Don’t misunderstand — Robert Baizer is glad he went to Sundance. He had a lovely time — made even lovelier by the happy reception accorded Bottle Shock, a film he helped to finance. By festival’s end, he and the other producers were left with the happy problem of figuring out their best options with regard to distribution. Whichever deal they made, it seemed certain that the film, a crowd-pleaser about the famous Paris tasting of 1976, would wind up on the big screen. So that was all right.
Still, he was sad that attending the Park City film festival caused him to miss an intimate evening with Itzhak Perlman up at the Napa Valley Reserve, an organization that Baizer describes as being “like a golf club, only instead of greens and a clubhouse, they have vineyards and caves.” (And the occasional dinner in the company of a musical giant.)
Baizer’s journey to the clubby heart of Napa — the Reserve is situated adjacent to the Meadowood resort in St. Helena — began in upstate New York, while he was attending Cornell Business School in the early ’90s. The university also featured a noted hotel administration program, and Baizer joined many of his business-school classmates in sampling the program’s wine-education classes. Later, while living in Manhattan and working on Wall Street, he began collecting with a colleague who had just built a cellar in his Connecticut home. (“He had room,” explains Baizer. “In Manhattan, your dining room credenza was your wine locker.”) A business opportunity brought him home to San Diego in 2000, where he found himself exposed to “a lot more California product.” Somewhere along the way, he put himself on the waiting list for Harlan Estate, easily one of the premiere Cult Cabs on the market.
“And then one day,” he recalls, “I got this cryptic letter, talking about a new project that was forming in Napa Valley that was the result of almost ten years of work. It wasn’t super descriptive — there was a lot of ethereal language. That’s very Bill Harlan. A couple of times a year, you’ll get this little card from him, just for being on his list, and it will have a quote from some Greek philosopher. And maybe about three months later, it will occur to you what it might be in relation to. And for his other label, Bond — once a year, he sends out a beautiful 8 x 10 photo, usually black and white. Could be vineyards against the sky or looking down on barrels in a winery. There will be a little Bond logo on the jacket holding the photo, and that’s it. Classy, understated marketing is one of his hallmarks.” And apparently, it works: “The letter piqued my curiosity.”
The new project, as Baizer understands it, was conceived when some of Harlan’s friends started asking him, “Hey, how can we get involved with this in some way?” “This” was the winemaking life and lifestyle, the return to the land that entices the businessman as he stews in his office. As the Reserve’s website puts it: “Napa Valley living is inspired by agriculture, food, and wine, and is connected through farming, the ebb and flow of the seasons, and a love of the land. The Napa Valley way of life is a magical balance of work and rewards, activity and rest, vineyards and cellar, garden and kitchen, quiet time alone and celebrations with family and friends. With acres of vineyards, orchards, and gardens, the Reserve is the essence of a wine estate as it has always been in Napa Valley. The wine in the glass is from the vineyard. The honey on the table is from the hives on the hill, and the olive oil from the orchard. The heirloom tomatoes are picked from the garden at perfect ripeness each day and taken straight to the kitchen…”
“I think Harlan thought it through,” surmises Baizer, “and realized that the people who were asking didn’t necessarily have the time or inclination to work on it full time. So he came up with this concept — at your convenience, you do whatever you want, or can. And when you’re not there, the project runs on autopilot and the Harlan team makes sure that everything that needs to happen happens. If I don’t make it up to prune, the Harlan team will prune my vines for me. But if I want to do it, they’ll let me do it, and they’ll show me exactly what to do. And they’ll assist me if I ask for it.” Ditto harvesting, winemaking, blending — you name it.
Baizer estimates that so far, he’s gotten up to the facility about once a quarter, “for almost every phase at one time or another. I have pruned in the winter, I’ve been there at budbreak, I’ve been there when we’re dropping fruit, and I’ve been there at harvest. But I’m planning to go more often now, because our vines are now ready to make their own individual wine.” And he does mean “our vines.” “There are two ways you can join. In one, you participate in the making of one wine for everyone who has that membership. In the other, you have specific vines allotted to you. There’s a wooden post at the end of the row, and it has a little metal plate with your name on it. I actually have a photo of me in the vineyard next to my row, and it’s a nice thing to look at on a stressful day.” Members can purchase anywhere from a quarter-barrel to three barrels of wine. “I’m making a half-barrel each year in conjunction with another member who’s here in San Diego, so we can use a standard Bordeaux barrel. Our rows are adjacent to one another, and we’ll team-blend it.”
And as that glowing promo copy noted, “The club does more than just make wine.” Members can participate in the harvesting of the honey, in the pressing of the olives, in the picking of the vegetables and fruits (to say nothing of the occasional trip to Bordeaux). Recalls Baizer, “We were up there in the middle of summer while we were shooting Bottle Shock, and my kids’ eyes lit up — the peaches on the trees were literally two-hand peaches. The general manager came over and said, ‘Just pick anything you want.’ They were absolutely amazing. We were all walking through the vineyard on this beautiful, sunny August day, peach juice dripping down to our elbows, just loving it. It’s just the nicest place to go and hang out — the buildings are very beautiful and are kind of at one with the environment.” Meaning they look like luxuriously weathered agricultural buildings, only recently converted into a state-of-the-art winery and a demonstration kitchen/banquet hall.
Members can reserve the buildings for private events, or, if they’re thinking a little more small scale, they can retreat to the caves. “There are 50,000 square feet of them, dug out of the side of the mountain behind the vineyard,” says Baizer. “They’re completely temperature controlled. After they drilled it out, they lined the walls with rebar and what looked like surgical tubing, then shot a layer of concrete over it. The tubes carry water and can heat or cool the caves to an exact temperature. If you want it warmed up for a tasting, they can do that. The caves are set up in concentric circles, and scattered throughout, there are rooms called Member Wine Libraries, where about 30 members can get together and have that be their space.”
But for all the lifestyle, the wine is the main thing, the reason Baizer dreams of passing his membership along to his children. Harlan started making a Napa Valley Reserve wine back in 1997, “so that members could start getting wine right away.” (The 2000, which I tasted, offered the longest finish of any wine in recent memory.) “The vineyard wasn’t even planted yet, but he knew it was going to be a reality. Our vineyard is on the valley floor, while Harlan’s is mountain fruit. But we’ve got the same clones that he’s using,” and the same winemaking and viticultural team. “Our wine isn’t expected to taste exactly like Harlan’s, but it’s expected to be very good. When we get the first release of estate wine, wine actually made at Napa Valley Reserve, we can start to decide if that’s perfection or if we want to deviate. It’s a long-term thing; hopefully, there will be many vintages to practice and experiment.”