Pilot Journal
Saturday, May 1, 2004

Flying Vintners

Napa Wineries Put Some Aviation in Every Bottle

Flying VintnersJohn Trefethen, whose name graces one of Napa Valley’s premier wineries, is standing inside an oak barrel room of his historic winery on his 600-acre vineyard. Neatly dressed in jeans and a mustard-yellow silk shirt, Trefethen is regaling his listeners with some hangar talk about a crop-duster that used to land on the one-lane entrance road when the winery started in the early ’70s. In those days, Trefethen was flying his Cessna 182 out of the Napa Valley Airport 10 miles away, causing the crop-dusting pilot to scratch his head.
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Trefethen says that winemaking has evolved into a business of personal relationship. His Aerostar allows him to stay in touch with clients in a way that would otherwise be impossible.
“The airplane allows me to get to a lot of markets and meetings easily and quickly so I can do more of them,” says Trefethen, who has flown his 1982 Aerostar to Portland, Oreg.; Seattle; Sun Valley, Mammoth, San Diego, Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Calif., in the last three weeks. “Selling is a big part of what we do now. It wasn’t always that way. It’s much more intense today. It’s a relationship business, very much so. The idea of going down to L.A. and the three hours it takes to get to the San Francisco Airport for one day—I don’t like to do it. Checking in and going through security takes way longer than the flight itself. Trips that I wouldn’t have to take before, I take now in the Aerostar because I’ll do anything to avoid flying commercially.”

He still winds up flying about 50,000 miles a year on one of the major airlines—including trips overseas or east of the Mississippi—while logging about 200 hours a year in his Aerostar, which he has owned for four years and which he keeps at Napa Valley Airport. “I love to fly it,” says Trefethen, who has 4,500 total hours and a multi-engine instrument rating. “It’s absolutely a pilot’s airplane. It’s very responsive and quick. I really enjoy seeing mountains and deserts and sunsets. On a commercial flight at 35,000 feet, you don’t see anything. But flying my Aerostar fulfills my need to combine getting somewhere and being able to enjoy the ride.”

Since flying your own plane is the ultimate Napa Valley capitalist’s tool, it’s not surprising that more and more vintners are piloting their own planes. Larry Turley of Turley Winery and Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena Winery are no exception. Ten years ago, the two realized how useful flying could be to their businesses. So they started sharing ownership on a Beech Debonair, which spawned into a decade-old aircraft partnership with each other.

“We both wanted to get back to flying,” says Turley, who got his private pilot’s license in 1978. “Our wives thought we had another mistress because we went to bed every night with Trade-A-Plane. It’s been a great partner. We haven’t had any disagreements or conflicts.”

Today, Barrett and Turley’s current airplane, a refurbished Cessna 210 festooned with logos from both of their wineries, sits and glistens in the bright sunshine outside its hangar at Santa Rosa Airport, Calif. Barrett, whose white sneakers are practically purple from wine stains, is dressed in a 1999 Oshkosh T-shirt and blue fleece vest. Turley sports ostrich-skin cowboy boots, a beard and a long-sleeve, striped shirt. They’re swapping stories about the 433 hours that they have put on their bird since taking delivery of it in March 2002.

“We use it almost exclusively for business,” says Barrett with a sparkle in his eye. “Let’s just say if you go on a ski trip to Sun Valley, you just make sure you call on some accounts there.”

All kidding aside, flying their own plane makes their job a lot more efficient—and fun. “It’s a tremendous business tool for us,” adds Barrett. “If I have to do a dinner at Santa Ana, Calif., or Portland, I’ll stay at the winery ’til about three o’clock and fly down. If I was driving or going commercial, I’d have to miss a whole day of work. And we sometimes have to take cases of wine, which we wouldn’t want to check in.”

They also have other vineyards outside Napa Valley and feel compelled to visit them, especially when it’s harvest time. “You have a one-year production hinging on a one-day decision,” notes Barrett. “You can’t go back and put them back on the vine. The growers are always saying they’re riper than they are. The biggest decisions are when you pick them and when you press them.”


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