Trent Ghiringhelli has a plan.
As the winemaker at Heibel Ranch Vineyards (and one of the owners, along with his mother, stepfather, and wife), Trent has already invested nearly a third of his life in this family business – clearing land, planting vineyards, picking the first crop, bottling that first vintage. Always with a vision of the future. Thinking long-term. Operating on a 25-year plan.
Trent Ghiringhelli isn’t what you’d call impulsive. "In this business, you need to have a vision," he says. "And you need to stick to your guns."
A New Winery with a 60-Year History
Heibel Ranch Vineyards is part of land that was originally owned by Trent’s grandfather, George Bennet Heibel. In 1945, Heibel purchased the historic Aetna Springs Resort in beautiful Pope Valley. Once a popular destination for politicians and celebrities from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Aetna Springs Resort is not as well-known as it once one. Today it sits peacefully in this quiet valley tucked into the mountains that separate Napa Valley from Sacramento Valley.
George Heibel owned Aetna Springs Resort until 1973. He sold most of the property then, but kept 600 acres, which were divided among his children when he died in 1979. George’s daughter Helen Nelson (Trent’s mother) was given 186 acres on the north-east side of Howell Mountain.
In 1999, Trent, Helen, and Bruce Nelson (Trent’s stepfather) began working on a plan to convert some of the ranch to vineyards. Starting modestly, they cleared a small parcel of land and, in 2003, planted two acres of vines. Half they planted to cabernet sauvignon, with the remainder planted to petite sirah and zinfandel. The first harvest was 2006, and with it Heibel Ranch Vineyards achieved its first major milestone. In 2013 Heibel Ranch Vineyards will release its fifth vintage of wines from estate-grown grapes.
From a business perspective, developing vineyards is a long, slow process, an investment that won’t see a return for many years. But Trent is in no hurry. These things take time. Trent wants Heibel Ranch Vineyards to mature slowly, like great wine, expressing a sense of place and time. A sense of history and purpose.
For Trent and Helen especially, this is more than just a business. It’s a heritage. Their dedication to this land, their desire to farm it and produce world-class wine, is also about preserving a sense of history, family, and place. And that may partly explains why Trent thinks not in terms of months or years, but decades and generations. He told me he’d like to see this business thrive, and in so doing honor the memory of his grandfather while creating a legacy for his kids and grandkids.
Touring the Property
By now, the zinfandel, cabernet, and petite sirah grapes have all been picked, but when I toured Heibel Ranch Vineyards in mid-September with Trent and two new customers of his, the grapes hung heavy on the vines, not quite ready. Trent graciously offered the morning to us – a ride through the vineyards in his vintage army jeep with his yellow lab Chachi running alongside.
We passed under oak and old madrone trees with their curling bark, past scrub brush and manzanita with its dense, hard red wood. This land, Trent told us, was perfect. “When you see madrone and manzanita growing side by side, you know you’ve found the sweet spot for vineyards,” he said. "That’s an indication of world-class soil."
The vineyards are spring-fed and drip irrigated – very carefully. Like most vineyard managers, Trent keeps a close eye to ensure that the vines are sufficiently stressed to produce great quality fruit. This region of Northern California is hot and dry, and Pope Valley even more so. Like most of California, the area can receive almost no rain from May through November. The vines likely wouldn’t survive without any water, but too much irrigation can yield fruit that is plump and wine that is soft and indistinct.
Water isn’t the only issue that Trent has to manage. Sitting on the backside of Howell Mountain, the vineyards are also home to deer, birds, squirrels, and other critters that inhabit the surrounding woods. Noticing that Trent doesn’t use netting to protect the ripening grapes, I asked him about the friends he shares this land with. Wasn’t he worried about them eating into his profits, as it were?
"We have to give the wildlife its due," he says, "and after all, it’s a small cost." But again, in this family business profit isn’t the sole motivation. "It’s about responsible land use," Trent says. This is land that once belonged to Trent’s grandfather, and that now belongs to Trent’s mother. They want this land to remain in their family, to pass down to the next generation. So protecting it is as important as using it. Which helps explain why Trent considers himself a "steward" of the land.
Tasting Heibel Ranch Vineyard Wines
Our tour of the property and vineyards ended at the old Aetna Springs Resort, which is now owned by a company that is planning to restore its former glory. We sat outside in the breezeway of the oldest building, next to the office where Trent’s grandfather worked some 50 or 60 years earlier. It was an appropriate place to enjoy some beautiful wines, born from vines grown on land his grandfather once owned. “I didn’t really know him,” Trent told us (his grandfather died when Trent was a young child), “so this place is my connection to him.”
2009 Lappa’s Napa Valley Red. This wine is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petite sirah, and zinfandel. Except for the cab franc, the fruit is estate grown. The wine is gorgeous and fruit forward, with a lush and elegant texture, balanced oak, and soft tannins. It’s an approachable wine that’s ready to drink now (why wait?). Only 266 cases produced. Available to purchase here.
2009 GBH Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. 100% estate grown. This is a dense, complex wine with layers of evolving flavors: eucalyptus, black cherry, cigar, tobacco. It’s youthful and could really benefit from some time in the bottle, but what a beautiful wine it is already.
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