William Seavey, founder of Seavey Vineyards

William Seavey, founder of St. Helena’s Seavey Vineyards, in his barrel room at the base of Howell Mountain. He died Sept. 21 at the age of 86.

Submitted photo

William Seavey, founder of Napa Valley’s Seavey Vineyard, passed away in his St. Helena ranch on Tuesday, Sept. 21, surrounded by his children and the hills he loved.

Nearly four decades ago, in 1979, Bill and his wife Mary purchased a remarkable property at the base of Howell Mountain near Lake Hennessey, consisting of 200 acres of south-facing hillsides rich in viticultural and winemaking history.

More than a century before the Seaveys began farming the land — when Conn Valley Road was little more than a wagon trail — the hillsides were planted by the pioneering Franco-Swiss Cellar with grapes to make a “Claret of high repute.” “The quality of the grapes produced,” reported the St. Helena Star in May 1882, “is evidenced by the wines now in the cellar, one of which — a Zinfandel Claret — we have rarely seen equaled.”

During the early 1980s, Bill and Mary set out to revive the original vineyard, which had remained unplanted for more than half a century, functioning primarily as a cattle ranch. By 1990, they had remodeled an 1881 stone dairy barn into a small winery and barrel-aging cellar, preserving the magnificent stone walls of the building, and began producing small quantities of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay from their estate-grown grapes. Over time, they added small blocks of merlot and petit verdot, along with a second winery building and an underground wine cave.

Bill was convinced that excellent wines could be made from the property’s steep hillside fruit and he patiently persevered in producing an age-worthy Bordeaux-style cabernet that has come to be held in high acclaim. He immersed himself in every detail of viticulture and winemaking with a hands-on approach, laying out new vineyard blocks, tending the vines, constructing a larger tank room and cave, making harvesting decisions, and directing blending.

Throughout, Seavey maintained a commitment to the land and its heritage. Art Seavey, one of Bill’s four sons and a managing director of the business, said, “Our parents were passionate about preserving open space and the history of this property. Seventy-five percent of our property is open forested land and we conduct our tastings in the old 19th-century dairy milking barn that my parents restored — a structure originally built by Chinese laborers over 125 years ago.”

Since its first vintage in 1990, Seavey’s award-winning cabernet sauvignon has been produced in a classic Old World style of richness, finesse, and balance for graceful cellar aging. According to wine critic, Robert Parker, Seavey has become “one of the great, unheralded, under-the-radar terroirs in all of Napa Valley.” Of Bill and Mary, he said they “were visionaries with regard to what could be achieved on these dry-farmed hillside vineyards tucked away in Conn Valley, east of Meadowood Resort.”

The first three vintages were made by the Seavey family under the supervision of Gary Galleron. Then in 1995, Philippe Melka, who had just moved to Napa Valley, became Seavey’s winemaker, a role in which he continues to serve on a consulting basis to this day. Through his Atelier Melka company, Melka is now considered to be one of the world’s top wine consultants and works with some of the most high profile brands in Napa.

Melka continues to consider the Seavey estate to be one of Napa’s most “soulful terroirs.” He added, “Bill Seavey will always hold a special place in my heart. When I think back, I remember so many fond moments spent in his company constantly brainstorming about wine quality and the evolution of the wine industry for small family ventures. Bill was an extremely bright soul who lived a life that was full of adventure – I admired that. During harvest, we were both working side by side as he loved the physical work that created their beloved wine. I will miss him terribly.”

Suited up on his way to a bike ride to Lake Hennessey or a jaunt on his ATV, Bill was a daily visitor to the tasting room until a couple years ago. He often reminded customers that “I’ve never bought a grape,” his characteristically understated way of underscoring that Seavey’s way of making wine is no longer mainstream in Napa.

“We’re harvesting our 26th vintage now,” said Dorie Seavey, the eldest of Bill’s five children and a managing director of the company. “In today’s Napa, it’s becoming harder and harder to find family-owned ventures that farm their own land and exclusively rely on their own grapes, plus make wine in a simple, authentic manner that respects the land and puts a premium on creating long-lived wines.”

The Seaveys offer all of their wines for sale dating back to 1990. “Our father held back a good 25 percent of each vintage. We owe our incredible wine library to his restraint and foresight. It’s pretty special to be able to pour our visitors a beautifully aged Napa Cab that’s in its third decade and still going strong,” said Dorie.

While he strongly encouraged his children to pursue their own paths, Bill harbored a hope that Seavey Vineyard would remain a family-owned winery for generations to come. His vision became a reality: all of his children are active on the land, and currently three of them serve as managing directors of Seavey while one of his granddaughters assists with branding and marketing.

Bill’s life was fully lived. He was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 28, 1930. His father was a dentist and commander in the Naval Reserves in Coronado and his mother was a painter. As a young boy, he delivered newspapers on his bicycle to his L.A. neighborhood, and during World War II served as a neighborhood messenger, running from house to house to announce blackouts. In his youth, he developed a life-long passion for swimming in the Pacific Ocean and other cold bodies of water around the world.

He attended public high school in Coronado, graduated from Princeton University in 1952, and then went on to Harvard Law School where he met his future wife, Mary van Beuren, a junior at Radcliffe College. An accomplished jazz pianist, he wooed Mary by playing Cole Porter in the living room of her college rooming house as he waited for her to descend for their dates. Marrying in 1955, their life together spanned 53 years before Mary’s death in 2008.

The first half of Bill’s life was dedicated to public service, the law, and education. After spending a year in Switzerland studying at the University of Geneva, the couple moved to Bill’s hometown of Coronado where he served as councilman and then mayor, and also Assistant U.S. Attorney. In 1965, he returned to Switzerland for two more years. There his family grew to five children and he completed a doctorate in international studies and climbed Mont Blanc. The family then relocated to Piedmont, where for seven years Bill was a lecturer in international law and economics, and Assistant to the President at Mills College.

Following Mills, Bill returned to the law once again practicing in San Francisco with an emphasis on international matters. He represented a number of French wine interests as well as an art forgery case involving Joan Miró and a French art gallery. He also served as a founding director and for many years secretary of the French-American Chamber of Commerce, president of the Alliance Française, president of the English Speaking Union, and a long-time member of the board of directors of the French American International School.

Bill leaves behind his five children (Dorie, Art, Will, Fred and Charley), two granddaughters (Sarah and Annie Jefferson), and two grandsons (Jason and Cole Seavey).

The family thanks Diana, Jenny, Jose, Maira, Max, Robert, and Trini for their unparalleled caregiving, warmth, and love.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Land Trust of Napa County. Details about a memorial service will be shared at a later date.

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