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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Turley, who undergoes IFR training six times a year with Barrett, adds: “Real winemakers go to the vineyards. You want to make sure that they’re perfect. If you had to drive, you wouldn’t go as often. I’m not selling nuts and bolts, so I don’t have to go to a store. Most of my clients are restaurants. So anywhere I go, I can visit accounts and clients. I do the occasional ‘winemaker’ dinner. I did one in Aspen, Colo., so we flew there. It’s quite an approach.”

Vineyards Guide
Flying Vintners
Chateau Montelena Winery
(707) 942-5105
Trefethen Vineyards
(707) 255-7700
Turley Wine Cellars
(707) 963-0940
Turley is a true Renaissance man, as his list of past deeds indicate. Up until his retirement seven years ago, he saved lives as an ER physician for 24 years. And during that period, he also found the time to become one of Napa Valley’s premier vintners. He started the famed Frog Leaps label in 1981. He sold the label in 1993, but kept the 20-acre vineyard to start his eponymous wines. He also grows grapes in Paso Robles, Calif., where he built an airstrip.

“It’s a killer drive in a car,” says Turley. “But it’s a beautiful hour-and-10-minute flight.”

Next to the practical uses of piloting a plane, the view from up in the air allows Turley to truly enjoy his vineyards. The reason he bought the vineyard in Paso Robles, in fact, is because of the perspective he got from first flying there.

“Everything becomes clear as soon as you’re up,” he says. “You could drive the same route over and over, and then, one day, you fly over it and it’s a completely different viewpoint. I thought, Oh, now I get it. So that’s why you can grow grapes here. There’s a gap in the mountains there; that’s where the fog comes in. This would be a great vineyard here because it’s right in line with the afternoon fog, so it’s not so hot. Every great grape-growing region in the world has maritime influences. You need heat, but you want it moderate.”

The reason why flying and winemaking complement each other is because the two are so different. They’re both knowledge- and labor-intensive, but that’s about all they have in common. Flying is immediate; you know exactly how you stand, or should, while en route. In contrast, there are several years between sowing grapes and sipping them as wine.

“You have to have a very long-term view in winemaking,” notes Trefethen. “It’s the opposite of flying. There’s a finite time you focus and, boom, it’s done. The span of time from which we plant the vineyard until the time we get a product out into the market is six years. Flying takes planning, too, but it’s very focused and, then, it’s over.”

Although Turley calls wine “bottled poetry” and flying is, in itself, poetry in the air, perhaps wine and flying should be likened more to wine-drinking than poetry. After all, both of them can be pretty intoxicating.


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