Heibel Ranch Vineyards, Calistoga
Author: Alexandra Russell
December, 2016 Issue
Heibel Ranch Vineyards
1458 Lincoln Ave., #12
Calistoga, CA 94515
Hours: Open Thurs. through Mon., noon to 5 p.m.; or daily by appointment
Tasting fees: $15 per person, two different options (waived with qualified purchase)
Wines offered: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lappa’s and Captain Bubba (red blends) and Etzio (Zinfandel dessert wine)
Reservations: See hours above
Did you know: Ronald Reagan began his political career by announcing his candidacy for governor of California at the Heibel family’s Aetna Springs Resort in 1966.
Trent Ghiringhelli, winemaker and co-proprietor at Heibel Ranch Vineyards (with his mother, Helen Heibel Ghiringhelli Nelson, and his stepfather, Bruce Nelson), speaks with enthusiasm about his family’s long history in Napa Valley. “My Italian great-grandfather immigrated to the Rutherford/St. Helena area in 1912 from Northern Italy,” he says. “My family has more than 100 years’ history in St. Helena.”
His maternal grandfather, George Bennett Heibel, left the family home in Victoria, Texas during the Depression and eventually ended up in San Francisco, where he worked as a chef. As World War II wound down, he bought the Aetna Springs Resort in Pope Valley. “The resort dated back to 1873 and was more than 1,500 acres including a golf course [established in 1893],” says Ghiringheli. “He opened the resort in May 1945, and our family operated it for about 30 years.”
Heibel sold the majority of the property in 1976, retaining only 600 acres. He passed in 1979 and following the passing of his widow, Ruth Dangers Heibel, in 1982, the land was divided among their five children. “My mother inherited 185 acres that stretch up the side of Howell Mountain, into the redwood groves and down to about 10 acres on the flats.
“In 2000, I convinced the family to take out an ag loan to develop a bit of our ranch,” says Ghiringhelli, who started in the wine industry at ZD Wines in 1998 and learned the business as a journeyman. “Since we started from scratch, I was able to choose the clones, rootstock, everything.”
Farmed organically from the start, the vineyard was CCOF certified in 2007. So far, only two acres are planted to vine (one acre of Cabernet Sauvignon and half an acre each of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah) but the plan is for slow expansion. Ghiringhelli also sources some fruit (Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon).
“Our first vintage was 2006, which was released in 2009. Suddenly, we had to figure out how to sell it,” Ghiringhelli laughs. A consultant helped the family realize that, “at our volume, we couldn’t succeed under the distribution model. We needed to go 100 percent direct-to-consumer, so we opened this tasting room in August 2015.”
Housed in a stationary railcar at Calistoga’s historic train depot, the Heibel Ranch tasting room is bright and welcoming, with décor that mixes family memorabilia with Napa Valley and railroad history. There’s also a personal connection: “This is how people got up to Aetna Springs; they’d take a train in to Calistoga then transfer to a stagecoach for a 14-mile ride out to the resort. This place ties us back to our roots.”
We start our tasting with a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, which is blended with 24 percent Semillon to emphasize the tropical fruit notes (rich, crisp and round) before moving into the stellar collection of red wines. Family history is clearly a passion for Ghiringhelli, so it’s no surprise many of his wines honor the generations that came before. To drive the point home, each bottle is screenprinted with a photograph or memento connected to its namesake.
The 2012 Lappa’s red blend makes up about half of total production. “It’s a tribute to my father, John Ghiringhelli. His nickname was Lappa Suc—Lappa’s for short—which means ‘pumpkin sucker’ in his Northern Italian dialect,” explains Ghiringhelli. It’s about 60 percent Bordeaux varieties and 40 percent Zinfandel and Petite Sirah: “This is a nice juicy blend, a perfect grilling wine.”
The Heibel Ranch signature is its GBH Cabernet Sauvignon, an ode to grandpa George Bennett Heibel, made from a selection of the best barrels from each vintage. With 96 percent estate fruit blended with 2 percent each of Petite Verdot and Petite Sirah, it’s velvety, rich and elegant.
The 2013 Captain Bubba is named for Ghiringheli’s stepfather Nelson, a retired captain of the El Cerrito Police Department (and managing member of Heibel Ranch). Primarily a blend of Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, “this is our biggest, boldest wine,” says Ghiringhelli.
We conclude our visit with Etzio, a Zinfandel dessert wine, fortified with Charbay brandy, which is lush without being overly sweet, thanks to just 5 percent residual sugar. It’s named for Ghiringhelli’s “nono” (Italian grandfather), who went from being a bootlegger during Prohibition to retiring after a long career as St. Helena’s Chief of Police.
The wines are all delicious, but the real treats are the stories, told with love and laughter, about the people who inspired them.
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