George A. Vare Jr., 76, died on April 12, 2013, surrounded by loving family in Napa. He was born on Dec. 29, 1936, in Philadelphia, the son of George Augustus Vare Sr., and Lucille Townsend Vare. He was a graduate of the Episcopal Academy in Overbrook, Pa., and received his bachelor’s degree from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
After college, he served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, before earning a degree in electrical engineering from Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. He worked in the family electrical construction business, Vare Brothers, for five years, prior to entering Harvard Business School, where he earned a master of business administration degree in 1966.
George entered the California wine business in 1972, when he purchased Geyser Peak Winery as part of the mergers and acquisitions team for Schlitz Brewing Company. He served as president of Geyser Peak Winery and grew it into a 700,000-case brand before leaving in 1979 to embark on a series of winery start-ups.
For many years, he was the principal of George Vare & Associates in San Francisco, a consulting firm to the wine industry. During this time, he implemented the start-up of Gloria Ferrer winery on behalf of Freixenet.
He also founded and published Winedata, a monthly newsletter on trends and statistics in the wine business; served as executive director of the American Vineyard Foundation; and established North Bay Cellars and Shadow Creek Champagne Cellars, where he developed and patented a methode champenoise process for sparkling wines.
In 1991, George became president of the Henry Wine Group, a major importer and distributor.
In 1994, together with three other industry leaders, he formed Silverado Partners, which led the buyout of Beringer Vineyards from Nestle with Texas Pacific Group. He served as director of Beringer Wine Estates Holdings Inc. through its acquisition by Foster’s Brewing Group in 2000.
In 1996, he co-founded and built Luna Vineyards, pioneering the introduction of Italian grape varietals to the Napa Valley. He served as president and chairman, building the brand and organization until his retirement in 2001, and continued on the board until 2011.
Following his retirement, he served as interim chief executive officer at Zaca Mesa Winery in Los Olivos, Calif., as well as the chairman of the board and director of Inertia Beverage Group LLC.
His last great project arose as a result of his work at Luna and the many friendships and visits he made to vintners in the Collio region of Friuli, Italy, and Slovenia. George loved small family winemakers, and became interested in the ancient Friulian grape variety Ribolla Gialla. An idiosyncratic grape, tough to grow, different to make wine from, and hard to pronounce, it is also fascinating to taste, great with food, and represents a long tradition in Italy of toiling out of love, rather than following the latest trend. George loved this about the variety, and decided that it would be his retirement project.
He and his wife, Elsa Vare, created Vare Vineyards, making small productions of wines from Ribolla Gialla and Pinot Grigio grapes grown on their own vineyard in Napa. They introduced Ribolla Gialla to the United States, cultivating the first and largest planting of this unusual varietal.
As much as George loved Ribolla Gialla, he was equally passionate about the help he could give to young winemakers with a vision, whether his help was advice, encouragement, or access to his precious Ribolla Gialla grapes, which he shared with a group of young iconoclastic winemakers.
From his time at Luna, where he provided an incubator for young winemakers, to his Ribolla Gialla vineyard, George was a sort of godfather for the current “new wave” of California winemakers. Ribolla Gialla to him was more than just a grape variety … it represented everything impractical but meaningful about the wine business — the business he loved and help lead for 40 years.
George was an avid yachtsman, having grown up sailing in Beach Haven, N.J., and continuing his passion for sailboat racing in the San Francisco Bay and off the coast of California. He was an active member of the San Francisco Yacht Club, where he served as commodore in 1981.
His spirit of adventure extended to dry land as well, with an appetite for travel and challenging hiking. He and Elsa hiked the Milford Track in New Zealand, explored Africa, India, Japan, and scaled the boulders of Patagonia’s mountains.
In the last year of his life, he developed a plan and organized support to implement the Village Concept — a network of social connections, events, information and support services for elder residents in Napa.
George is survived by his wife, Elsa Madsen Norris Vare of Napa; and his brothers, Henry Vare (Gretchen) of Wayne, Pa., and Alexander deHaven Vare (Evie) of Birmingham, Ala. He leaves behind his children and step-children, Catherine Vare Schembre (Drew) of Seattle, Andrew Townsend Vare of Berkeley, Michael Kennedy Vare (Abigail) of Tiburon, Nellie Norris Bloom (Steve) of Rancho Murieta, Calif., Kathleen Norris Frank (Randy) of San Anselmo, Teresa Norris Barrows (Dan) of Martinez; grandchildren, Lucia Schembre, Josephine Schembre, Abigail Vare, Kate Vare, Henry Vare, Asher Bloom, Jason Frank, Owen Frank; and many nieces, nephews, and devoted friends. He was pre-deceased by his sister, Lucille Vare Smith (Chapman) of Memphis, Tenn.
A memorial service will be at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 18, 2013, at the Napa Valley Opera House, with a reception to follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorials be sent to Community Action of Napa Valley (CANV), or the Napa Valley Opera House. Please share condolences at TreadwayWigger.com.