Lee
Stuart inspired us with the quality of his wines, partly because Paul
and Freemark (Abbey) also, who made the first Petite Sirah from our
grapes, inspired me with what they could do. I mean, I tasted one today
– did you taste the Behrens & Hitchcock Petite Sirah? That’s
York Creek Petite Sirah – I’m sorry, Lee Stuart is right. It’s
magic in the mountains.
Whether you can make Petite Sirah like that in the Valley or the mudflats as they used to call it, I don’t know – but I’ve never had one. It’s magic stuff.
I just love Paul’s view of this whole controversy over the years when people would say: ‘Well, but it’s not really Syrah’. And the answer is: ‘Yeah, and Syrah’s not really Petite Sirah’. They are both wonderful, and what in the world more could you possibly want than all of these Petite Sirah wines?
I replanted, and we grew Bordeaux varieties, and I’ve had a wonderful time. I’ve always said I didn’t want a winery on the property – I used to say I wanted to be rich and the vineyard famous without a winery. I think the vineyard has become well known – witness today, and there are many other wineries who have made vineyard-designated wines from our grapes – none of them as consistently as Freemark Abbey and Ridge. So it has become known. We certainly didn’t get rich, but it’s been a wonderful thing for me, because I’ve had the satisfaction of some success, and not had to have a winery, so I didn’t have the same things on the weekend as I had during the week when I was running the Anchor Brewing Company – sales meetings and bottling lines and labels to print and all that sort of thing. So when I came to the country, I had marvelous refuge feeling, and I just think there is…nowhere…I mean, I haven’t been everywhere in the world, but there is nowhere I would rather be than on Spring Mountain. The people who have lived here and can tell you from years of experience just get bleary eyed when they talk about this particular area. I guess you could say the Coast Range, generally – Mendocino down through the Santa Cruz Mountains – very similar. You have one or two species of tree that don’t go South of the Golden Gate – maybe one or two that don’t go North of the Golden Gate – but by and large, we have all of the same flora and fauna down this Coast Range.
I fell in love with it when I was at Stanford – I used to live in the hills behind Stanford – and this is almost identical. It’s very, very similar. The combination of the Winter, Spring and Summer weather is just unbelievable. It’s just heaven. It makes good wine, and how can you beat it?
I have been here as a farmer – as they say, do you know the difference between a farmer and an agriculturist? A farmer makes his money in the country and spends it in town, and an agriculturist makes his money in town and spends it in the country. Like many people in the wine business, I have been an agriculturist.
Mind you, the vineyard has made a modest profit many years, and the years when it didn’t were few. It’s been a great investment financially, but most of all, just personally, it’s been a lovely way to live and to be involved in the wine business, if only peripherally.
There’s only one more thing I should say about it, and that is that we were extraordinarily fortunate in that we found a gentleman whose name was Ned Smith, who had moved to Napa and gone into the real estate business, with young children, like many people looking for a decent place to live, and a life style that was wholesome and he kind of specialized, for many years, in finding unique properties for people who were looking for something really special. It was he who found us our property. He did some other very creative things, but it was he who found us Laurie Wood who managed the vineyards for Freemark Abbey – which is why we had the Petite Sirah from Freemark Abbey – they bought grapes from us because Laurie managed all of their vineyards. Laurie is just the salt of the earth and was, at that point, just about the only man in the Valley who could really take on a vineyard of our size – he was our consulting manager, if you will. I always had a foreman, and I always had my own employees and tractors and all the equipment – but for many years Laurie and I would meet every Saturday morning and talk for two or three hours about what we were going to do next. He had said he wasn’t going to manage any more vineyards, but when Ned introduced us, and he said: ‘Fritz, you’ve just got to get this guy to manage the vineyards for you.", and I met him and took Ned’s advice – and Laurie said ‘I don’t want any more vineyards, but I’m willing because I’ve never managed a hillside vineyard, and it would be an interesting challenge for me.’ The truth was that I could never have done it without him.
I did have ideas of my own, partly based on what Paul and I had figured out in this country and down in Chile, and it wasn’t an accident that I was in the hills, rather than in the valley – the vineyard we had down in Chile was in the hills, Coast Range, just like this. So, I had a lot of ideas of my own also, in terms of varieties, planting, spacing and those sorts of things,
Laurie was just fantastic, in the sense that he knew everybody, and how to get supplies, and where to buy tractors, and all the practical stuff. He was just a fabulous resource – I could never have done it without him, because I was a weekend owner – I needed real management. In those days you didn’t…I mean, today you could put an ad in the paper and say you wanted to hire a vineyard manager and you would get people with college degrees. But in those days, vineyard managers were ‘lifestylers’ – "Gee, that sounds like fun – where are the vines?" It wasn’t a profession in the sense that it is today. It was a very rare thing.
We got budwood, for example, - I felt strongly that we should not go for virus-free and modern notions – we should go for clones that had been proven to make good wine – never mind the rest of it. We weren’t always right about everything we did, but we did do things…our object was to make great wine, even if we didn’t make it ourselves.
c – "May I ask you a couple of questions about the property?"
FM – "Sure."
c – "How large is the estate?"
FM – "I pretend that I don’t know. I think it’s 778 acres – something like that. We say we have 125 acres of vineyard. In the hills, you know, it’s very difficult to measure vineyards. You have to count vines, and you multiply by the spacing and divide it into an acre and you come up with six acres, but you can’t measure it because it’s a curving surface.
So, we have about 125 acres of vines and 25 acres of olives."
c – "The land in cultivation to grapes – how does that breakdown in terms of varieties?"
FM – "Well, I don’t know the exact acreage, but roughly – Cabernet, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel are equal amounts – roughly equal – about 30 acres. Then I expect that next would be Cabernet Franc or Merlot – and next would be Petite Verdot. And then we have some Portuguese varieties that I am working on. Then we have a couple of other little blocks – we have some Pinot Blanc, which is more like a family joke. My wife, when we were dating, used to drink Chalone’s Pinot Blanc. I got a little budwood from Dick Graf, and we planted our little Pinot Blanc vineyard. And then we have a little block of Napa Gamay that we never know what to do with. And a tiny bit of Carignane and stuff like that, but I always said that if I had, or when I had a winery, I would have a grower’s winery – that is, to learn stuff and play around with varieties and try to figure out which block tasted which way and why.
I have since learned - since we have our own winery - that it is far easier to say that than it is to do it. (Laughter) We’re going crazy with experiments and separate lots and things. We made 19 different wines, but we had 29 separated fermentations last year and it drove us crazy. We call it ‘fraction management’ – any winemakers would understand that the sooner you can consolidate and blend, the better.
But it has been a fascinating experience to actually make wine, and it has utterly reinvigorated my interest in vineyards, because when you sell grapes, you think that they are the best grapes in the world, and then when you make wine out of them you think: "Well, gee, maybe we could have better grapes".
It’s been a very humbling experience, and reinvigorating."
c – "Tell us how you met Paul Draper."
FM – "We were at Stanford together, and we bumped into each other almost immediately in 1955. I was a freshman and he was a sophomore. He had been a year ahead of me in boarding school back east. We immediately discovered that he had gone to Choate and I had gone to Deerfield, which were similar and very competitive boarding schools. At one point we figured out that we might have played football against each other – neither of us were on the varsity, but I think we were both on some sort of second level football team, and we might have played against each other. And we had a lot of interests in common right from the beginning, and we’ve been good friends ever since – probably my oldest best friend."
c – "Did you travel to Chile together?"
FM – "He, I and another friend went down through Central America and South America looking for a country that we could love. We chose those that looked like they would be democratic in the future, so we visited Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru and Chile. We had two real goals – one was community development, and so we would visit Peace Corps and other similar projects like that trying to figure out what works. Does anything work? Can you go into what in those days we called ‘underdeveloped countries’, ‘developing countries’, ‘third world countries’ – can an ordinary person go into a country like that and actually help them have real economic development?
I would say to you that when we got all through, we each had our own opinion on the subject. I thought it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I really learned a great deal. I came away with the very strong impression that it’s very difficult to do, and it may even be a sin. Many people who set out to do good, in fact I think are in grave danger of sinning – there is something psychologically spooky about setting out to help some other ‘dumb’ guy – I call it the "hot dog" attitude – help out that dumb other guy.
None of us need the government to pass a law to protect us from something, it’s always some other guy who needs a law to protect him. Help out that other dumb guy with a law, right? Or with a new economic project. I don’t mean that development isn’t good, although that, too, is a very interesting question. I think that development is a good thing, and I think it can be furthered and stimulated.
But I decided back then, and I think we all decided on a somewhat common theme, and that was that we were going to do a business, not a charity. We didn’t really have the ability to be a ‘Peace Corps’ – we needed to make a profit in the long run – we had found very few development projects that we thought were really fundamentally sound – or as we would say today: sustainable.
You know, when the Peace Corp’s guy leaves, within six months the chickens are all dead. Not because the people are stupid – they are as smart as they can be – (but) they may not be educated or knowledgeable about not only how to raise chickens, but how to manage a project. So, development can be furthered, but with humility and with a light touch; with respect for the marketplace and for ordinary people’s judgment about what to buy and what to sell. It was a profound experience.
We visited all these countries and we just fell in love with Chile – no question about it. We felt kind of guilty because Chile wasn’t all that desperately poor, but we could see that it was a country that was desperate to develop and be part of the modern world and really not quite part of the modern world yet – certainly not a "third world" country in any sense of the word – maybe as we would say today, a ‘developing country’, or a ‘less developed country’ or whatever. We just saw a tremendous potential, among other things, in the wine business.
It was obvious that they could make great wine, and that they were not making great wine – they were making good wine. We saw leverage potential of a modest effort with knowledge and making a big difference in terms of earning foreign exchange. It was obvious they needed it. For example, you couldn’t get an oak barrel in Chile because there was a one thousand percent duty on things like oak barrels. So, if an oak barrel in France would cost such and such, in California it would be such and such plus freight – or maybe plus five percent duty, but I doubt it – in Chile an American or French oak barrel would cost far more than the wine could ever be worth. It was impossible. How are you going to make great wine without some new oak barrels? – for example.
Anyway – we saw a great potential for a modest effort producing a huge difference in the quality of the wine and the marketability of the quality they had – better labels, better corks, better bottles.
We had some other projects we did – we grew soybeans all up and down Chile to prove it would work, and boy!, did we prove it would work. You know, soybeans are very latitude sensitive, and in the United States if you drive twenty miles they grow a different variety of soybean, a different hybrid. We discovered that in Chile this really wasn’t being done. They knew that, of course, but they hadn’t really done that. They used a mixed bag of seeds, so we got soybean seed (that was) highly latitude specific and we planted them all up and down Chile. We had a great success – we had unbelievable soybean harvests. I haven’t researched it, but I have a hunch that if you went to Chile you would find they are just growing soybeans up the kazoo, and I would bet we had at least a modest influence on that. Maybe somebody at the university somewhere said: ‘You know, there was a project over there last year that got tremendous yields.’ I think we had an effect.
The main thing was the effect on us – of winemaking. Both Paul and I were deeply impressed, and he went on to do this – it’s his career ever since. And it was all his idea. He spotted the opportunity, and I thought he was dead right and got involved."
c – "One last question, if I may."
FM – "Sure."
c – "I saw you tasting through some of the wines. What’s your impression of what you had to taste today?"
FM – "Well…two or three things.
Number one – I tasted this young Petite Sirah from a neighboring vineyard (winery) with a good winemaker, and it thrilled me because that’s the quality that Petite Sirah has up here on Spring Mountain.
Number two – I tasted – primarily of Paul’s wines – primarily the Cabernets, many of which could be called a meritage by modern standards, and I was very struck by a couple of things. One, how good they all are – they were all very good – first class. And also how similar they are – that’s a product of the vineyard and Paul’s winemaking.
I tasted the 71 Ridge Petite Sirah and I thought it had faded a little – I was a little disappointed because that was a great, great, great wine when it was young. I take that back – I tasted the Freemark (Abbey) – I don’t think there was any Ridge when I got there. I thought the Freemark had faded a little. And I just thought that wine was off the charts – maybe the best red wine I have ever had in my life. The sad thing was that we never knew why. (Laughter.)
You know, the story was that Freemark made it in 69 – Jerry (Luper) sent an email, and he was correct: their idea was to blend it with their Pinot Noir – they wanted a little color – and they discovered they had way more than they had bargained for, and I think they were practically ready to bulk it (out) until a few people came by and tasted it in the process of tasting everything, and said: ‘My God, what is this?’
The Freemark Abbey partners sort of ‘discovered’ Petite Sirah, but that was after the 1970 harvest. They didn’t want it in 1970 – in 1970 they knew they sure didn’t want it for their Pinot Noir. Actually, I made ‘homemade’ Petite Sirah that year – I used to be a home winemaker. I made it in 1970, and I told Paul: ‘Now Paul, this wine is unbelievable – why don’t you try it?’
So, in 71, Paul was trying to make it. Then I got a call from Laurie Wood – the Freemark Abbey vineyard man – he said: ‘Fritz, we’ve changed our mind – we would like to make that Petite Sirah again.’
‘Gosh’, I said. ‘Laurie, I promised the grapes to Ridge, but no problem, I’m sure he’ll agree.’ I couldn’t not give grapes to Freemark Abbey. That’s why we gave some to Freemark Abbey and some to Ridge from then on. And for many, many years – I don’t know how many – close to twenty years – both wineries made Petite Sirah with radically different winemaking techniques. Utterly different.
It always pleased me that the wines were so similar."
Many thanks to Mr. Maytag for being so gracious with his time and so generous with his wines. He donated more than a case from his own cellar and winery, including a 1971 Ridge Napa Gamay (Valdiguie) that was one of my wines of the day. Even at thirty years of age it was fresh, vibrant and exciting.
The Gang hopes he enjoyed the tasting as much as we enjoyed having him there.