When Mike Hirby first moved to the Napa Valley, he didn’t have a job and was living in a tent. The year was 2000, and although he had no formal experience making wine he had come to the valley on a quest to learn the craft of winemaking.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years and Hirby has become one of the top winemakers in the valley, having made high-profile wines at Realm, Behrens Family (formally Behrens & Hitchcock), D.R. Stephens Estate, Husic Vineyards and Sarocka Estate, among others.
Along his winemaking journey, he and his wife, Schatzi Throckmorton, have also been making their own wine brand in small lots that they call Relic.
“Relic started in 2001 by making a couple barrels of Pinot Noir,” Hirby said. “The idea was to use traditional winemaking methods and apply them to the California climate, which we found resulted in vibrant aromatics and complex textures while maintaining the concentration and nuance that comes from vineyards in Napa and Sonoma.”
Part of the traditional winemaking method at Relic often includes foot-stomping the grapes at harvest, using natural vineyard-specific yeast and taking a “less is more” attitude during the fermentation and aging processes.
Hirby grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, in a family that didn’t drink much wine, but he did learn an appreciation for music and philosophy.
“We had a case of old Riesling down in the basement that I got into in high school, but wine was not really a part of my parents’ lives when I was growing up,” he said. “However, music has been a part of every stage of my life — I got a guitar at 14 and I’ve played one ever since. Beyond music, I’ve always had an interest in philosophy as a way to dive deep into the meaning behind words. It also provided me with tools to argue more effectively with my parents.”
Because of his arguing skills, his father suggested he go into law, but Hirby decided on philosophy instead. At Colorado College, he focused on studying philosophy and playing music but also gained his first real exposure to wine — not, as many college students might, for the alcohol content but instead through his roommates who were studying food systems, where wine provided insight into different cultures. One friend, Alan Manley, had inherited a wine cellar from his grandfather and decided to use the inventory to open a fine-dining restaurant called Primativo in Colorado Springs.
“[Alan’s cellar] was my first real exposure to great wine and I was blown away — not only by the taste and complexity but also the way it told a story about where it came from,” Hirby said. “Alan introduced me to the world of wine through some great bottles but also books and magazines like the Wine Spectator.”
The year was 1997 and Hirby was graduating without a clear sense of what was ahead. Should he continue with graduate school? Pursue music? Go to law school?
“I started waiting tables at Alan’s new restaurant,” Hirby said. “He really took a chance on me because I had no idea what I was doing.”
Within a year, Hirby had become the sommelier at Primativo. And two years after that he’d made up his mind to become a winemaker. He moved to France for a potential winery job, but when he got there he found no job existed. Instead he traveled the countryside looking unsuccessfully for work for three months and then returned to the United States. Undaunted, he applied for winery work in the Napa Valley.
“I’d come to the valley on a wine-buying trip in 1997 and fell in love with it,” he said.
Hirby drove his beat-up VW Jetta from Colorado to the Napa Valley with little money and few contacts.
“I was living in campgrounds around the valley and trying to get work, but without experience it was tough,” he said.
Eventually, he was hired by Les Behrens of Behrens Family Winery (at that time Behrens & Hitchcock) high up in the hills of Spring Mountain.
“When I first met Mike, he had no winery experience but a vast wine knowledge,” said Behrens. “It was clear from the start that Mike had a great palate, and honestly we had a great time talking about books, music and yes, wine.”
Hirby left after the interview, but when Behrens was driving home he found him stuck on the side of the road because his brakes had overheated.
“I told my wife and partner (Lisa Drinkward) we’d better give this guy a job as he could use the help,” Behrens said. “Little did I know how much he would help us. He is one of the smartest winemakers I know. It is funny, but at some point in time he started showing me new things.”
Hirby and Throckmorton were married at the winery. And according to Behrens, they make a powerful team, both having extensive wine knowledge.
Throckmorton, like her husband, is originally from the Midwest and has no formal education in wine. But she, too, came to the Napa Valley to find a life in wine. Arriving in 1999, she worked at Folie a Deux Winery before discovering Behrens Family Winery. Since their marriage in 2005 the two have managed to keep Relic a sought-after brand and maintained their ownership without the need of investors, which can sometimes cause a brand to grow too fast or lose its original focus.
Realm Cellars to Relic
Before their brand could be built, Hirby was struggling to make it at Behrens while he took night classes in winemaking at Napa Valley College. He threw himself into all things wine, and by 2001 he was assistant winemaker at Behrens & Hitchcock and was starting to make Relic.
In 2002, he was hired by Juan Mercado as the winemaker for an ambitious project, Realm Cellars, that went on to become one of the more coveted collector wines for those seeking the newest and greatest cult-styled wines coming out of the Napa Valley. Hirby’s wines were fast gaining high scores from reviewers while at the same time retaining a low-profile mysteriousness.
With such success, especially at that time in the valley’s history, came a plethora of consulting opportunities at different wineries, many of which he turned down. All the while Hirby and his new wife and business partner were slowly and methodically building Relic from 300 cases to nearly 3,000 cases, while maintaining the focus on natural winemaking and often sourcing fruit from some of the oldest vineyards in the valley.
“In everything he does, Mike takes the approach of an artist,” said Jeff Smith, co-owner of Hourglass wines and guitarist for WristRocket, a local rock band in which Hirby has also played guitar for the last 10 years. “[In his winemaking] he makes great use of texture, counterpoint, color and dimension to weave a complex through-line. His craft is as thoughtful as it is soulful.”
Part of the “soulful” approach of Relic has been to source grapes from some of the older vineyards in Napa and Sonoma.
“There really is something that old vineyards bring to a wine that is indescribable,” Hirby said. “Sometimes they are not the easiest to work with — often producing only a few clusters per vine — but the result is that the wines made from these vineyards reveal the story of the place and of the farmers farming the land.”
One such old-vine vineyard that Relic sources from is farmed by the third-generation Frediani family in Calistoga, whose decades-old head-trained Petite Sirah vineyard was planted in 1939 by Alfred Frediani himself. Frediani passed away in November 2018, but today the third generation — led by Al’s son Steven — is continuing the tradition of organic dry farming (adding no chemicals or any more water than the roots can gather on their own) in what has become a vineyard sought after by some of the valley’s finest winemakers. Making great wine from these vineyards also tends to save them from being replanted to the more lucrative Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Is it important Mike is embracing older heritage sites? Very much so,” Smith said. “Older vines are a living history. If we pull them all out, we are pulling out years of adaptation and the living history that goes with them. Maybe the resistant vine that is the cure to some future pestilence lives amongst these vines. Maybe a keener understanding of phenolics or heat resistance is unveiled. Napa is young and complex — to understand it we need generations of vines.”
In the summer of 2009, Hirby and Throckmorton purchased a 10-acre piece of land miles up the rugged Soda Canyon Road in Napa’s Atlas Peak appellation. Since then, they’ve built a wine cave where they make their own wines and also the wines for several clients, and they have plans to plant a small vineyard of heritage vines. The fires of 2017 burned their land, but the wine inside the cave was spared, saving some of the vintages that are currently for sale.
Although nearly every wine Hirby makes is worth pondering, I highlight three that provide insight into this creative winemaker.
The 2015 Artefact Cabernet Sauvignon ($125 per bottle and 400 cases made) is sourced from grapes grown in Calistoga at the Kenefick Ranch, which is close to the famed Eisele Vineyard. This wine is dark garnet in the glass with aromas of blackcurrant, crushed mulberries and earth. The palate is classic north-end Napa Valley with crème de cassis, licorice, dried flower petals, hints of truffle and Chinese five spice, finishing with a hint of coconut cream.
The 2016 Putnam Vineyard Pinot Noir ($70 per bottle and 300 cases made) is from a Sonoma Coast vineyard and highlights the finesse of Hirby’s winemaking. This wine is ruby-colored with aromatics of dried cranberry, black cherry, lavender and Provence herbs. The palate is vibrant with smoky Chambord, graham cracker and fresh-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The showstopper is the 2015 old vine Petite Sirah from the Frediani Vineyard ($60 per bottle and 150 cases made). Open the bottle and let it sit for three days then taste it over the next three days, and if you do you will understand why old vineyards are a wonder. Where to begin. The wine is dense garnet in the glass with aromatics of brambly blackberry, summer-sun-heated stones, malt, molasses, sandalwood and Calistoga dust. In the mouth, this wine is rich and full, unctuous, with flavors of blueberry, spice cake, light-roasted coffee beans, clove, shiitake mushrooms, beef broth and chervil. The finish is minutes long and ends with a hint of dry earth.
The dictionary defines the word relic as “an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.”
The wines by Hirby and Throckmorton in some ways fit this meaning in that they seem true to some earlier, simpler time when laser-sorted fruit and over-oaked wines were not yet common. Here we have a husband-and-wife team who have grown their business slowly, maintained their identity and are fighting the good fight when it comes to making honest wines in a manner that might help sustain some of the valley’s historic vineyards. You can certainly purchase flashier wines from the Napa Valley, but you can’t purchase any that have more soul or honesty.
“A winemaker has 40, maybe 50 vintages in them,” Hirby said. “Each vintage also comes with a certain amount of optimism — can this one be the one?”
“A winemaker has 40, maybe 50 vintages in them. Each vintage also comes with a certain amount of optimism — can this one be the one?” Mike Hirby
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!