Shypoke Vineyards is located just south of Calistoga. The winery was founded by Peter Heitz (today he and his wife Meg oversee all the operations of this tiny brand). The Heitz family (no relation to Joseph Heitz, founder of Heitz Cellars) dates back to 1896 in the Napa Valley which makes his family among the oldest of the winemaking families in the Napa Valley.
Peter is 4th generation grape grower/winemaker and was raised in Carneros on a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyard that his parents Gary and Ginny owned (the southern part of the Napa Valley near the San Pablo Bay). His great great grandparents Michael and Louise immigrated here from France in 1896 and purchased property on the valley floor at the end of the Mayacamas mountains – near what is now the Diamond Mountain sub appellation. They were the first ones in the family to use the name Shypoke. It comes from an old family folk name that refers to Blue Herons; these birds still nest in the riparian zone next to their vineyards. In 1904 they founded a small winery on the property and called it Michael Heitz Winery (Heitz Way still reflects their family name). And their old stone ghost winery still exists – just west of the Heitz Vineyard.
While making their own wine, they sold the majority of their grapes especially during Prohibition. And what became a critical decision that impacted their heirs, they pulled out all the varieties except one, Charbono (the variety that Shypoke is most known for) – replanting to various stone fruit crops. Eventually one of their nine sons inherited the property, Fred – who replanted the property to vines after Prohibition. The family continued to sell grapes over the decades including their Charbono to Inglenook. But the one constant since 1904 is their vineyard has always been planted to Charbono.
Before wine became as popular as it is today, Napa Valley had two winery cooperatives, one just south of St. Helena (now the site of Hall Winery) and one located north of St. Helena (site of Markham Vineyard and was referred to as the little co-op). Vintners would sell their grapes to these cooperatives and take turns being the winemaker. Peter’s grandfather was the head winemaker at one of these cooperatives during the 1950s and 1960s.
Today Shypoke farms 10 acres of grapes on the remaining 11 acres from the original 50 acres – and focuses on producing several wines including, Grenache, Sangiovese (only 1/2 acre and perhaps the oldest Sangiovese in the Napa Valley with vines dating back to the late 1970s), Charbono, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Fallstreak (a blend that changes every year but is typically Grenache, Malbec, Petite Sirah and of course, Charbono) from a combination of both estate and purchased fruit. Total production each year is around 1,000 cases.
After graduating from the University of Santa Cruz with a degree in Biology Peter took a position at Beringer Vineyards as an associate winemaker where he worked for 11 years. Immediately following Beringer he became head winemaker at Turnbull Cellars. He produces the Shypoke wines at his bonded garage in Calistoga. The first vintage of Shypoke was in 1996 – only two wines then, Charbono and Sangiovese. Gary and Ginny made the wines from 1996-1999, no wine was made in 2000; Peter began making the wines in 2001.
Peter works with vineyard sites that often come with the intrigue of history – whether it is the age of the vines themselves or the heritage of the personalities that farm the sites. He makes wines from grapes growing in the northern part of the Napa Valley (Calistoga) and outside of the county – including in Mendocino County (to the north of the Napa Valley).
All wines we initially tried with Peter at his home in Calistoga were from the 2005 vintage although we have later tried more current releases. The 2005 Shypoke Vineyards Sangiovese is 100% varietal. This is a pleasing lighter wine featuring raspberry and strawberry flavors with just a touch of vanilla on the finish. Good for drinking around the pool on a warm summer day.
Charbono is also known as Bonarda, a popular variety in Argentina. A not so popular variety in California – in fact there are only approximately 70-80 acres of this French variety planted in the state and according to the 2018 Napa County crop report, 44 bearing acres of Charbono grow in the Napa Valley, a significant amount of that near Calistoga. For decades Charbono was one of Inglenook’s great wines (at one point they had tens of acres of this variety planted at their estate).
It is a somewhat difficult variety to grow as bud break comes very early in the season, typically before the frost season is over. This grape really thrives in the Calistoga area as during the summer thriving in the 30-40 degree swings in temperature between day and night. We’ve had a number of Charbono wines produced from the Napa Valley; theirs is one of the nicest. This variety produces wines that are very low in acid as well as in alcohol. However, contrary to belief these factors do not diminish the fruit flavors whatsoever. Their version is a very full bodied wine with a nice mouth feel and some spiciness that will pair very well with food.
The 2015 Le Corbeau (5 barrel production) is 100% varietal Charbono and means ‘the crow’ in French. Dark garnet in the glass immediately offers powerful fruit driven aromatics focusing more on darker fruits including plum and blackberry along with black licorice and dark chocolate. Slightly savory and also noticeable are hints of sage and dried rosemary. Mouth filling fruit, seductive and a bit opulent – big but balanced across the palate with supple lighter style tannins. The finish lingers with notes of plum, a slight tartness (red cherry) and a kiss of mocha and baking spices. A fine showing – fairly polished and doesn’t show any of the rustic qualities we have noticed in some of the older Charbono wines from the Napa Valley. 14.1% alcohol.
The Shypoke Petite Sirah is not a big bold Petite Sirah, like a number of wines we have tried from this variety in the Napa Valley over the years. Rather, the 2005 Shypoke Petit Sirah is a more elegant wine offering aromas of ripe plums and dark cherries in the nose, blueberries on the palate with a nice not overly tannic finish.
Their Cabernet Sauvignon is the only blend of its kind that we have tried in Napa. Being true to their primary variety, Charbono, naturally they blend Charbono in their Cabernet Sauvignon. This 2005 Shypoke Cabernet Sauvignon has about 10% Charbono in the blend. This is a delightful wine – the Charbono rounds out this wine especially in the mid palate and provides structure to the finish. The finish is slightly smoky & very long.
The Cabernet Sauvignon is clone 337 which as Peter says, “if you were starving in the desert and you had a choice between the 337 clone and nothing to eat, its a toss up whether you would select the 337”! This particular clone produces extremely small berries which as a result provide very rich concentrated flavors due to the high skin to juice ratio.
Shypoke designs their wines to be consumed at a young age, i.e. now. Compared to typical Napa wine pricing their pricing is very reasonable. Shypoke was one of the very few Napa wineries to donate 1% of their total gross profits to an organization called 1% For The Planet – funds from businesses who participate in this are distributed to organizations protecting the environment worldwide.
Locally select Shypoke wines can be found at Backroom Wines in the city of Napa. For more information and or to join their mailing list, visit: www.shypoke.com