One of the last vestiges of the old Napa Valley is about to disappear. Milat Vineyards and Winery, the modest family-owned reminder of how the valley was before big money took over, is closing at the end of the month.
The Milat brothers and their wives are leasing the winery to Delectus Vineyards, which now has a production facility and tasting room in south Napa, but are keeping the property and its vineyards.
They are also keeping their homes on the property and the two guest houses they rent — another relic of the past as wineries can’t provide lodging to the public anymore.
A weekend escape turned permanent
Mike and Bob Milat’s parents bought half the property in 1949 as a weekend escape from San Francisco, where their father had a business. Friends purchased the other half, but the Milats bought it later, leaving them 22 acres in two parcels.
Their parents decided it was a good place to raise their four sons. “We grew up here,” said Mike, who is 68 and the more effusive of the brothers. Bob is 67.
Part of growing up was tending the vines. “By the time we were 10 or 12, we were driving the tractor,” noted Mike. “I don’t think our dad ever did.” Unfortunately, their father died young.
As they grew up, the brothers became contractors, but in 1974, they bought the property from their parents. Their older brother moved to San Francisco, and the fourth wasn’t interested in the wine business
They sold the grapes initially, but in 1986, they built the winery on Highway 29 at Stice Lane just south of St. Helena. They later expanded it to add a storage area behind a covered passageway used for crushing.
White Vineyard Manawgement company has tended the vines almost since the start, although the brothers help out, too. “They let us do as much as we want,” admits Bob. Mike added, “Bob likes to drive the tractor.”
When they started making wine, they hired a consultant to help them, but have long made it on their own.
28 years making wine
As they had another business, the families – Bob and his wife, Joyce, , and Mike and Carolyn – took turns each week tending the tasting room, though both brothers worked at crush and other busy times.
Carolyn tended to stick mostly to administrative duties, while Joyce worked in the tasting room.
They got out of the construction business in 2000, and have tended the winery full time, but continuing the one-week on, one-week off routine.
The family grows zinfandel, cabernet, chenin blanc — a rare grape these days in Napa — and touriga nacional for their dessert wine.
“We used to grow merlot and chardonnay, but it was hard to make the merlot consistent,” he said. They replaced it with the more profitable cabernet.
In addition to making 1,500 cases of wine each year, they sell grapes. The new owners won’t be taking any of the Milat’s grapes.
“Everyone loves the chenin blanc,” said Mike. It’s slightly sweet 2 percent residual sugar), a popular style, though the few other wineries here that make chenin blanc ferment it dry.
He suspects there won’t be enough market for chenin blanc when they stop making wine, so it may be replaced, too.
They don’t subject the chenin blanc to any oak, and have been cutting back on the oak in their other wines over the years due to customer demand.
The Milats sell all their wine at the tasting room and to a mailing list of fans.
They tried distribution for five years when they were smaller and built production to as much as 6,000 cases, but it was tough as a small winery, so they contracted production and returned to selling direct.
Their permit is for 20,000 gallons. In the last few large harvests, they made some of their grapes into bulk wine and sold it, too.
They’ve also replanted the vineyard, last year changing three acres, this year two, adopting better rootstocks and cultivars. The grapes were originally on St. George, but that is susceptible to viruses.
Not a ‘LIFESTYLE WINERY,’ but their life
Unlike wealthy people who start wineries to enjoy the lifestyle, the Milats started the winery to make a living. “It was fun when we started, but not any more,” said Bob. “It’s a young man’s job. We don’t want to be slaves to the business.”
They’re also frustrated with the governmental rules and red tape. They had issues with the county over their guest houses, which the county has tried to eliminate, and in expanding the winery. They also had to put a meter on their well, something they considered annoying.
Still, the brothers clearly enjoy their interchange with visitors, most long-time customers. “We get a different visitor than the big names,” said Mike. “We don’t get the fancy tourists.”
Bob acts like a grouch for fun, but both brothers enjoy kidding around with visitors to their tasting room. Years ago, they were featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal as a great place to visit in an article that notoriously panned the tasting experience at the time at Mondavi. “Some people who came because of that article are still customers,” noted Bob.
They have banned bachelor parties, however, and have little tolerance for annoying tourists and aggressive tour guides. They do remember fondly a time when a whole van load of female teachers flashed them to show off their hidden tattoos.
One obvious question to the Milats is why not sell the obviously valuable property? Each of their two parcels could house a winery, and the existing winery is right on Highway 29, not set back as now required. “The government would take 43 percent,”Mike explained. “Anyway, we wanted to stay in our homes.”
He added, “People come here looking for this lifestyle. We already live it.”
Until the end of the month, the Milats are “wine-ding down.” They’re selling off their stock by the case at half price, and the prices are already modest by Napa Valley standards. They continue to pour wines for a $10 tasting fee, too, and refund that if you buy wine.
Milat Vineyards is at 1091 St Helena Highway in St Helena. Call 963-0758 or visit Milat.com.