Stephen Taplin and his brother, Bill, and their sister, Melinda, grew up together on their family’s property on the southerly end of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Each left to pursue his or her own passions and explore the world. When Melinda died of breast cancer in 2015, her brothers knew how best to honor her memory.
“She was such a wonderful spirit,” Stephen Taplin said. “She always brought people together and cared for their well-being. We wanted to celebrate her life and felt that a 100 percent charitable wine, ‘Melinda’s Rosé, was the perfect vehicle to help fund Dr. Susan Love’s cancer research foundation.”
The profits from the small production wine are donated to the Dr. Susan Love Foundation, whose work is dedicated to research on the causes and prevention of breast cancer as well as patient advocacy and education.
Taplin’s desire to honor his sister’s life with a wine that supports cancer research makes sense, given his background: First, he’s the co-owner of a vineyard who traces his Napa Valley roots back multiple generations, and second, he has had a decades-long career as both a medical doctor and a world-renowned cancer researcher, focusing much of his life’s effort advocating for increased access and improved breast-cancer screening for women in the United States and beyond.
“I’ve conducted my own research on breast-cancer screening and have overseen the work of others through the National Cancer Institute,” he said. “We know the importance of screening, but in my sister’s case, because of the type of cancer she had and the limitations of our current technology, finding her tumor through screening alone was difficult, if not impossible.”
Regular screening encouraged
“I encouraged her to seek regular breast-cancer screening and she did,” said Taplin. “But in 2009 she actually found a 4-centimeter lump in her breast herself that, based on further testing, turned out to be lobular cancer.
“I was kind of reassured at first because the type she had was, in general, one of the easily treated types, but there are a few weird exceptions, and she had one that was aggressive,” Taplin said. “This is an important part of the story because we use the term ‘breast cancer,’ but it’s really many different conditions, and the kind you have is really important to determine.
“She had a subtype of aggressive lobular carcinoma, which was more like a slime mold that had the same texture as the surrounding tissues (called isodense), which means you can’t really see it on a mammogram.”
Conditions for breast cancer
“Our grandmother died of breast cancer and my sister had no children, both of which correlate with an increased likelihood of the disease,” Taplin said. “The good thing is that mortality is dropping for breast cancer, but of course there’s much work to be done."
According to the American Cancer Society a woman living today has about a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer at some time during her life. After increasing for more than two decades, female breast-cancer incidence rates began decreasing around 2000. Since 2004, overall female breast cancer incidence rates appear to have stabilized, and the death rates from breast cancer have been declining since about 1989, with larger decreases in women younger than 50. These decreases are believed to be the result of earlier detection through screening, improved treatments and increased awareness.
In the United States in 2015 an estimated 250,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed among women, about 2,500 new cases in men. In Napa County alone there were an estimated 115 breast-cancer cases in 2014. There were also an estimated 20 deaths in Napa County from breast cancer in 2014. Also, the NCI’s website highlights the correlation between alcohol consumption and an increased rate of breast cancer.
“I am reluctant to put a number on it (how many glass of wine is OK to consume) as the studies are large epidemiological studies which suggest that women who drink alcohol have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who don't,” Love said. “However, it is impossible to tell from these studies whether the alcohol is the culprit or whether they are also less likely to exercise or eat a healthy diet or are overweight. You cannot prove cause and effect from these kinds of studies. In general moderation is a good idea as well as living a healthy lifestyle. I think we should stay away from giving strict advice.
“I wish we had something that could have saved Melinda,” Love said. “Metastatic breast cancer is not currently curable. When I trained to be a surgeon many years ago women with an abnormal Pap smear had an immediate hysterectomy and lost their fertility, but once we figured out it was caused by a virus we were able to develop a vaccine. We need a similar approach to cancer, not finding it early but preventing it from happening in the first place.”
Taplin Cellar’s history
Although the Taplin Cellar wine brand was only officially launched a few years ago, the Taplin family has been living in the Napa Valley since the early 1870s, when John Taplin came to California for the gold rush, eventually opening a dairy farm along the Silverado Trail near what is now Taplin Road.
“My brother, Bill, sister, Melinda, and I founded Taplin Cellars in 2011 to reflect our history and passion for the valley, wine, and our desire to contribute to gathering people around great food, great wine and great conversation,” Taplin said. “Bill Ballantine Jr. made our wine initially and helped us get into the marketplace. Winemaker Julien Fayard joined our effort in 2012 to give us more capacity to focus on the expression of our estate wines.”
Fayard is one of the world’s leading experts when it comes to making rosé wine. He grew up in the French town of Saint-Etienne and spent time working at his family’s winery and vineyard, cru classe Chateau Sainte-Marguerite, located in the village of La Londe-les-Maures near the French Riviera. For generations the Fayard family has grown grapes and produced their own expression of the region’s signature wine, Provençal rosé.
By the age of 16, young Julien had blended his first wine. After obtaining a master’s in agriculture and winemaking he worked at renowned French wineries such as Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Smith Haut Lafitte.
“This is a very special place and the wines help support an important cause,” Fayard said. “We make this rosé with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes to create a wine that represents this unique piece of land and a family with deep roots and a mission. The Melinda’s Rosé has textural elements from the Cabernet but beautiful floral components from the earth and the Cab Franc that we’ve included.”
Fayard also makes two other wines from the property for the Taplins, including the Taplin Terra 9 Cabernet Sauvignon ($65 a bottle and 600 cases made) and the Taplin Cabernet Sauvignon ($130 a bottle and 100 cases made). Only 50 to 100 cases of the Melinda’s Rosé are made each year ($28 a bottle).
Taplin Cellars: fostering health-care collaboration
Beyond supporting cancer research, Taplin’s efforts are a way to bring together local healthcare professionals to help foster collaboration and communication.
“What the Taplins have done here is not just about a wine but about bringing people together with the shared vision of improving health outcomes,” said Cherie Lee Goulard R.N., Ph.D. and former chair and professor for the nursing program at Pacific Union College. “Bringing world-class medical practitioners such as Love and Taplin himself, along with researchers, nurses and doctors into one room is a wonderful way to foster both a sense of community and to help improve care for the people of the Napa Valley and beyond.”
“I’ve been working in the Napa Valley since 2009, and really the reason I am here is because this is a special community,” said David Tate, a radiation oncologist at the Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center in St. Helena. “The Napa Valley Vintners and the V-Foundation and a lot of charitable donors, along with the vision of the local physicians and nurses, have helped to create an exceptional cancer center here in St. Helena. Now Steve is helping to bring together a community that will help foster collaboration, communication and improve outcomes.”
According to Tate, there are still debates regarding the optimal detection protocols and treatment for many cancers.
“The cancer that Melinda had is difficult to detect on a mammogram,” he said, “ so we are always looking for better ways to both detect and treat the variety of cancers that exist out there. What kind of screenings do we need to do, how often do we need to do them are all still debates, but getting people together is an important first step.”
Cancer care: Beyond discussion
“We have two employees at the St. Helena hospital that are supported through grants from the V-Foundation and the Napa Valley Vintners that are focused on research, and we try and recruit as many people to those research projects as possible — that is really where we are making the new discoveries,” Tate said. “Our goal is to improve the quality of healthcare and the access to that healthcare. It’s at this juncture that a community like the Napa Valley can really make a difference.”
Napa Valley: making a difference in cancer care
The Taplins are attempting to bring together local and internationally recognized cancer researchers and healthcare professionals in an attempt to advance outcomes. According to Taplin there is much work yet to be done.
“Mammograms are not a silver bullet, and they are not sufficient to protect all women,” Taplin said. “We need more knowledge about the different types of breast-cancer biology, and we need to understand that we can comfort people faced with the disease but we can’t save all of them, even with the best of care.”