Hill Family Estates

Doug Hill, left, and his son Ryan of Hill Family Estate are the third- and fourth-generation of farmers in their family. They say their business has been hurt by the legal problems of Jeff Hill, no relation, who is also part of the Napa Valley wine industry.

J.L. Sousa/Register

Their dilemma amounts to more than a hill of beans.

The father/son winegrowing team of Doug and Ryan Hill is tired of answering questions about the misadventures of another in the industry with the same surname.

A third-generation California farmer, Doug Hill has been planting and coddling vines for nearly four decades. In 2001, teaming up with son Ryan, he launched a winemaking venture, Hill Family Estate.

Subsequently, another area farmer named Jeff Hill started up a management company as well as winery also using his family name.

The confusion that has ensued, say father and son, wouldn't be so bad if the non-related Hill hadn't wound up entangled in criminal and civil proceedings. Jeff Hill has been charged with grand theft and has been sued by multiple growers and wineries. Hill Wine Company has filed for bankruptcy in federal court.

With word of Jeff Hill's legal entanglement and pending bankruptcy grabbing headlines, Ryan says he is asked again and again, often sheepishly: "What's happened to your business?"

Their employees have been greeted in gas stations and local health spas with: "Sorry to hear about the family you work for," and "Are they OK -- are they going to jail?" 

"It's become a big deal because of the confusion in the marketplace," Ryan points out. "We're not affiliated with Jeff. There are other Hills, like William Hill, but it's our business that's suffering."

Doug says the confusion began when Jeff Hill named his farming unit, Hill Family Vineyard Management. "We even got bills that didn't belong to us. When he started his wine business, we felt he was trying to capitalize on our success."

When Jeff Hill launched his wine label with distinct similarities to Hill Family Estate, Ryan wrote to Jeff. "Suing people requires a lot of time and money," he said. "I sent him a letter and asked him to change the name ... keep the label, just change the name. My biggest disappointment was when he said no."

The confusion continues to this day as visitors to the valley book appointments at one Hill operation and show up at another. A top California retailer, Wally's Wines, called Ryan to inquire about bad reviews their wines had received from a trade publication. Even that person in the business had confused Hill Family Estate wines with those of Hill Wine Company. There's confusion over who owns which vineyard management firm as well.

Hill Family Estates has had wine club memberships cancelled due to the mixup while numerous locals remain flummoxed by a pair of wine operations whose names begin with Hill.

"He's reaping the benefits of our hard work, and we're getting the negativity ...," Ryan said. "There's a saying -- a rising tide floats all ships. What he's done has put a hole in ours."

Doug and Ryan come from a long line of California farmers. Doug's grandfather grew apricots in the Santa Clara Valley. His dad harvested apples and prunes in orchards along the Russian River near Healdsburg.

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Doug's initial foray into someone else's vineyard came in 1977 when he helped oversee the crops of Sonoma Cutrer. He moved to the Napa Valley in 1979 to work with the Jaeger family, owners of Rutherford Hill Winery at the time and partners in Freemark Abbey. Although the Jaegers sold their interest in Rutherford Hill, Doug still manages vineyards the family retained, along with 54 additional valley clients for a total of 600 acres.

Over the years, Doug has grown grapes for more than 80 wineries in the valley.

Ryan, who was a basketball star at Vintage High School, teamed up with his father, convincing him to launch a family wine brand. Dad grew the grapes, son would market and sell the wine. Hill Family Estate was born with 240 cases of merlot and 600 cases of a Bordeaux blend called Origin

The 100 percent family-owned and -operated wine company today involves other family members, like Doug's wife, Darci, and his daughter, Carly. Ryan's wife, Nicole, is also part of the team.

Hill Family Estate farms 110 acres of owned and leased vineyards on a dozen distinct sites in the county. In an average year, Hill Family Estate produces 10,000 cases of wine and has a second label, Barrel Blend, with an average of 6,000 to 8,000 cases. The family has a tasting salon at 6512 Washington St., Yountville.

"I value our reputation in the valley," Doug said. "I don't want to put anybody down ... we want everyone to succeed. But it's about confusion and our reputation. That confusion has really challenged us."

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