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Jay Heminway

Jay Heminway

JAY HEMINWAY, PIONEERING ZINFANDEL SPECIALIST, DIES AT 79

Jay Heminway, Napa Valley winemaker and viticulturist, known since the late 1970s for his estate Zinfandels, died June 5th at St. Helena Hospital from complications following coronary-bypass surgery. He was 79.

Green & Red Vineyard, the Chiles Valley vineyard named for it’s soils of green serpentine and red chert, hand-built by Heminway, earned much acclaim from its first bonded vintage in 1977 to more recent bottlings; it was included on the Wine & Spirits list of the Top 100 Wineries for three consecutive years from 2015 to 2017.

“Jay Heminway carries the torch for old-school Napa Zin from the eastern area of Chiles Valley,” wrote Jon Bonné, then-Wine Editor and Chief Wine Critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, in 2012. Five months later Bonné wrote in another review, of Green & Red Sauvignon Blanc, “It’s so rewarding to see (his) benchmark Zinfandel label also show its hand with white wine…An intense, outstanding expression of a California style...”

Born April 10, 1940, in New York City to Jane and Jack Heminway. Jay’s interest in wine was first sparked during the summer, of 1960, when Heminway worked in the cellar at Château Lascombes in Bordeaux, where his daily pay was a morning bottle of Algerian wine. After his 1962 graduation from Colorado College, Jay worked for New York City wine merchant Sherry-Lehmann.

Thereafter, Jay pursued various interests, among them graduate coursework in sculpture at the University of California, Berkeley; motorcycle racing; and travels, including a hitchhiking trip across the Sahara Desert from Morocco to Egypt, and a stint making art in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy while on a Fulbright scholarship.

Heminway was one of the early pioneers helping to reignite Napa Valley as a world renowned wine region. In 1970, he purchased an old terraced vineyard on the steep slopes above Chiles Canyon on the eastern edge of the valley. First planted to vines in the 1880s, the property comprised a cold-water hunting cabin, a burned-down barn, and a 1950s Fisher Fleetwood Cadillac. “You should throw in a few grapes,” suggested his septic contractor at that time, and Jay did.

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Heminway planted four acres to Zinfandel in 1972. “I tasted some very good (Zinfandels) that I thought were comparable with the best Cabernets at the time,” he said. For the first four years, he hand-watered his vines from a spring-fed redwood storage tank purchased from the neighboring Chappellet Winery. This early tenacity characterized Jay’s lifelong philosophy: do it yourself, save, and re-use.

Pressing and bottling those early vintages by hand, the self-taught Heminway soon was expertly crafting his wines into lush, food friendly, and award winning wines. Jay eschewed promotion of all sorts save an intermittent emailed newsletter, but an appropriate tagline for his wines might have read: “Drink It Now.”

Mike Penn, who will step up as Green & Red’s winemaker, says: “Jay envisioned taming the red soils and wild scrub-oak mountainside above Chiles Canyon with the aesthetic of the French and Italian sensitivity to land and terroir. He succeeded in creating an authentic expression of California Zinfandel: abundant red and black fruit enlivened with the herbs and spices of the Napa hillsides. His wines are deep, complex, and unique to this place.”

For more than two decades, Heminway has produced the house Zinfandel at Alice Waters’ paradigm-shifting Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. “He had so many friends, and we all felt like part of his family. He was beloved. His Zinfandel at Chez Panisse, too,” said Waters. Jay had a way with people; from babies to elders. He will be missed by many.

Fortunately, Jay Heminway had planned for this day and has left the future of Green & Red in the able hands of his daughter, Tobin Heminway. She will be aided by Pam, Jay’s wife of 34 years, winemaker Mike Penn, and vineyard manager Salvador and family, who continue to tend the beautiful Chiles Valley Vineyards. Jay is also survived by his sister, Hilary Heminway; a brother, John Heminway; and a granddaughter, Arden Heminway.

In honor of his hard-working spirit and commitment to the vineyard, a memorial celebration will be held after harvest.

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