by Robert Farmer
With a nod to the history of Napa Valley and an eye toward its history, S.E. Chase Cellars is one of a growing breed of nimble "boutiques" in the region making wine for an appreciative niche audience. The winery is founded by the great-great grandson of Sarah Esther Chase Bourn, who came to Napa Valley in the late 1800s in search of the therapeutic waters gushing from the ground in the valley's northern end. She stayed to tend the land, settling on the Madrona Estate, a ranch that would ultimately become a vineyard. Sarah's son grew grapes for wine in the first iteration of Napa's Wine Country and during that time built the imposing stone structure for wine production and storage that today houses the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena.
Generations later, Sarah's great-great grandson, Andy Simpson and his wife Pam are keeping that impressive family heritage alive with Chase Cellars. The winemaking duo source their grapes from a twelve-acre parcel of the Hayne vineyard, named for the man who planted the first zinfandel grapes in Chase's original vineyard. With humble beginnings in 1998, the couple at first made wine via "custom crush" facilities, which proliferate in today's valley. But by 2002, they had their own first crush, and Chase Cellars Zinfandel was born.
"We started selling our wine in 2000, but we didn't start realizing the potential of our grapes until we put our own crush pad down and built our own facility," says Pam Simpson. "We knew how amazing our vineyard was and how good the fist vintage was going to be. Especially with the grapes we have, it all starts in the vineyard and we just really try to stay out of the way and let things happen in the vineyard."
It's a true homage to the history of not only the original Chase vineyard, but also to the traditions of true Wine Country. The Simpsons have a hands-off approach to making their zin that ensures the wines speak for themselves in the glass. "We don't do a lot of things to muck it up," she says. "We're all about watching and waiting. We're careful to harvest at the right time, but after that we don't over oak it or otherwise manipulate it."
Certainly Esther would be proud. She'd also be proud of the otherwise low-tech approach to selling their wares. "Our strategy has really been word of mouth," Simpson says of their organic marketing philosophy. "We don't do a lot of advertising and we try to stay off of the wine-tour maps. We get the word out by people who love wine--especially small-production wine--who get together and talk. We appeal to the customer who is maybe a little more wine-educated and who is looking for something different."
If she happens to be describing you, the winery is open by appointment. Visit the website for details: www.chasecellars.com