Meet Paul Bernard Hein, a sixth-generation Napa Valley resident who, by profession, is a ... hmmm, well, better to let him tell you.
“I’m a general contractor, a certified welder, a pipe fitter, a steam fitter, an auto mechanic, an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer, a former stock car driver, a farmer and a viticulturist,” Hein rattles off. We are seated outside the house Hein built with rocks he dug up from his property on a 500-foot polished granite patio, which he also built.
Hein is a hardscrabble man who cleared his own land and built his own structures on it. “I prefer to work,” he says.
“He’s the hardest-working man you’ll ever meet,” says Matt Graham, Hein’s nephew, who operates an import-export business from his home in Santa Rosa.
“Jack of all trades” being an overworked cliché, shall we call Hein “A Paul of all pursuits”?
He got into winemaking because he wanted to pick up where his great-great-great-grandfather, P.J. Hein, left off about 130 years ago. Hein fetches a huge ledger, “The History of Viticulture in the Napa Valley,” and leafs through it to his ancestor’s name.
“He had a 29-acre plot with 2,900 vines over on Mt. Veeder,” Hein says. “Unfortunately, the family decided to invest in the mercury mining business up in Lake County, sold it and lost everything. So I’m restarting the business he began in 1873.”
Much of Hein’s knowledge for the various fields he’s worked in came from books. “I’m an incredibly quick study,” he said.
Quixote Winery owner Carl Doumani gave Hein his first book on viticulture with the instruction to come see him again after he’d read the book’s entire 600 pages.
Hein’s first commercial crush was in 2005. He opened with a bang, winning a gold medal for his chardonnay in California State Fair competition. Hein’s cabernet sauvignon picked up gold medals in both the 2010 and 2011 San Francisco Chronicle wine competitions, as did his 2006 Suisun Valley syrah.
“When I started in 2005, the boom was on and everybody had money,” Hein recalled. “I talked to some friends of mine who said, ‘No problem; you’ll be able to sell your wine.’
“But then came the economic crater, so I was trying to sell my first release during the recession,” he added with a sigh. “I give those friends a hard time. One of them is working for me.”
Hurt by the economic decline? “Well, I certainly didn’t get helped,” Hein said. “The 2006 crop, for the most part, didn’t get sold. We made it into wine but we still couldn’t sell it.”
Hein has only an acre of cabernet vines on his 46-acre property at the 800-foot level of Howell Mountain, so the bulk of grapes he uses to make wines such as the Suisun syrah are mostly from outsourced grapes. “I did the oddball wines,” he said. “Charbono, which originated in the Alsace-Lorraine, is probably the weirdest one. Only three or four people in the valley made it. But the market wants cabernet.”
Why the wine business?
“Brain damage,” Hein quipped. “It seemed like a good idea at the time if you have a passion for it. Now it’s tough because I have to balance my day job of installing computer systems and distribution centers. Wal-Mart is my largest customer. I fly all over the world and then I come back from Santiago, Chile or Belgium, and I’ve done this for 25 years.
“But I’m adaptable,” Hein added. “Whatever it takes. I’ve owned five companies and I’ve probably had 10 careers, or what you would call careers.”
Among his most defining projects and testaments to his versatility was one he did for Hughes Network Systems.
“It was when Wal-Mart opened its first distribution center in China,” Hein recalled. “They were going to send over two conveyor installers, two electricians and a controls engineer. I said ‘How about if I just do it all? You don’t really need to send all those people.’” And so he did, finishing the entire project in 16 days.
Technically, Hein cannot call his wine-producing business a winery, because existing codes require that anyone who wants to do so must have 10 acres in grapes. That makes it tough to compete locally. So his market is fairly evenly apportioned by thirds in Northern California, Southern California and Ohio. He produces roughly 500 cases of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and syrah.
“What I found out is although I’m a good winemaker, there are several hundred wineries here, so it’s more difficult to sell than in Ohio,” Hein said. “There are a limited number of Napa brands that they’re going to have out there. You want to build a winery in the Napa Valley, bring a million dollars. And that’s just a warm-up.”
He believes he might have fared better if he’d gotten into making wine sooner.
“But I was busy racing cars and other stuff,” said Hein, who raced stock cars in Petaluma, Antioch, Watsonville and Merced. “At Vallejo Speedway they have these 2-by-12-foot planks that become airborne wood if you run into them at
100 mph. They come flying through the screen. I had a plank come through that screen at 80 mph right at my head.”
Hein recalled he once was censored by NASCAR when he flipped his car. “That was when I wrote on the bottom of my car in 4-foot letters, ‘OH SHIT,’” he said.