November 26, 2014

Vintners With a Cause

Shari and garen staglin met on a blind date: bright, 19-year-old UCLA undergraduates, eager to experience life. By 1968, with Garen working on his MBA at Northern California’s Stanford University, and Shari visiting from Los Angeles, they went wine-tasting in the region’s Napa Valley—then a relatively unknown spot with a mere handful of wineries. Enraptured by the countryside, the couple spoke about one day moving there. But Garen had seen his parents’ friends plan Florida or Palm Springs retirements and then never make it.

“I said, ‘Forget the idea of postponing this. Let’s get there as soon as we possibly can,’” says Garen, a venture capitalist-entrepreneur with salt-and-pepper hair and intense eyebrows. “All we had were student loans and a lot of ambition at that point. But we never lost the dream.”

Garen is standing amid the dream fulfilled: the cool gray interior of Staglin Family Vineyards’ 24,000-square-foot wine caves carved out of the Mayacamas mountain range. The Staglins were able to buy the vineyard in 1985 after a business sold in which Garen had been CEO. It’s a 64-acre property now—51 acres organically farmed and solar-powered—in Rutherford, just north of the town of Napa. Garen is Staglin proprietor and vineyard visionary; Shari, who says she’s the organized one, is CEO.

Outside, a gentle rain patters down on neat rows of post-harvest grapevines, dormant until spring. Inside the echoing caves, lanky young men in overalls pump gurgling 2010 chardonnay from lugs into oak barrels, where it’s stirred gently every 10 days for a year before bottling. 

 “Our whole raison d’etre is a commitment to make the best wine possible,” Garen says. “We’re not trying to make more wine; we’re trying to make the best.”

Some of the Staglins’ best wines are included in their auction donation to the 2011 Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest (see “The Prize,” p. 106), which will benefit The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. “Great wine for great causes,” is the vineyard motto.  

From the beginning, the Staglin label carried a caché: Their 1989 chardonnay was served to Queen Elizabeth II in Washington, D.C.; then British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered Staglin’s 1996 cabernet at a lunch for George Bush. But 2010 was the year Staglin received perhaps its widest acclaim to date: “A full-bodied gentle giant,” wine critic Robert Parker announced in December about the 2007 25th Anniversary Selection cabernet sauvignon, awarding it 95–97 points. Wine Spectator raved over the same wine’s “pure and seductive style,” giving it 98 points and anointing it No. 16 among the year’s top 100 wines. Three liters will be in the auction prize.

“People scream and yell and shout, and jump up and down and have pom-poms and squirt guns,” Shari Staglin says about charity auctions. At Lee County’s wine festival, people will ring cowbells and dance in the aisles, as well. 

 

It’s about 2 p.m. on the same rainy day. Shari, dressed in plaid slacks, cashmere sweater and pearls, is in her office in the vineyard’s new visitor center, a renovated 1860s farmhouse. A soft oriental rug covers the polished wood floor, and family photos line the walls. Already holding a master’s degree in public administration, she gave up an executive position when they bought the vineyard to take a second master’s in viticulture and winemaking. “It was a huge investment, and I thought I’d better know what we were doing,” she says. “It has been very satisfying as much for love of wine and love of people as for philanthropy. They fit together well, and it did not take us very long to learn that.”

Today, she has worked on a new wine label and examined the budget to determine how much wine they should make, and, with demand high and output small, how to allocate it. (Staglin wine prices range from $50 to $250.) 

In a nearby office building, son Brandon, 38, runs the estate’s websites. Daughter Shannon, 31, returned to Rutherford this year, after a stint at Wells Fargo in San Francisco, to slowly take over the daily running of the family business. “I have some big shoes to fill,” she says. Shari, who, like Garen, will never retire, says, “We’re a great team because we all have different strengths.”

Until a few years ago, this farmhouse and its garden were a 1.8-acre reproach in the middle of the Staglins’ property: white, with an ungainly pointed roof, it had been parceled off and sold by the previous owners when they needed money to plant. “It was kind of a sacrilege,” Shari says.

For 22 years, she and Garen had to skirt the house on their daily tour to watch their vines ripen. (“Every vine is important to us,” Garen says.) In 2007, they finally succeeded in buying it. Now, its earth tones blend into the landscape. A wraparound porch anchors it, and a vast tasting room, with a massive fireplace at one end and window seats at the other, looks out over the vineyard.              

In the beginning, with young Brandon and Shannon in tow, the Staglins’ slept in a 28-foot trailer under an oak tree, making trips to the nearby Meadowood Resort to shower. Within a few years, the property suffered an onslaught of phylloxera, a tiny root louse that destroys vines. “At one point, we thought we would have to sell off part of the vineyard,” Shari says.

Instead, the Staglins replanted. Their vineyard manager, renowned viticulturist David Abreu, introduced a complex mix of new rootstock. They placed vines closer to make them work harder and planted olive trees, sweet alyssum, lavender and mustard. In summer, the place hums with bees and dragonflies. “We plant all these bugs along the creek where the bad bugs come from, and that creates a habitat where the good bugs and the frogs kill the bad bugs,” Shari says, with satisfaction.   

Phylloxera was not the only Staglin setback. In 1990, something far worse happened. National Merit Scholar Brandon suffered a psychotic breakdown while at Dartmouth and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “We wanted to do something to find out why people get these brain disorders,” Shari says. 

In 1994, they gave their first annual music festival at the vineyard, raising $90,000 for mental health causes. In 2010, Dwight Yoakam performed, the actress Glenn Close spoke about her sister’s bipolar illness and the festival raised $2.5 million. By now the Staglins have raised close to $120 million through their International Mental Health Research Organization (www.imhro.com), whose office is at the winery. Also in 2010, the Staglins formed an initiative with Rep. Patrick Kennedy: The Next Frontier: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Brain. “The intent is to cure brain disorders within 10 years. It motivates what we do,” says Brandon, who counts himself lucky that his family had the means and will to get him the best treatment. “It takes unconditional love,” his father says.

 

Shari walks in the rain up to the caves and to Garen, who spends mornings on the phone talking business and rustling up luxurious auction donations.

Somehow Garen also finds time, within the space of a few winter days, to attend a Kennedy celebration in Rhode Island; stand in the wings when the congressman appears on the Today show; drive a Ferrari in the Robb Report’s Car of the Year event; and make it to San Diego for a Society for Neuroscience meeting. “We can’t cure the illness, so what we’re preventing is the deterioration of the person’s condition so their lives are not ruined,” Garen says. “Venture philanthropy” is how he describes it, and it is what the wine has brought about.

It begins in the field, of course, where, four times during the growing season, Abreu and his team prune half the clusters from the vines to maximize grape quality. At harvest, pickers take in lug boxes early when the berries are cool and firm. The clusters travel along a conveyor that separates stems from grapes, then a shaker table removes bugs and dirt and drops good fruit onto a sorting table where inspectors examine each berry.

“It’s that first extraction, when the wine hits the wood, where there’s this interchange of esters, ethanol and the things that add complexity and longevity and flavor to the wine. After that first time, it’s never as good,” he explains. To that end, Staglin matches wines from various rootstocks to particular woods in barrels made by selected French coopers. The barrels cost $1,500 each, and the winery uses each for only a year to avoid too woody a flavor.

Four times annually, renowned oenologist Michel Rolland visits from France. He sits in front of the Staglins and winemaker Fredrik Johansson with 60 glasses of wine produced from varied rootstocks, tastes them and makes his pronouncements: 5 percent of this; 25 percent of that; 6 percent of that—a two-year process before reaching the final cabernet blend. 

For Brandon, first sampling the admired 2007 cabernet was an emotional experience. “The finish drew out and evolved. It was fascinating,” he says, likening it to the finale of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album. Shari’s response is more practical: “I do know when I absolutely love a wine, like when it dances on my tongue or creates a juiciness in my mouth.” How many hours a day she and her husband work, Shari can’t even estimate. She laughs and says, “It’s 24–7. My husband and I say we hire people to sleep for us.” Says Garen, “You don’t get tired when you love what you’re doing. You always get multiples in terms of return when you give, as long as you don’t ask for anything specific in return.”

 

The Prize

Whoever makes off with the staglin auction package will win a three-day visit for two couples to the Staglins’ Napa Valley vineyard at harvest time. They’ll fly first class from anywhere in the United States and stay on the property, enjoying dinner cooked by Garen and Shari Staglin, with vegetables from their organic garden and wines from their cellar. Another night, the Staglins’ chef will prepare a gourmet meal for the winners and four other guests with the Staglins at their lavish Tuscan-style home. They’ll also eat breakfast with the vineyard crew and help the Staglins and winemaker Fredrik Johansson pick grapes, de-stem and sort berries. Additional wine tasting will happen along the way. So will walks and tours of neighboring vineyards with the Staglins and viticulturist David Abreu. There’s much more, including 3-liter bottles of Staglin 2007 Cabernet and INEO blend to take home. Auction paddles ahoy!

 

When and Where

The Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest takes place Feb. 25–26 at Miromar Lakes Beach and Golf Club in south Lee County. This year’s signature vintner is Napa Valley’s Staglin Family Vineyard.