A heritage of farming yields highly praised wines

2010-12-17T00:00:00Z 2010-12-18T00:17:20Z A heritage of farming yields highly praised winesSALLY KING Napa Valley Register
December 17, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Walking past the large, white, two-story home, built in the late 1800s, there is much to take in.

A cistern out back was built to catch the rainwater for irrigating fruit and almond trees and wheat fields.  At one side sits a large barn and a field of grass where horses and cows graze, along with a noisy goat. One might not think this is part of a popular cabernet vineyard in Napa Valley.

This is the historic Lewelling property, now run by Doug, Dave and Alan Wight. Their mother, Janice Wight, was the great-granddaughter of John Lewelling, who settled on the land in 1864.

Five generations later, the Wights are on top of their game, making cabernet sauvignon that has garnered high points — 98 for their 2007  Wight Cabernet — from Robert Parker.

Doug Wight said the family has been farming for six generations and growing wine grapes since the 1960s. 

“We always sold our grapes to Caymus and other wineries in the area,” he said. “They would blend our grapes with those of other growers. We became curious about the terrior and how the wine would taste.

“We produced our first cabernet in 1974 and did not have our first release until 1992.”


The Lewelling heritage

Wight said the Lewelling story unfolds with four brothers moving from Iowa to Salem, Ore. in the 1860s. The brothers brought 120 fruit trees by wagon from their land in Iowa. With these fruit trees, they ended up starting the fruit industry in Oregon. He noted that the brothers developed the Bing cherry, naming it after a Chinese worker on their land.

According to family history, one brother, John Lewelling, left Oregon and started working in the gold fields around Hangtown, now Placerville. He stopped mining and moved to Napa in 1864, where he established the Lewelling estate. In 1870, he built the house that still sits on the property.

Wight said John Lewelling became active in the wine business in the 1880s, with Beringer, Krug and Shefler. The arrival of phylloxera, a deadly root louse, followed by Prohibition, caused Lewelling to change gears and grow wheat, almonds and prunes. He became the president of the Grange Bank in San Francisco. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that wine grapes would again be harvested on the property.

Lewelling’s son Harvey, known locally as “the rich man’s son,” became a photographer. He owned a plant that generated natural gas and had his own personal telegraph line and car. He owned a warehouse where he stored brandy. Harvey Lewellilng’s son, Lester, was the family member who settled on the property and began growing and harvesting grape vines to make wine for the family.

Janice Lewelling Wight, Lester’s daughter, and her husband, Russ Wight, built their home on the family property in 1950. They quickly became involved in operating and replanting the vineyard. Russ Wight, together with his three sons, Alan, Doug and Dave, ran the vineyards. Janice Wight passed away in 1994 and Russ on May 4, 2010. 

 In the 1960s, Janice and Russ Wight were selling their grapes to other wineries as the industry began to change. Corporations became interested in the wine industry and the potential to make money from high-end wines. Until this point, wine grape production was based on sugar content and quantity. Now, quality of the grapes became paramount.

During the 1960s, the decision for most wineries was whether to grow chenin blanc or cabernet sauvignon, until farmers started getting paid more for high-end cabernet grapes, Doug Wight said. For better quality, the fruit of the cab must be thinned out, yielding a smaller crop, thus a higher price from the buyer.

Another change that converted growing techniques was drip irrigation, he said. Prior to the drip system, farmers had to drive around the fields and spray water from tanks attached to their trucks, which was both time consuming and costly. “Farmers were totally at the mercy of the weather,” Wight said.

Dave and Doug Wight grew up on the property. Doug left to attend Cal Poly from 1968 to 1973 and worked for Martini Winery till 1977. Doug manages the vineyards at Lewelling as well as 500 additional acres in Napa. 

Dave studied philosophy at Harvard. When he returned to the Napa Valley, he worked at Inglenook. He earned a degree in viticulture from UC Davis and is the winemaker for Lewelling Vineyards.

Alan, the third brother, is an engineer for Agilent Technologies and contributes to the wine tasting, helping decide when the wine is ready for production.

All of the brothers are involved in their final product. Their 500-case production quickly sells out.

Haley Wight has joined her dad and uncles in the winemaking business. She has her own label, Hayfork Wine.

“The brothers have integrity, are very intelligent and honest farmers,” said Dave Phinney, owner of Orin Swift Cellars. “They are not just educated in winemaking, they have been hands-on growers for years, walking their vineyards every day. 

“I am a big proponent of the Wights,” said Chuck Wagner, owner of Caymus Winery. “These are the type of people we all should be like: honest, trustworthy farmers that grow quality grapes on a consistent basis.”

“Their grapes are grown in a special environment, a Cortina soil series,” Wagner said. “The soil is gravely and the grapes have the ability to thrive without a lot of water, making small, flavorful fruit.”

“The Wights are a part of the history of the ever-changing face of viticulture,” said Stu Harrison, a long-time friend, who is a partner at Trivium Wines and works for Continuum. “They are the natural soul-of-the-earth guys, who had the vision to change the philosophy from producing and selling wine based on quantity to selling based on quality.”

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(1) Comments

  1. Yountvillan
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    Yountvillan - December 17, 2010 7:03 am
    The Wights are a great Napa Valley family I've had the privilege of knowing for over 50 years. Russ's obituary is a very interesting read:

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