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Joe Heitz, a pioneer in Napa Valley's premium wine trade, died Saturday at St. Helena Hospital. The salty, savvy vintner was 81. Heitz gained international acclaim more than three decades ago by producing prized minty cabernet sauvignons from a soon-to-become-famous patch of valley vines called Martha's Vineyard."He did a wonderful job building the reputation of Napa Valley wines," observed Peter Mondavi Sr., patriarch of the Charles Krug winegrowing operation. "He was a staunch businessman who will be sadly missed. We're losing one after another of our generation.""He was one of the pioneers who helped establish the Napa Valley as one of the great winegrowing regions of the world," agreed Robert Mondavi, patriarch of the international winemaking operation that carries his name.A private funeral service is scheduled this week, with a public memorial service and celebration of his life planned for Jan. 12 at 10:30 a.m. in St. Helena Catholic Church, family members indicated today. Heitz settled in the Napa Valley in the 1950s with his wife, Alice, taking a job in the wine laboratory at Beaulieu Vineyard with another respected winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff.In the early 1960s, the couple purchased the small, Only One Winery on Highway 29 — now a tasting room — and began their own business by buying bulk wines and selling them under the Heitz Wine Cellars label. Heitz was a friend of many of the valley's early winemakers and wine mavens — including Fred and Eleanor McCrea, owners of Stony Hill, for whom he helped make wine, and Belle and Barney Rhodes. The Rhodeses helped finance Heitz Cellars early on and planted the initial dozen acres of what would become the 34-acre Martha's Vineyard after Tom and Martha May purchased it in 1964. The wine made from the grapes harvested at this vineyard site was so distinctive, Heitz decided to bottle it separately in the mid-1960s. The Mays also became partners in the Heitz wine firm."He was the first of the artisans," Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' Warren Winiarski said today of Heitz. "He was one of the first (in the wine business) to grasp the single vineyard concept, to recognize these wines were something very special. When he set what many thought was an outlandish price of $9 for his Martha's Vineyard cabernet, he told skeptics they shouldn't think in terms of what the materials cost — to think in terms of a painter, who doesn't charge for a painting based on the cost of paint, brushes, canvas and time. He wanted others to see this wine as a product of an artisan's insight, and of a very special vineyard. This was Joe's boldness of thinking. His approach was a new way of thinking and a big contribution to the industry.""He was clearly a force in the California wine industry," added vintner Robin Lail, daughter of the late John Daniel, who owned and operated Inglenook Vineyards at the time Joe and Alice Heitz were launching their winemaking operation at their historic stone winery on Taplin Road. "He was a trendsetter very early in the game. In the years when he established Bella Oaks and Martha's Vineyard (cabernets) he set a new tone and pace. I appreciate all that he's done for all of us in the business."Silver Oak Wine Cellars partner Justin Meyer noted Joe Heitz produced "one of the top early cabernets" long before so-called "cult wines" made their appearance in the Napa Valley."He played a big role when Napa Valley started to develop into a world center for fine wines," declared Mike Grgich, winemaker/owner of Grgich Hills Cellars. "Many people are talkers but never do anything. Joe Heitz was a doer."Bernard Portet, winemaker and founder of Clos Du Val Winery said Heitz was "reserved and firm in his beliefs. He was a man of depth and I liked that. He really touched me following the wine auction that I chaired. He'd been ill during the auction but in the fall he and his daughter, Kathleen, paid me at visit at the winery. He came to thank me for a job well done. That's the kind of man he was.""In the early '70s, he pioneered a group called Zinfandel Associates, which had a vineyard along Zinfandel Lane," recalls wine writer Dan Berger. "Joe turned out some incredible chardonnays from that vineyard before it was torn out due to Pierce's disease." Heitz produced as well some zinfandels, a grignolino rosé and an occasional pinot noir. But his specialty was cabernet sauvignon. He made not only the renowned Martha's Vineyard cabernet, but a Napa Valley cabernet, another from Bella Oaks Vineyard (owned by the Rhodes) and, more recently, a highly praised Trailside Vineyard cabernet from a vineyard owned by the Heitz family.A respected taster as well as winemaker, Heitz was also known for his no-nonsense approach to business dealings.Born on a small farm outside Princeton, Ill., Heitz told a Register news team during a roundtable with Robert Mondavi, the late Andre Tchelistcheff and the late Louis Martini in 1992 that he came to wine at an early age."As a child growing up in Illinois, I lived with my parents and grandparents who made wine," he said. "As a child, I would have to help, go out and gather wild grapes. We would crush them and it was wine. It wasn't quite dandelion wine but you would add sugar and yeast and this and that, and you made a beverage we called wine. So, I have been around wine since I was a child."In addition to playing an important role in Napa Valley's early winemaking days, Heitz helped launch Fresno State University's enology department.He is survived by his widow, Alice, and three children — daughter Kathleen Heitz Myers and two sons, David and Rollie.Arrangements are under the direction of St. Helena's Morrison Funeral Chapel.

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