A new Napa Valley winery has opened, but this one is different from all the others. This one will not wow its visitors with mile-long caves or a tram ride to a replica of a medieval castle. This one is different not because of its entertainment value but instead because it is owned and farmed by one of the most famous grape-growers in California — Larry Hyde and his family.
Nearly every day for the last 40 years, Hyde has been tending, experimenting, refining, coaxing and coddling his vineyards. He has done this with determination, single-minded focus and an impressive collection of family and friends. And the results have been stupendous: The Hyde name has become synonymous with many of the finest wines of the Napa and Sonoma valleys — growing grapes for such iconic vintners as Paul Hobbs, Kongsgaard, Ramey, Patz & Hall, Kistler Vineyards, Mondavi, Selene, Duckhorn and Hyde de Villaine (HdV). Now in his 70s, Hyde has achieved most of this success while being partially paralyzed on his left side by a stroke when he was 37 years old.
“Nothing slows this guy down,” said Christopher Hyde, co-owner and managing partner of the Hyde Vineyard and winery. “You’ll find my dad out in the vineyard either with a cane or a shovel.”
“I’ve always loved gardening and being outside — what could be better than this?” Larry said, pointing his right hand toward the vineyard.
“When I was growing up I worked in my mother’s garden at our Woodside home,” he said. “I enjoyed working with the plants and actually won an award for some of my flowers that I grew when I was 10 years old.”
Beyond raising award-winning flowers as he was growing up Larry learned about fine wine, too. His late father was an attorney from Woodside who had an extensive wine collection, and his mother’s favorite sister married a French man whom many consider the closest thing to vintner royalty that currently exists.
The Hyde/Romanee-Conti connection
“My mother had many siblings, but her favorite sister was Pamela, and Pam married Aubert,” Larry said. “I remember when they’d come to our house for dinner. We’d talk about wine and I’d get a chance to taste some of them.”
Larry was referring to Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of France’s Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, arguably Burgundy’s most famous estate and the source of some of the world’s finest — and most expensive — pinot noir and chardonnay.
“When I was growing up, my father would take me on wine-buying trips and he’d allow me to purchase a few bottles for my own collection,” Larry said. “I mostly bought inexpensive Bordeaux wines then, but that changed as I grew older and also because I had access to purchase some of Aubert’s wines.”
Perhaps unbeknownst to Larry at the time, he was being exposed to the man who is arguably at the epicenter of the idea of “terroir.” To most, Romanee-Conti’s 4.5-acre parcel of vineyard land in France is the world’s spiritual motherland for the concept.
Bringing terroir home to the Napa Valley through links with France’s Grand Cru vineyards
The word “terroir” is derived from the French word terre, meaning land or earth, and is often defined as the characteristic flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it’s produced. The concept goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, whose wines were labeled based on their origin, with certain regions revered because of the quality of the wines they produced. But it was the French who brought the concept to new heights. In France, starting roughly in the 1100s, the Benedictine and Cistercian orders of monks cultivated grapes throughout the church’s vast landholdings in Burgundy, conducting large-scale studies to determine the influence of various parcels of land on the wines they produced, which provided the basis of France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée.
But there was one area in particular that seemed to hold distinction for pinot noir and chardonnay, and they called this “Cote d’Or” or “the Slope of Gold.” And even within this special area, a few single vineyards stood above the rest and were referred to as the “Grand Cru” vineyards that still exist today, many of which are under the stewardship of de Villaine.
That these special vineyards remain intact and productive is a testament to generations that fought to maintain a worthy legacy.
After the French Revolution, powers shifted so that Aubert’s ancestor, Jacques-Marie Duvault- Blochet, eventually obtained the Domaine in 1869. World War I came, as did Prohibition and the Great Depression in the United States, all of them quickly followed by World War II. The market for fine wine was unstable and challenging, but the Domaine held, even expanding their control beyond Romanée-Conti to La Tâche and obtaining other top-tier vineyards such as Échézeaux, Romanée-St.-Vivant, Richebourg, Grands Échézeaux and the esteemed chardonnay vineyard of Montrachet, all of which were near one another and now came under the banner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
I can almost picture it, Hyde’s family sitting around at their Woodside home in the 1950s, surrounded by lush gardens and picturesque hills. Pam and Aubert stopped by for dinner with a few bottles of wine in hand, perhaps including a bottle of the 1945 Romanée-Conti Pinot Noir (which, if even available, can now fetch $50,000 or more per bottle). The families sat and ate, sipped and laughed, talked and remembered, all while young Larry was watching, tasting and learning.
Years later, comments from winemaker James Hall from Patz & Hall might speak to that imagined moment.
“Larry has always seemed to grow his grapes with a clear understanding and vision of the wine he intends them to make,” Hall said during a phone interview. “He comes off as an easygoing guy that is soft-spoken and straightforward. And in many ways, he is exactly that, but when it comes to growing grapes, there is no one more serious and singled-minded than Larry. We’ve purchased grapes from Larry for years, and it’s a big reason for much of our success.”
A spiritual journey to wine
After studying history and graduating from UC Berkeley, Larry intended to travel around the world on a spiritual quest before going to law school. It was the late 1960s and the Vietnam War was raging, and, like many, he was questioning what to do with his life. While in Europe, he found other like-minded young people and with them headed to India to meditate, study and contemplate. He studied under various teachers and ended up leaving the group and heading to the middle of a war zone in Vietnam.
“I wanted to study with Cao Dai, who was a Vietnamese spiritual teacher that taught from a bunch of different types of religious traditions,” Larry said. “I liked his message, but I needed to get home. By the time I came back, I’d decided not to go into law, but instead I wanted to make wine.
For nearly a decade, while studying chemistry at UC Davis, Larry worked at Gallo, Ridge Vineyards, Cuvaison, Stag’s Leap, Robert Mondavi Winery and Joseph Phelps Vineyards. In 1979, he and his father purchased the first piece of land in Carneros that now makes up a part of the Hyde Vineyards.
“We wanted to purchase our own vineyard land, but the prices in the valley just didn’t pencil out,” Larry said. “But land in Carneros at the time was $4,000 an acre, and so those numbers worked and my father purchased the land and divided the ownership between me and my two siblings. I lived on the property and worked the land.”
Because of the cooler climate, they planted chardonnay and pinot noir.
Hyde had ventured to the southerly end of the Napa Valley to the flatlands just above San Pablo Bay, where growing grapes other than for sparkling wine was considered almost unimaginable.
A few had been working in this direction, but because the area was typically bathed in a chilly fog that blankets the region in the morning, followed by brisk winds that pour in from the Pacific Ocean, getting grapes to ripen without mold was a challenge. Beyond the demands of weather, the soils were only a few feet thick and were situated over a rock-hard layer of clay beneath. The result of weather and geology added strain on the vines, which for many are the very conditions that can lead to the production of excellent wine.
“A few — Buena Vista, Martini and Frank Mahoney — had already shown that high-quality pinot and chardonnay could be grown here, and so I just did what my neighbors were doing,” Larry said.
To hear Larry tell the tale of planting his first vineyard makes it sound like he was just going along with the crowd, but the truth is that even from the beginning he was already making his own way.
“Before he planted here (Carneros) there were only a few other growers in the region,” Christopher said. “Planting high-end wine grapes was once thought nearly impossible here.”
“We’ve found that we can actually grow many varietals, not just chardonnay and pinot,” Larry said. “But all the grapes grown here produce very different wines then those grown in warmer regions or regions with deep soils. There are challenges, yes, but there are plenty of benefits from those challenges.”
After the vineyards had been planted, Larry spent time in France harvesting grapes and working in the cellar alongside Aubert. It was there that he met his wife, Blzbieta (Beta), who had traveled down to the vineyards of Romanée-Conti from Poland with friends.
“We’d come down to pick grapes and make a little money,” Beta said. “I found Larry to be a handsome chap, and he was well-versed in European history. After we each went back home, we wrote each other and then in 1983 he came to Poland and we got married. When I first arrived here (in the Napa Valley) I thought it was so hot and dry that I wasn’t sure I could take it — it was such a big change for me, but I got used to it and fell in love with the land and the people.”
The Hyde/Hyde de Villaine (HdV) connection
In 1999, Aubert approached Larry about starting a winery together. The winery would be run by Aubert but would source many of the grapes from the Hyde Vineyards. Wine produced at HdV would be in the Burgundian style and employ French winemakers. One requirement that Aubert insisted on was that he choose the blocks of grapes the winery was to receive.
“Aubert believes that older vines make the finest wine, and so those are the ones he is most interested in,” Larry said. “Some of the vines in the Montrachet vineyard of France are 250 years old. Our oldest are nearly 40. I’m not sure myself, but I am coming to wonder if the age of the vines is even more important than the clone or rootstock.”
The jury may be still out if age or clone make the key difference in the final wine. But unlike grapes grown in the warmer vineyards farther north of the Napa Valley, the Hyde grapevines of the Carneros are often characterized by tiny clusters of smaller berries that have higher acid levels — the result of which can be the creation of sublime wines, such as the 2012 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay.
The wines of Hyde Family Vineyards
The 2012 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay is in the league of the finest chardonnays of the world, including those from California — Stony Hill, Aubert and Peter Michael — and even those from the greatest chardonnay vineyards of Burgundy — Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne. In short, this is one of the finest California chardonnays ever produced. There are only 80 cases left of a wine that was made by Larry’s son, Peter, and James Hall. The wine cost $75 a bottle, but the fruit that went into this stunning wine (38-year-old vines of Wente/Hyde clone G9V5) is now being sold to Aubert over at HdV, who knows the potential of this particular section of vineyard. This ethereal wine is liquid gold in the glass with aromas of spiced, baked pear; salty sea spray; and smells of a recently rained-on madrone forest. In the mouth, this voluptuous wine fills the palate with tropical fruit, crème brûlée and candied lemon rind. The texture is silken with a finish that lasts for minutes, but you will likely never know that until the final sip because, if you are like me, you’ll keep taking another sip before the finish from the previous sip ends.
Another wine tasted was the 2014 Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65 a bottle and only a few hundred cases made) and the 2014 Chardonnay ($55 a bottle and only a couple of hundred cases made). Both showed depth and a beautiful precision of aromas and flavors, mixing bright fruits with soothing earth elements, coming together to tell an honest story of a particular place and its people. They also make merlot ($85 a bottle and a few hundred cases made) and viognier ($45 a bottle and a few hundred cases made) and will have syrah in the future.
The newly open Hyde Winery should be at the top of everyone’s list when they explore the Napa Valley. The winery itself is unassuming and will never be an attraction in its own right. But I think that’s the point — this new winery has nothing to do with a building but everything to do with what might be remembered as the start of something fine and ethereal for generations to come — the land, the people, the vines. There are few such places left in the valley, and there will be fewer as pioneering California wine visionaries depart this world or sell. But here we have in our midst the realized vision of a soft-spoken man whose wines will be talked about for years to come, likely told by a long line of family members who might recall a wine as fine as the 2012 Chardonnay with reverence and awe.
“My father has always expected that our vineyard remain a tight family business,” Christopher said. “I, along with my brother, with our mother and father’s guidance, intend to see that happen. What’s that old Chinese saying, ‘The best fertilizer is the footsteps of the farmer?’ Well, that pretty much sums it up for us.”