Founded in 1969 by Norman and Rosa Lee deLeuze and Gino Zepponi. The winery’s name comes from their last names and from “Zero Defects,” an engineering quality control term. (Zepponi and deLeuze were aerospace engineers.)
The first winery was a 450-square-foot farm building in Sonoma Carneros. The $3,000 investment was enough for rent, to repair the winery equipment so it would work, buy inexpensive whiskey barrels (Zepponi and deLeuze re-coopered those barrels themselves), and buy Pinot Noir and Reisling grapes fron Rene di Rosa, who created Winery Lake Vineyard in the Carneros region.
Fewer than 300 cases of 1969 ZD Wines Pinot Noir were produced. The label indicates the wine was made in Sonoma from grapes grown in the Carneros region of Napa County. According to the bottle’s label, the grapes were picked on Sept. 12-13, with a sugar content of 22.6 Brix. After crushing, the wine was allowed to ferment three days in a redwood vat, fermentation was completed in 50-gallon barrels and it was bottled in August 1971.
ZD Wines President Brett deLeuze said the story of ZD’s 1969 Pinot Noir is interesting. Sometime before October 2005, ZD stored 3,700 cases of wine, nearly all of its library wines in a concrete military bunker on the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. Sausalito businessman Mark Anderson leased 2,500-square-feet of the concrete bunker and called his wine storage business “Wines Central.” He not only stored the wine, but then sold wines that were not his.
To cover the embezzlement, he set the wines on fire on Oct. 12, 2005, destroying 4.5 million bottles of wine worth some $277 million, according to newspaper reports at the time. Anderson was arrested in March 2007 and found guilty of 19 criminal counts. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison and ordered to pay $70.3 million in restitution.
In the late 1990s, deLeuze said he was having lunch at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida and went through its extensive wine list. He got to the page where the Zs were listed and found seven vintages of ZD Pinot Noir listed, from 1969 to 1978. There were little red marks on all the listings except the 1969 wine. He asked the wine buyer, Michael Borges, if they actually had the 1969 wine, and Borges said he did.
“We ordered a bottle and it was $75, which was inexpensive considering that the wine would have been purchased for in 1971 or 1972 and I was there in ’98, so that’s a very long time for storage,” deLeuze said. He said the wine was “stellar. It was fun and it was very drinkable and way better than I expected it to be.”
DeLeuze asked how many more bottles were in the cellar and was told they had half a case. He commented, “We didn’t have half a case at the winery anymore, because we lost 3,700 cases of our library wines.”
DeLeuze asked if there was any chance Bern’s would sell some of those wines. Borges said no, adding he would give deLeuze the wine for a case of ZD’s 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon. “Wow, that’s amazing,” deLeuze said, “We were able to add it back to our cellar.”
How many bottles of the 1969 Pinot Noir do they have left? “We had six before today, and we served one today.” So, there are five bottles left.
Bern’s Steak House website said its wine list has 6,800 unique wine blends, including 5,500 red wines from all around the world. The wine cellar is said to include half a million bottles of wine. Its wine list was first printed in 1960. The latest, from December 2018, had 183 pages.
Wine hobby ‘all-consuming’
By 1978, Norman deLeuze’s wine hobby was “all-consuming,” according to his son, Brett. He was working full time at Optical Coatings Laboratory in Santa Rosa, but that was the year Norman deLeuze quit his job. He spent a whole year building a prospectus to get a bank loan, wrote the software for the wine company and when he went to the banks to get a $500,000 loan to build a winery, the first 20 banks refused.
Brett said the 21st bank “read the numbers wrong” and gave deLeuze the loan. The family was in Carneros in Sonoma and they wanted to stay there. They made a successful offer on a piece of property, but it was contingent on finding water. After deLeuze drilled a dry well, spending $3,000 in the process, he went to find property with both power and water.
ZD Wines is on a six-acre piece of land in Rutherford and the winery was built, but there were no provisions for visitors. Brett deLeuze said his father thought he had “moved out into the country and visitors were not really part of the thought process,” because he was there to make wine. “Then the visitors started to come,” he added.
The tasting area was first a small carpeted area right through the cellar doors, but in 1993, the ZD family went to the county and said, “We’d like to expand our winemaking and put in a little tasting room.” When construction was finished, the front area, with a stand-up bar, was where the tastings were done.
“In the ’90s, believe it or not, we would see up to 300 people on a Saturday in that little tasting bar,” deLeuze said. “It was a very different day and when you walked in, there’s a little sign there that said tastings were $5. It was a big deal to start charging people for tastings.”
“Lots of people wanted to come around and taste our wines.”
Norman deLeuze spent the last years of his life working to find a non-toxic cure for lymphoma. He died of the disease on Oct. 26, 2007.
ZD Wines’ co-founder Rosa Lee deLeuze passed away on April 30, 2018.