Burgess Cellars was founded in 1972 making this one of the older privately owned continuously operating wineries in Napa Valley. Burgess Cellars was owned by the Burgess family and was founded by Napa wine making pioneer Tom Burgess. Tom was a former air force pilot whose assignments included flying Project Gemini astronauts around. While he was stationed at nearby Travis AFB he would use his time off to explore the surrounding country including the still under-the-radar at the time, Napa Valley.
He never lost his love of flying – later he kept several planes at the nearby Angwin–Parrett Field and would often fly people over the Napa Valley – he also owned and flew an aerobatics airplane. Several photographs he took from one of his planes hang in the tasting room – with birds eye views of the several Burgess vineyard properties. We first met Tom many years ago – he led a very full life in addition to his contributions to the Napa Valley wine world – he died in early 2017.
Two of his children eventually took over the operations; Steven was the President of the winery and James was the vineyard manager. Founding winemaker, Bill Sorenson made the first vintage in 1972 through to 2012. In today’s wine making world in the Napa Valley where winemakers often spend just a few years at a winery before moving onto another winery – it is noteworthy that Bill spent some 40+ years at one winery. It is also interesting to note that several vintages in the late 1970s/early 1980s were in part produced from purchased fruit from select hillsides around the valley including from Spring Mountain and Atlas Peak. The reason for this is that many of the old vines on the property were replanted in 1978.
A map in the barrel room lists approximately 20-25 wineries that were in existence in the Napa Valley in 1972. By our count approximately 70 Napa wineries who were producing in 1979 are still producing today and by the late 1980’s the numbers were starting to increase dramatically. How things have changed since then with now 1,100+ commercial wine producers in the Napa Valley (of which about 500 are physical bonded locations).
Besides the 30 some acre vineyard on site called the 1880 Estate Vineyard, they also own a larger piece of land called Haymaker Vineyard on Howell Mountain higher up and east of the winery location (31 acres planted to vines including Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Malbec and Cabernet Franc – 1200 feet in elevation). They purchased this vineyard in 1987 and planted it to vines for the first time a year later. In 1979 they purchased the Triere Vineyard, a sizable piece of property in what is now the Oak Knoll District (southern part of the valley) but eventually sold that to Heitz Cellars focus on their two mountain properties. They neither purchase fruit nor sell any fruit from their vineyards.
In September 2020 Burgess Cellars sold to Memphis based Gaylon Lawrence Jr., a principal investor in one of the country’s largest agricultural businesses, The Lawrence Group (based in Arkansas). And the other owner of record in the sale is Carlton McCoy – Master Sommelier and current CEO of Heitz Cellars.
The deal included everything – the brand, the winery and tasting room and the vineyards. The Lawrence Group owns property in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi and also is diversified into banking services. In the Napa Valley, Lawrence also owns Heitz Cellar, the Haynes Vineyard in Coombsville and Demeine Estates. He is also a majority partner in the ownership of most of Mare Island to the south of the Napa Valley. See our review on this website of Heitz Cellar for many more details including Gaylon’s ‘proprietor profile’.
Burgess is perched on on the western side of Howell Mountain (but not in the appellation) on land that was originally purchased & planted with grapes in the 1870’s by George Fountain. The winery is at an elevation of nearly 1,000 feet. An original stone cellar foundation dates from 1884 when the property was first homesteaded and a winery built by Swiss immigrant Fulgencio Rossini originally from the village of Monte Carasso, Canton Ticino in Switzerland (close to where another Napa Valley winemaking family is originally from, the Pestonis. The Rossini’s sold the property to Giovanni (John) and Elva Poncetta (also from a similar part of Switzerland). who in turn built a gravity flow winery here in the 1890s (still standing).
After the Poncetta ownership, the property changed ownership several times including being used by winemaker Peter Stark; from 1942 to 1971 it was home to Chateau Souverain owned by winemaker Leland Stewart (his mother’s side of the family, Leland Stanford was the founder of Stanford University). Incidentally, the name Souverain was from a list of names sent to Lee by his printer – and in French means sovereign. The winery was started as a hobby and Lee knew very little about winemaking before founding Chateau Souverain. His primary job was as an executive with Armour & Company – a meat processing company that was in business from 1867 through 1983.
According to a Napa Register article from October 22, 1952 Lee and his wife Glen were intent on purchasing a vineyard in Ukiah but detoured back to the San Francisco Bay Area through the Napa Valley where they met a real estate agent – and by the day’s end were owners of this property. He initially raised chickens on the property but soon produced his first vintage of wine in 1944 and sold it off as bulk wine to Charles Krug Winery (who incidentally had just been re-started that same year by the Mondavi family). In the early years he hired winemaker André Tchelistcheff as a consultant and Robert Mondavi was also a mentor.
Over the years, without much media fanfare, through his meticulous attention to detail, Lee produced lower alcohol, balanced and premium food friendly wines that were built to age; his wines certainly earned numerous medals over the years including at the California State Fair and were served at the White House in Washington DC. Wines were produced from grapes from the property as well as from other vineyard sources around the Napa Valley and in Sonoma County. Chateau Souverain also produced wine bottled as Sherry.
In a random historical twist of fate realized many years later through current Gaylon Lawrence ownership of both Burgess Cellars and Heitz Cellar – according to an article in the Los Angeles Times dated February 18, 1970 wine from Heitz Cellar (Grignolino) and wine from Chateau Souverain (Green Hungarian) were both available in the original Trader Joe’s location in Pasadena which had opened merely three years prior in 1967. And while both wines were priced at or near $2/bottle – this was certainly no ‘two buck chuck’.
Jerry Draper Junior whose family used to own La Perla Estate on what is now the Spring Mountain Vineyard property told us that the first grapes his family sold from their Spring Mountain property were to Lee at Chateau Souverain. Jerry personally delivered these grapes. And Jerry (who was in his late 90s at the time of our in-person visit) told us that he remembers Lee adding water to the grapes once they had been processed. Lee had a reputation for being notoriously thrifty.
In 1966 Lee expanded his physical operations for the first time in his history – adding approximately 2,000 square feet of additional cellar and bottling space. Note, that in 2020, the property sustained major damage from the Glass Fire including the winery itself which was destroyed; we will update our notes as the reconstruction takes place.
In 1970 Lee sold Chateau Souverain Winery and the accompanying property to a group of four investors. Within about a year, this investor group sold the winery and property to Tom and Linda Burgess in June 1971 (Tom was only 33 years old at the time of his purchase and their son Steve was only 2 months old); for that year only, both Souverain and Burgess Cellars operated under the same roof. The investor group kept the name Chateau Souverain.
Since Lee’s sale, Chateau Souverain has been housed in a number of locations and has had multiple owners. For several harvests in the early 1970s the Chateau Souverain wines were produced at what is now Rutherford Hill Winery – at that time the winery was called Souverain of Rutherford and was owned by Pillsbury. Pillsbury opened a second Souverain location in Sonoma County in 1973 called Souverain of Alexander Valley which is now the site of Francis Ford Coppola Winery.
Within a few years both their Napa location and Sonoma location were sold to separate owners. Lee stayed on as a consultant for Pillsbury; he finally retired in 1980 after nearly 40 years as winemaker. He died in 1986. In 2006 Chateau Souverain moved their operations to their current Alexander Valley location (the site of the old Italian Swiss Colony Winery). The brand is currently owned by E&J Gallo (Gallo Family Winery).
Several prominent winemakers who have certainly left their mark on the Napa Valley began their early careers by working at this property for Lee Stewart including Mike Grgich (of Grgich Cellars) who took his first winery job in the Napa Valley here for three months during harvest in 1958. Mike lived in a rustic cabin on the property. Several years later in 1964, Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars fame took an apprentice wine making job, also for Lee. And also winemaker, David Lett who would later take Chardonnay cuttings from Spring Mountain and plant them in Oregon; these were among the first ever Chardonnay vines in the Willamette Valley.
In the early 1970’s this land was still planted to grapes but to varieties that are now not often found in the Napa Valley including Grenache, Chenin Blanc etc. At that time, Burgess replanted the vineyards to Cabernet Sauvignon and small amounts of other mostly Bordeaux red varieties.
The 2016 Burgess Cellars Rosé of Syrah is a dry wine but features an intensity of fruit that perhaps might trick your palate into thinking it is slightly sweet. Aromas of watermelon – think watermelon candy for a perfect match on the aromas – as it breathes it reveals some citrus blossom notes – perhaps a lemon zest. Even very subtle hints of a white toast. Lively on the palate, it shows a sweetness of fruit – more watermelon with lesser flavors of strawberry. Good acidity and a clean finish. This Syrah is produced every year from the same rows.
An unusual variety for the Napa Valley is Grenache. Burgess has made this wine for a number of years from a vineyard they no longer own in the Oak Knoll District. After they sold that vineyard they wanted to keep this wine in their portfolio – so they planted several rows on site in the Winery Ranch Vineyard. The 2013 Grenache Oak Knoll Vineyard is brickish red color in the glass – not overly dark. Very aromatic with a sweetness of fruit showing on the bouquet – strawberry notes, a subtle hint of caramel and a spice note. Displays a pleasing mouth feel with excellent acidity (mouth watering) – and tannins that are well-integrated and slightly astringent in nature.
With the change in winemaker, a proprietary red called the Mountaineer was introduced by Burgess in 2013. The 2013 inaugural vintage is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot. Fairly dark in the glass it shows aromas of blackberry and dessert spices. Big fruit shows on the palate but is complemented by good acidity. There is a richness and depth of flavor – showing both red and darker fruits.
One thing that really sets this winery apart from other Napa Valley wineries is their Library Release program. Every year since 1979 they have released one of their Cabernet Sauvignon vintages of at least 10 years or older to the public. Trust us, this is a rarity to find in Napa. This gives one an excellent opportunity to taste older wine that has been aged properly. When you visit Napa wineries this is typically not the case as most wines that are available for tasting are typically only a few years old (the current releases).
The winery is located just off of Deer Park Road down a short narrow driveway. There are great views of the northern Napa Valley and the reservoir directly below their property. Walk out onto their deck for optimum viewing.
Entering their barrel room feels like walking back in time to some extent – this is not a flashy tasting room. Tastings are a personalized experience with the host (private for your party). Their Tasting in the Cellar experience is conducted at the wine counter inside their barrel room; their focus is on several wines ranging from a lighter rosé to Cabernet Sauvignon. Their signature experience is the Mountainside Tasting, held in the Mountainside Tasting Room (with great views overlooking the vineyards) featuring several current releases as well as a rare opportunity to taste older vintages.
This is an extremely unique opportunity to buy older wines *now* which have been aged up to several decades. Based on the age of these wines and the pedigree of this property, they are priced rather reasonably for Napa standards. They currently produce between 12,000 and 20,000 cases a year depending on each vintage. They have select distribution in restaurants across the country. For more information and or to join their mailing lisit: www.burgesscellars.com
1880 Estate Vineyard
Photographs coming by 2021.