Join us this season as we explore California’s celebrated wine country: the rustic ingredients, world-class destinations and passionate artisans, chef and producers who bring it to life.
After purchasing the historic Spottswoode in 1972, Mary Weber Novak became one of the first women to run a major Napa Valley wine growing estate. Today, the winery is still family owned, with Mary’s daughter Beth at the Helm. Here, we ask Beth all about growing up on the winery, learning from her mom, and what’s special about Spottswoode wines.
Tell us the story behind Spottswoode. How did your mother come to buy the property and start making wine?
My mother, Mary, and my father, Jack, originally lived in North San Diego County, where my father was a doctor. My parents had a vision of raising their five children in a more rural community setting. When we traveled to Napa Valley in the early 1970s to visit friends, my parents fell in love with the beauty and relaxed pace of the valley. My mother is a gardener, who has always loved the land, so when my parents discovered our idyllic property in St. Helena with its vineyards and gardens, they knew they’d found our home.
In 1972, my father sold his practice and we moved to Napa Valley. We immediately acquired an additional 15 acres of bordering land and began to replant our pre-Prohibition vineyard. Sadly, just five years later, my father passed away. My mother recognized that the best future for our family lay in following through on my dad’s and her vision for their vineyard. She took over management of the Spottswoode Estate and successfully completed her first harvest, selling grapes to various Napa Valley families, including the Shafers and Duckhorns. In 1982, after building Spottswoode’s reputation as a source for some of Napa Valley’s most sought-after grapes, my mother hired Winemaker Tony Soter and founded Spottswoode Winery. That year, we made our debut 1982 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, exactly 100 years after the original planting of the Spottswoode Estate Vineyard.
Our estate is an historic site, with a story that goes back generations. In 1882, the first wine grapes were planted by George Schonewald on the land that has become the Spottswoode Estate Vineyard. Over the next few years, the property grew to include a Victorian home built to emulate the famed Hotel del Monte in Monterey, California, and in 1910, after changing hands several times, the vineyard and its lovely buildings were christened Spottswoode. Like many of Napa’s most historic vineyards and wineries, Spottswoode survived Prohibition by selling grapes for use in making the suddenly very popular sacramental wine. But that wasn’t enough. To get through those hard times, mushrooms were grown in the cellar, and frogs were raised for frog legs and sold to San Francisco restaurants. It’s fascinating when you look at the world’s great vineyards; because of their quality they seem to endure through wars and social upheavals like Prohibition and the Depression. People recognize their quality, and find a way to preserve the vineyards through challenging times.
Did you grow up on/around the winery? Can you share any anecdotes from your childhood at Spottswoode?
I was 11 when we moved to Spottswoode, so I was brought up around the vineyard, though we did not start making wines until 10 years later. I have wonderful memories from growing up at Spottswoode — it was an amazing place to be! We worked in the vineyard in the summer, suckering the vines and cleaning the emitters. This gave me a great appreciation for the labor that goes into maintaining a vineyard and growing wine grapes. We also had a lot of fun. With four siblings, and all of the friends we made, there was always a lot for me to do. What I didn’t realize at the time, was how much the world of wine sort of seeps in by osmosis. It wasn’t until years later that I understood how much it had become a part of me.
Your mother is a pioneer in the wine world. What did you learn from her about running a business?
Until my mother took over managing the vineyard after my father’s passing, she had never run a business. But she had run a family of five! My mom has a lot of common sense, and she is very grounded in her sensibilities. She knew we needed to be smart about our business and to spend our money wisely (and to watch debt very carefully) in order to be successful. We have grown organically over the years, reinvesting in our vineyard and winery, always with the goal of further enhancing the quality of our wines. My mother has always been open to new ideas, and objective views, which is why we were one of the very first Napa Valley Vineyards to farm organically — beginning way back in 1985!
What was your reaction to being named the first female president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association?
When you look back at some of the people who have held the position, it’s a who’s who of Napa Valley legends. So the fact that I was the first woman, and the youngest person, ever, to be elected, was an incredible honor. I valued the experience greatly. I also learned a great deal, and I hope I brought value, leadership and freshness to the organization. I know that especially because of my relatively young age, I felt a keen obligation to do well. I was fortunate to work with a great team, and I maintain strong ties and relationships with the Napa Valley Vintners to this day.
We produce Cabernet Sauvignon, with our flagship wine, the Spottswoode Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon made entirely from our own estate-grown grapes. Our current release, which is the 2011 vintage, is our 30th in an unbroken line of estate-grown bottlings. Throughout the years, we have stayed true to an elegant and age-worthy style that captures the character of the vintage and the complexity of the vineyard. Our Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine of place. It is the essence of our vineyard in a given vintage.
We also make a Sauvignon Blanc, which incorporates both estate fruit and grapes from renowned sites like Hyde and Farina vineyards. Our Sauvignon Blanc is made with the same ethic and ideals as our Cabernets — the goal is to honor its vineyard sources, while exhibiting the full beauty, elegance and structure of the varietal.
What do you love about living and working in the wine country?
Napa Valley is home. I love the seasonality I enjoy as a winegrower, the cycles and the natural beauty of it all. First and foremost, the wine business is agriculturally based. We are intimately tied to the land and the seasons. We work with wonderful people, and the relationships we have developed and cultivated over the years are very gratifying and important to us. As a small, family-run winery, every vintage captures a year in our life. It’s like a liquid snapshot of where we were in our lives and what the year was like. We now have 30 years of those snapshots, which is something to be very grateful for.
What are some of your go-to food and wine pairings when you’re entertaining? Any favorites?
Steak (especially a perfectly grilled New York) and Cabernet may be too obvious, but it is timeless, and delicious. I also think Cabernet and barbecued leg of lamb is wonderful. Our Sauvignon Blanc is perfect with delicately prepared lobster, prawns or scallops — not redolent of butter, but rather with an Asian flair.
If you weren’t making wine, what would you be doing?
I would have a life built around the wilderness, perhaps leading hikes and/or mountain biking trips. I love, and find peace, in the outdoors.