I'm sitting in the Founders' Room at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, gazing up at a ceiling that does a remarkable impression of a pale gray orchid in full bloom, and sipping Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc while a gaggle of fastidious waitstaff pour their way slowly down two long tables festooned with glasses. Eight glasses at each place, each holding a sample of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon: the '04, '03, '02, and '99, made by Rosemary Cakebread; the '96 from Pam Starr; the '91, '86, and '84 from Tony Soter -- winemaking luminaries all. The vintages span close to Spottswoode's entire history as a winery, but they're being poured to mark the 125th anniversary of the Spottswoode Estate.
Spottswoode began as Esmeralda, the property of one George Schonewald: a grand house, 17 acres of grapes, 4 acres of formal gardens. In the years that followed, it passed through various owners and various names: Joseph Bliss named it Stonehurst in 1906, then sold it in 1908 to Dr. George Allen, who called it Lyndenhurst. Allen headed back to San Francisco in 1910, and Mrs. Spotts, the new owner, named the place Spottswoode in honor of her late husband. That was still its name in 1970, when it caught the attention of Dr. Jack Novak of Rancho Santa Fe.
"We had never been to the Napa Valley," recalls Mary Novak, Jack's widow and Spottswoode's proprietress. "We came up for Thanksgiving to visit some friends, who had moved up from Pasadena, and we thought, 'This is really, really beautiful. We could do this, too.' I think my husband" -- who was 40 at the time -- "had it at the back of his mind that he didn't want to practice medicine all his life." He also had a sense of what was coming to his childhood neighborhood. Back then, says Mary, Rancho Santa Fe "was small, and fairly rural. We had 13 acres, and there were minimum 4-acre lots. It was not what you would call a chi-chi, wealthy community. It didn't seem that way to us; it just seemed like a very nice place to live. We had just built a Mexican-style home, and I thought we would live there forever, but then we got the bug to move up north."
So north they went, taking their five children with them. ("We had more screaming and kicking from some than others," says Mary. "It was a very, very agricultural, rural community, and not very sophisticated at the time. We had a daughter who was going to be a sophomore in high school; that's a hard time to move from an environment like La Jolla Country Day to St. Helena. There was not much going on.") The five children were part of what made Spottswoode -- with its grand-scale house -- attractive. That, and the gardens, and the acreage for Jack to ride his tractor. "He liked his little machines. He used to race in the Baja 1000."
From the start, the plan was to make a go of it in the wine business -- first, by selling grapes. "There were existing vineyards on the property, but they were very old, old vines, probably planted in the '40s. Non-irrigated, non-frost-protected, head-pruned. The varieties were French Columbard, Green Hungarian, and a field blend of reds."
"By the time we moved here in the early '70s," recalls Mary's daughter Beth Novak Milliken (also the winery's president), "Gallo was the biggest buyer of grapes in the valley. They controlled what was then the co-op. We just picked the grapes and took them down there. They paid about $300 a ton -- based purely upon sugar levels. The more sugar, the better. Flavor was not a question."
The Novaks made that trip to the co-op just once, in 1972, the year they arrived. Gallo was still the chief player in Napa, but the new guard -- Mondavi, Chappellet, Mayacamas, Heitz, Stag's Leap -- was already digging in. By 1973, the Novaks were replanting the vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon. "We just followed advice," says Mary, "mainly from Justin Meyer at Silver Oak. He and Jack met early on, and they became good friends. And Rick Forman lived across the street. They're the ones that said, 'You've got to plant Cab.'" The Novaks also planted a fair-sized chunk of Sauvignon Blanc, despite its second-tier status at the time. "The idea was to have a white varietal in the vineyard," says Beth, "and it wasn't going to be Chardonnay..."
"Too warm," offers Mary.
"...and it wasn't going to be Gewürztraminer."
"And Sauvignon Blanc was a Bordeaux varietal," notes Mary -- a white to complement the new focus on Cabernet.
But Jack didn't get to see Spottswoode come into its own. He died of a heart attack in 1977. "I had to choose what to do," says Mary. "I was living there with five children on this vineyard. We'd taken some day courses at Davis, but we were not oenophiles; we didn't know a lot about it. But I opted to stay. First of all, because I loved the property. And I loved the growing -- more than I loved the winemaking end of it. I could see that I had a salable product. If I went back down to Rancho Santa Fe, I didn't have anything; I was a physician's wife who raised five children. It was basically an economic decision." She dug in. Five years later, she decided it was time for Spottswoode to start making its own wine and hired Tony Soter.
"He'd been around the valley, at Chappellet and various places. He seemed like the right kind of guy. He was a philosophy major, not a Davis graduate. He liked to get the feel for an estate. He started managing the vineyards, because he thought it was important to know everything that was going on." It was Soter who, in 1985, convinced Novak to go organic in the vineyard, a risky move in several ways, including aesthetically. "Everyone liked to see their vineyards looking perfect, without one weed. It was hard to start; you knew you were going to be untidy. But it certainly worked for us." A newish trade sheet called Wine Spectator named the '85 Spottswoode Cab one of the top ten wines of the year. In '86, they dropped into the top 20, but '87 saw them back among the elite. "That kind of put us on the map."
The map has changed considerably in the ensuing 20 years; it's gotten a lot more crowded, of course, and there's a lot more fretting over buzz and cult status as a means of standing out. But, says Beth, Spottswoode hasn't had to play the game. "We've always gotten really good scores from Parker, so I wouldn't say we're under the radar. But there's an incredibly successful model out there -- wineries that are inordinately successful" without much fanfare from the press. "Think of Groth, Duckhorn, Stag's Leap -- very strong brand names that have been around a long time. They don't need buzz to sell the wine; they have it. It's been created because they've done the work for 25 years or more. We sell absolutely everything we make, and demand remains extraordinarily high, and we feel really good about that."
So, when the 125th anniversary started looming, it seemed like a time to throw a party -- and to gather up some history. "I had so much," says Mary. "People gave me little clippings and pictures and things." They hired a historian to sift through the material and a graphic designer to make a book out of the best of it. "I think it's important to leave that for my family, so that everybody knows where we started from and what happened on the property. I think that too often, that stuff gets lost for the future generations. They never do have a history. It's kind of fun to have it all down here."