Although Salvestrin Estates Vineyard and Winery is presently celebrating 75 years of operation, winegrapes have been grown on the property twice that many years — giving the vineyard one of the longest histories to be found anywhere in the Napa Valley.
The original vintner, Dr. George Crane, came to St. Helena from San Jose in 1858. Crane was a prominent physician — the director of what is now Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, Santa Clara County’s public hospital — who chose viticulture over medicine, Susanne Salvestrin said, “because he decided that he could make more money growing grapes than he could being a physician.”
1862 is first vintage
He was as much an innovator as a doctor, she added. Crane and a partner, the famed George C. Yount, were among the first to plant European grape varieties in California. Two blocks of the vineyard’s old zinfandel they planted remain to this day, according to the vineyard and winery.
From San Jose, Dr. Crane brought cuttings believed to have been Isabella, Black Malvoise, Johannisberg Reisling, Black Burgundy, Joseph St. Alban and Muscat of Alexandria.
Three years after his initial vine planting, Dr. Crane welcomed his first vintage of wine in 1862. He continued planting until he had approximately 100 acres of producing vines on what was originally a 300-acre holding. Dr. Crane maintained a nursery, a vineyard and a winery on the property.
In the decade preceding his demise at the age of 92 in 1898, Dr. Crane leased much of his land to another viticulturist, Rudolph Lemme. In the same era, much of the vineyard acres were sold off or ceded to helping progress in St. Helena. St. Helena High School, for example, sits on 17 acres of donated land.
Dr. Crane knew his share of tragedy. Two of his grandsons died at an early age — one by drowning, the other by suicide.
Visitors to the century-and-a-half-old house on the Salvestrin property are stunned by the 19th-century furniture that remains in the living room and looks pretty much as it must have to Dr. Crane. Better, in fact, than furniture of that era that is roped off in some museums. “People still use it,” said Salvestrin. “They don’t come in here often, but they do.”
20 acres in grapes
By 1932, when the first of three generations of Salvestrins purchased the property, it was down to 26 acres of vineyards. Presently, the Salvestrin family has 20 acres in grapes.
Typical of the small quality wineries that have been the bedrock of global recognition for American wines, Salvestrin sells about 3,000 cases a year with cabernet sauvignon accounting for more than 50 percent of the volume (1,500 to 1,700 cases), according to vineyard manager Richard Salvestrin.
Since John and Emma Salvestrin’s acquistion, the vineyard has nurtured cab, merlot, petite sirah, zinfandel and a limited amount of sangiovese.
John’s son, Ed, farmed the property along with wife Susanne while Ed worked at the St. Helena post office. Their son, Richard, joined the vineyard and winery’s management after earning his degree in viticulture from Fresno State University in 1987.
As well as vineyard manager, he is co-winemaker with Kent Barthman, who has been a Salvestrin family consultant since 2001.
Barthman’s timing in joining the Salvestrins was coincidental with the family’s construction of a new winery on the estate — there to combine state-of-the-art wine technology with traditional old-world methods in the production of handcrafted Napa Valley cab, sangiovese, retaggio (red blend), sauvignon blanc and petite sirah.
Seven years earlier Salvestrin began bottling its own wines after years of selling their grapes to leading Napa Valley wineries, such as Freemark Abbey, Raymond, Rombauer, Robert Biale and Rutherford Hill.
The move allowed the family to control every aspect of the winemaking process.
So what does a vineyard and winery of such a remarkable vintage do next?
“With any luck at all, it will be another 75 years,” said Richard.
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