The Shypoke story starts back in 1904, with a fellow named Michael Heitz. Michael was an immigrant from the Alsace region of Germany (now part of France). Arriving in America with his wife, Louise, they started looking for a place to settle down and raise their growing family. In 1904 they found Calistoga and took an interest in a 50-acre parcel just south of town. They situated their home at the base of a wooded hill near a small spring-fed creek, and set about clearing some of the valley floor.
With Michael’s horticultural background and his Alsatian heritage, wine grapes were his crop of choice. He planted “suitcase” cuttings of several varieties including Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a little known variety called Charbono.
Near his home Michael built a small stone winery, (the moss covered walls still stand today) founding the M. Heitz winery in the process (bonded winery # 130).
He apparently had a fairly good business with some very enthusiastic and loyal customers, no doubt helping to establish the Napa Valley’s reputation (even in those days) as a source of fine wines. Then prohibition hit, and Michael did what he had to do to keep food on the table. He continued to make wine, of course.
Although his casks and tanks were closed with government seals he, along with most of the other vintners of the day, devised ways to top up his wine without breaking the seals. Story has it that he then shipped some wine by railcar (supposedly the casks were covered with hay bales) and by truck to his awaiting customers. Sales like these couldn’t sell all the wine, so Michael sold grapes to would-be winemakers throughout the country.
He apparently didn’t sell any of the Charbono grapes- no doubt keeping those for the wines he made (and enjoyed) himself. According to family legend, Michael was driving a truck loaded with casks of wine (covered with straw of course) over the mountainous gravel roads towards an old Italian restaurant in the town of Occidental, when he lost control of his truck and it overturned.
His wine casks split open and a stream of wine down the shoulder of the road were the icing on the prohibition cake, so Michael and Louise went back to the winery and knocked each and every bung loose, letting the wine run out the door. This was the end of the M. Heitz winery. Michael reluctantly replaced vines with walnuts, pears and prunes. However some of his favorite grape varieties survived, including a few acres of Charbono. The irony of the whole thing was that the M. Heitz winery almost made it through prohibition. The year after they drained their tanks, prohibition was lifted, but by then much of the Vineyard had been converted to orchard. However Michael’s son Fred Heitz, after many years in his father’s vineyard couldn’t shake the wine bug.
Fred was employed by the Napa Valley Cooperative Winery and managed its Calistoga operations during the 1950′s and 60′s. The recovery from prohibition was slow and these were not particularly glamorous years for the wine industry. Fred eventually retired to being a full time grape grower on a portion of the original family land. He removed the remaining fruit tree orchards and restored the land to vineyard. The only original remaining vines were Charbono. Fred was a pioneer in the use of wind machines for frost protection in viticulture. After Fred passed away, his wife Olivia took to farming the family land. She had a reputation for being blessed with a tremendous amount of luck, and the vineyard continued to prosper.
As luck would have it Olivia and Fred’s son Gary Heitz would also be a vineyard man. In 1987 Gary and his wife Ginny began to farm the family vineyard. The fickle grape market was changing again and some of the varieties planted by Gary’s father Fred were not in favor. Faced with the decision of what to plant, the decision was made to go with that little known but delightful variety Charbono.
Inglenook Winery had been producing their widely acclaimed Charbono from the Heitz Vineyard for many years. They asked Gary about replanting the entire vineyard to Charbono, thus ensuring a long term consistent source of Charbono grapes for their needs. Now years later the vines are wonderfully mature and busy making grapes of uncommon quality.
In 1996 Gary and Ginny’s son Peter Heitz joined the family tradition and along side his father Gary started making Shypoke wines from our century old family ranch. By 2001 Gary had turned over the winemaking to Peter and his wife Meg.
What is a Shypoke?
When looking for a name for our vineyard and winery we wanted the name to convey our care for our ranch, our family history and the old world quality of our flagship grape variety, Charbono. Shypoke ties together these three elements. It is an old family folk name stemming from Michael and Louise at the turn of the 20th century referring to the Blue Herons that nest in the river along the ranch. This folk name has been enjoyed by successive generations on the ranch, and the Herons continue to find the edge of our little patch of Calistoga soil to be a sweet spot.