York Creek

A love of wildness and vineyards

Exploring Spring Mountain at York Creek Vineyards
2013-03-14T18:15:00Z 2013-03-21T18:03:38Z A love of wildness and vineyardsKIP DAVIS Napa Valley Register
March 14, 2013 6:15 pm  • 

The shiny new ATV rumbled up the dirt road past an expanse of manicured vineyards wrapping the hillside. In the driver’s seat, Fritz Maytag hit the brakes near a wooden gate at the edge of the vineyard. Maytag punched a button on a remote control and the rustic gate swung open, letting the ATV pass into the lush, untamed forest beyond the fence line.

“I see my property as a garden between the dense farming and the wild forest,” Maytag says, steering the vehicle around a sharp bend crossing a creek. “I love the forest here as much as I love the vineyard.”

That love affair started in 1968 when Maytag bought a 320-acre ranch on Spring Mountain. Part of the property was planted in grapes, the rest primeval forest. Maytag named the ranch York Creek Vineyards after the babbling stream that meanders near the property’s southern border.

As Maytag would later reveal, his dual love of developed vineyard and wild, untouched forest mirrors his history of successfully blending tradition with modern technology. The old, weatherworn wooden gate we had just passed through, for instance, was operated by a solar-powered motor controlled by a remote transmitter.

Maytag bought York Creek Vineyards shortly after he began transforming the historic but ailing Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco into what many consider to be America’s first modern microbrewery. The brewery’s success was to a great degree the grand result of Maytag’s talent of applying new technology to enhance a time-honored product steeped in tradition.

Iconic success, evidently, is also ingrained in the Maytag family tradition. Born Frederick Louis Maytag III, Fritz is the third Frederick L. Maytag to make his mark on American culture. His great grandfather, Frederick L. Maytag I, started the Maytag Washing Machine Company, later renamed Maytag, Inc. The company revolutionized the way Americans did laundry and, for the better part of the 20th century, dominated the washer and dryer market.   

In the 1940s, Frederick L. Maytag II — Fritz’s father — turned milk from his family’s Holstein cows into Maytag Blue Cheese using an innovative process developed at Iowa State University. Before that, blue cheese from Roquefort, France, and other regions was traditionally made only from sheep’s milk. Maytag Blue became a favorite among gourmands decades before such artisanal cheese making would become common in America. The sumptuous cheese is still on the favorites list of today’s foodies.

When it was his turn, Fritz Maytag added the family touch to American beer. As a young Stanford graduate, Maytag heard that Anchor Brewing, founded in the mid-1800s, was on the verge of bankruptcy. A fan of the small-batch beer sold only on tap, Maytag bought a majority share of the struggling company in 1965. He learned brewing, worked out serious product-quality issues and soon introduced the first bottled Anchor Steam Beer. In a few years, demand was overwhelming and, instead of expanding beyond his comfort level, Maytag started teaching others how to brew and start their own small-scale, artisanal brewing labels. He coined the term “micro-brewery” — a result of his friendship with young “micro-computer” guru Steve Jobs — and became a legend in what would become America’s craft beer movement.

A family retreat

With all of that going on in San Francisco, Maytag needed a place to decompress with his family. He turned to Spring Mountain.

“I came up here originally looking for a place to go camping with my children,” Maytag said, gazing over his hillside ranch that straddles Langtry Road. “I was looking for hillside forest land with the idea that maybe someday we would plant a vineyard. It never occurred to me that I would buy a vineyard. When I saw this place with York Creek and all that forest and everything I just fell in love.”

Maytag bought the ranch from Herman Hummel, a Russian refugee from the Communist revolution who came to Napa Valley in the 1920s. Hummel had originally managed the property that was part of a larger ranch owned by the Lanza family. When the Lanza ranch went up for sale in the mid-1930s, Hummel asked to buy it. The surprised owner asked how Hummel could afford it.

“Herman said ‘I’ve saved all my money, I own a little house downtown that I can sell, and if you’ll carry the debt, I’ll buy it from you,’” Maytag said. “Lanza admired Herman so much, I think, that he said ‘All right, let’s try it.’ So Herman bought this whole thing.”

Hummel later sold a portion of the ranch south of York Creek to Jerry Draper, a Bay Area real estate executive.

“Herman took that money, paid Mr. Lanza and owned this ranch free and clear,” Maytag said. “So he went from being a refugee from the Communists in 1920 or so … to owning this 320-acre property … in just 20 years.”

When Maytag bought the ranch in 1968, it was planted with about 75 acres of vineyard. While a family retreat was the original intent, Maytag saw the vines as a potential bonus.

“My whole idea always was to have a vineyard that became famous but without a winery,” he said. “I had a brewery and I was night and day in the brewery in the ’60s and ’70s. The last thing I wanted was another bottling line or a sales manager … I wanted a country farm.”

Maytag’s interest in fine wine did not start with the purchase of his Spring Mountain retreat. In the early 1960s, he and his college friend, Paul Draper, traveled to Chile with the Peace Corps. Maytag and Draper, who was already on his path to becoming a legendary California winemaker, leased an old Chilean winery. The two bought grapes from a nearby vineyard and made cabernet in the antiquated winery. Later, Maytag would be influenced by another renowned winemaker.

“Paul and I learned a great deal from Lee Stewart, a true pioneer,” Maytag said. “When we went over to Souverain (on Howell Mountain) to learn about winemaking from him, I asked Lee where the best grapes are from. He said ‘Right over there,’ pointing to Jerry Draper’s vineyard, meaning Spring Mountain.”

A few years later, Jerry Draper — no relation to Paul — would share a bucolic property line with Maytag.

York Creek Vineyards today

Tooling around the ranch on his four-seat Polaris Ranger ATV painted “York Creek Green,” Maytag exudes a sense of pride and excitement about the meandering vineyards and lush forests. York Creek Vineyards now has about 125 acres of vines growing between 1,100 and 2,100 feet elevation. Bordeaux varietals include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petite verdot. York Creek is also well known for its zinfandel and petite syrah. Small blocks of pinot blanc, carignane and barbera are also scattered on the property.

“We have something like 45 different blocks of vineyard,” he said, “which is typical in the mountains. You can’t just plow up a flat field. You grow where you can. There are trees, then there are grapes, then there are trees. I’ve always loved that aspect of this property.”

Almost on cue, the screech of a hawk punctuates Maytag’s comment.

“You go down to the valley and see that people have put up poles with bird houses on them hoping to attract a hawk,” he grinned. “We don’t need those up here.”

Maytag said that the natural forests on his ranch create a plant diversity that is less prevalent on the valley floor. This diversity attracts beneficial insects and raptors that contribute to the health of the vineyards.

“But it has its downside, too,” he said. “In the mountains you have to fence your vineyard from deer and that’s one of the many differences in terms of economics. We’ve got miles of fences that have to be maintained and inspected.”  

Despite his earlier reluctance, Maytag did make wine for a few years under the York Creek Vineyards label, which featured silhouettes of 24 native trees.

“I had just a little experimental winery … I couldn’t resist,” he said. “I put it into one of the (Anchor) brewery buildings. When I sold the brewery I realized that I’m enjoying my freedom so much that I’m not sure I wanted to continue doing that.”

He has since returned to his original “business plan” for the property — to only grow high quality grapes that would be coveted by winemakers producing York Creek vineyard designated wines.

“My friendship with Paul Draper was very helpful in that regard,” he said. “They (Draper’s Ridge Vineyards) were one of the first wineries to use our name and they’ve been using it since 1971.”

York Creek also sells its grapes to other select wineries including Cain, Barnett and The Prisoner.

Another pet project Maytag began a few years ago aims at producing high quality, traditional Port-style wine to rival the best from Portugal.

“There are five (grape varietals) in Portugal that are considered the tops for Port,” he said. “We’ve researched it enough now to know that, clearly, Touriga Nacional is the one that really makes great Port.”

So, on the high reaches of the ranch that dips into Sonoma County, Maytag planted blocks of Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão and Tinta Roriz.

But it’s not all about grapes and forests for Maytag, who has led a life filled with passions and productive diversions that range from olive oil to raising trotter horses that he runs horse-and-buggy style around the Spring Mountain ranch. Maytag has also shouldered the responsibility for the family’s cheese company since his father’s death in 1962.

His successes in craft beer, fine wine and artisanal cheese seem to have a common thread, one that Maytag attributes to both his upbringing and his analytical, always curious nature.

“I like small things,” he said. “That’s part of what I’ve worked hard at both at the brewery and the cheese business … to stay small.”

Maytag said that even his family’s appliance business stayed relatively small, concentrating on high quality, innovation instead of product diversity and growth.

“They didn’t make every appliance,” he said of Maytag Inc. “They made washing machines, then driers and then dishwashers. They just made what they made and they were the best.”

“I’ve thought in later years,” he continued, “that maybe my father’s blue cheese business had an influence on me. But I think the main thing is that when I was a boy I was intrigued by chemistry. I had a little room in the basement that I called my chem lab. I was just in love with chemistry. I thought I would be a chemist and then I encountered mathematics and realized I wasn’t cut out for that kind of science career.”

When he bought the struggling Anchor brewery his first task was to figure out what was wrong with the brewing process. The beer quality was inconsistent and it frequently turned sour. Maytag brought in his microscope and started the process of finding a solution to the problem.

“I knew we had bugs and (in brewing) you want good bugs but not bad bugs,” he said. “But the point is that I was the kind of guy that had a microscope at home. I was a junior scientist all my life. And the brewery was magic. You can’t imagine the complexity of basic science in a brewery. I became a brewmaster from the ground up and my team learned brewing from the ground up. We were like so many of the small winery owners today.”

Maytag’s brewery experience reinforced and expanded his belief that tradition and new technology can not only co-exist but also complement each other. He feels the same has been true in the world of fine wine.

“Everything we (Anchor) did was remarkably traditional and our equipment and our methods were remarkably modern. We were by far the most modern small brewery in the world and one of the most traditional, too, all at the same time. Tradition and modern food technology — that’s Bob Mondavi right there. That’s Jack Davies at Schramsberg.”

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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