Hendry Ranch has been owned by the Hendry family since 1939; this is historical as far as Napa vineyard families are concerned but then consider that there has been a vineyard on site since 1859 – planted by winemakers and brothers Frederick and John Sigrist. This site is one of Napa Valley’s earlier commercial vineyards (considering George Yount planted the first ever vineyards in the Napa Valley in the winter of 1838/1839). The property has a fascinating viticultural history and in the ensuing years became one of Napa’s largest vineyard plantings (and later home to the Sigrist Bros Winery). In the early 1880s this property was owned by John Buhman (long time family whose heirs still reside in the valley: reference Buhman Estate Vineyards) and fellow German, George Barth.
From old newspaper records, Barth sounds like a bit of a character. In addition to the Sigrist Ranch, he owned a number of pieces of property, a saloon and hotel (where he maintained a brick vault serving the Germans in town) and had almost completed a new brewery building when it burnt to the ground in 1881. In debt and being pursued by creditors, he soon left his family, emptied his safe and skipped town for several years to return to his native Germany. During his absence his wife declared bankruptcy and the various properties he left behind were sold – although Barth eventually returned after several years and made attempts to reclaim his old properties.
By the late 1880s and into the 1890s phylloxera destroyed the vines that were growing on the ranch (not the first time phylloxera would become a serious problem in the Napa Valley – 100+ years later in the 1980s and into the 1990s phylloxera would again destroy a significant portion of the valley’s grapevines.
Fast forward decades; George W. Hendry was an agronomy professor and taught at both the University of California Berkeley and at Davis. He was a man of many talents and interests including agriculture, photography, travel and history. He traveled the world in the 1920’s studying and then documenting numerous agricultural practices. Later he studied the plant materials embedded in adobe bricks in old California Spanish style buildings – documenting early varieties of wheat and wheat pests in California.
He also developed new types of crops including the drought resistant California Mariout barley (which had higher yields as compared to other strains) and Double Dwarf Marlo variety (resistant to root rot).
And in 1926 it was announced in the December issue of the California Historical Society Quarterly that George W had located an old cross boundary marker placed in 1773 from an order by the King of Spain at that time to mark the boundary between upper and lower California or in reality, marking the boundaries between Franciscan and Dominican areas of mission control. This cross was placed by the Franciscan monk Francisco Palao who was also the founder of Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Until George’s find, this physical boundary marker had been lost to the ticking clock of time. The present day border of Mexico / USA is next to Tijuana – about 30 miles north of this original boundary marker.
George W and his wife Margaret purchased the old Sigrist property in 1939 – at that time a 6 acre section of the property was still planted to Zinfandel vines dating back to 1900. Unfortunately George died in 1944 unexpectedly of a heart attack leaving Margaret (died 1991) to raise their two sons, George and Andrew and simultaneously continue to oversee the ranch (grapes were being sold to the Christian Brothers Winery). George went on to earn his undergraduate and master degrees from U.C. Berkeley and eventually become one of the world’s leading designers of cyclotrons (often used in hospitals to treat cancer). Despite his time commitments in designing and working with cyclotrons, George has also been very involved with the ranch all his life and made the early decision to pull out the remaining fruit trees and began planting grapes. The first vintage of Hendry Family wines was from 1992.
Tours + Tastings
George’s seminar, or should we say, seminal tour and tasting is among the longest and most informative of any Napa Valley winery tour we’ve taken; this is one of the wineries in the Napa Valley where we take friends and family. We have been here a number of times; if your tour is with George, allow at least 2.5 to 3.5 hours (our record time so far with a George led tour was slightly over 3.5 hours). His lengthy tours are what we call “appointment breakers” so if you have an appointment following your tour at Hendry be sure it is scheduled far enough out. Several tours are given per day – the tour you want to take is with George, most days at 10am.
George is in his mid 80’s now and has a lifetime of experience including some trial and error in the wine industry. The focus of his tours are educational and questions are encouraged. You can tell a true farmer by looking at their hands. If they are spotless they are not a farmer – often before tours begin, George will have been working in the vineyards and one will notice his dirty hands and scuffed up jeans.
Tours are typically limited to no more than 8 people. Much of George’s tour takes place in the actual vineyards and includes plenty of viticulture information you won’t pick up from other wine tours. You will refreshingly see the “other side of Napa” from a farming perspective.
After an extensive visit in the vineyard followed by a detailed tour of the winery, guests enter one of their tasting rooms for an in-depth tasting. Visitors will typically try 10-12 different wines at a sit down tasting in front of their enclosed cellar. Note the unique place mats – these show a map outline of all their vineyard blocks. Unlike all tastings we’ve been to in Napa where someone pours the wine, George often passes the bottle around the table and visitors will pour their own small portions.
Hendry Vineyard is located just north of the Carneros district; their property has several different soil types and micro climates. As a result all parts of their vineyards are block designated based on these characteristics. This allows Hendry to really micromanage their wines and produce the type of wine best suited to the block’s specific characteristics. There are 203 acres on site, of which 117 are planted. The vineyards are then organized into 49 unique blocks, each of which is managed and controlled separately both in the vineyard and in the winery.
Water is an issue in this slice of the valley and Hendry tends to dry farm their vineyards after the vines have been well established, usually after 5 or 6 years. His vineyards are extremely diverse ranging from cooler moister regions near a local creek up to higher drier benchland. George has been keeping rainfall records on the property over the past 50 years and on average has interestingly noticed that his vineyard receives several more inches of rain today then when he first started keeping track.
Over the years grapes from the Hendry Ranch have been purchased by a number of prominent wineries including Robert Mondavi (also for use in Opus One), Kent Rosenblum, Peter Franus and Genevieve Janssens for her Portfolio wines and others.
George’s nephew Mike Hendry has overseen the management of the vineyards since 2001. He also produces very limited production wines under his Mike & Molly Hendry label.
Wines + Winemaking
Their 22,000 square foot gravity flow winery is state of the art. An intriguing part of the winery design involves the second floor. The second floor wraps around openings of the tops of the steel tanks. The tanks are built right into the design of the winery – eliminating the need to climb ladders to get to the top of the tanks or needing catwalks. They also have their own bottling line which makes it very convenient for bottling both their own wines as well as the several custom crush clients on site.
George has conducted tests on his older Chardonnay’s that were bottled with corks. He noticed varying degrees of oxidation between each of the wines and also how the flavors were affected. These wines in other words did not age consistently. He also conducted blind tasting tests on some of his wine club members between screw capped wines and wines that were bottled with corks (same wine, same vintages). Finding that most people chose the screw capped versions and based on his studies of older chardonnays, he now bottles his lighter white wines, the Chardonnays and some of his lighter reds with screw caps. He has noticed how screw caps keep the wine fresher, preserve the “fruitiness and extend the shelf life.
Borrowing from wine terminology George holds three “blocks” close to the vest when making wine: keep the alcohol under control, produce dry wines – not sweet, and do not allow oak to take control of the flavors. George is also passionate about how wine should pair with food and will make pairing suggestions for every one of the wines you taste. If your tour is closer to lunch time you may find yourself becoming quite hungry just listening to his pairing advice and he will invariably recommend the nearby La Taquiza restaurant.
George grows Albariño, a Spanish variety very uncommon to the Napa Valley (only several producers make wine from this variety in the area). This is a variety that grows in the cooler coastal regions of southwest Spain and the cooler southern part of Napa makes an ideal area to grow this grape. This is a lighter styled wine that is fairly high in acid. The palate typically shows notes citrus blossom and pomelo; this wine will pair well with a variety of seafood’s especially shellfish. George also uses this wine to make salad dressing (ingredients: Albariño wine, olive oil and a touch of lemon).
An interesting side by side comparison is his un-oaked Chardonnay and his barrel fermented Chardonnay. Its fairly easy to notice the color differences between the two wines and the aromas and flavors are markedly different. The unoaked Chardonnay is a true varietal expression of this grape whereas the oaked version brings a more rounded mouth feel and additional flavors imparted from the oak including a nuttiness, notes of almond and zesty spicy notes.
We do not normally drink a lot of Pinot Noir but George’s Pinot Noir is quite appealing. With this variety he subscribes to the “less is more” theory in that this wine shows less intensity but rather displays a broader range of flavor or as he says, “I strive to make a Pinot Noir that is complex rather than macho”! This wine was fermented using wild yeast. The 2006 Hendry Pinot Noir has an elegant nose with notes of slightly baked cherry and baking spices. This is a very well balanced wine with a long finish.
A number of the wines are labeled with a specific block number and include fruit from just that particular block. With 11 varieties planted on site Hendry makes a diversity of wines. Other standouts include their Primitivo, several Zinfandels and clones from bottled with their respective source block names, a Bordeaux blend and their “biggest wine”, the Cabernet Sauvignon. All their wines are *extremely* reasonably priced for Napa standards.
Hendry’s wines have generally received positive press but as George says, “the critics can’t taste the wines for you” and he encourages you to try them yourself as everyone’s palate is different.
You must make an appointment for a visit to the winery. It is very common for people to show up without appointments (especially on the weekends) and they are unable to accommodate these unannounced visits. For more information and or to join their wine club, visit: www.hendrywines.com