by Fred McMillin
for May 11, 1999


A Twenty Million Dollar Wine Course


William E. Jarvis spent 14 years attending seven universities, is fluent in French and Spanish, and specialized in Greek philosophy, particle physics and electronics.

William's father spent less time in universities, but had the same "smarts." For example, he had no formal instruction in chess, but figured out his own strategies. They were so unconventional that they confused his opponents who knew all the standard moves by name. Players would drive up to 40 miles along the Oklahoma highways for a match... until they tired of losing and quit making the trip.

With those genes, it was hardly a suprise that William made a fortune with his international electronics firm, Wiltron. However, there were plenty of suprises when he and wife Leticia decided to build an underground winery in the Napa Valley, what one might call a $20 million wine course. Here are a few highlights, from the Jarvis book, Three Generations.

The Rest of the Story

Vine Spacing—Since viticulture is at least 5,000 years old, everyone now knows how far apart to plant the vines. Right? Wrong! Three-foot spacing was in vogue at the time. William found both quality and yields were hurt, and replanted with six feet between vines.

A Brush with "Brett"—They brought in a wine filter that seemed to work fine until they noticed an odd flavor developing. Ace Winemaker Dimitri Tchelistcheff sounded the alarm. The filter had introduced a wild yeast, Brettanomysis, with its barnyard, rubber boot flavors. "Horrified that this insidious wild yeast" might contaminate the entire winery, they burned the affected barrels and disinfected every surface in the cave, walls, floors, outside of barrels, etc. Brett has not been back since. Believe me, there are no rubber boot flavors in the '96 Jarvis Chardonnay, our Wine of the Day...

The Wine

Jarvis 1996 Jarvis 100% Chardonnay
Aging—Nine months in new French oak
Rating—In our blind tasting, it won Best White by a huge 30% more votes than the second place competitor. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Contact—Denise Hammerberg, (800) 255-5280, FAX (707) 255-5282.
Price—$36 range


While William Jarvis' winery problems were daunting, they pale beside what one of his ancestors faced. Andrew Hickenlooper was a private in an army whose commander said they were "barefooted and otherwise naked" in the snow. He was with George Washington at Valley Forge.

Note: For a rundown on the '95 Chardonnay, see "Jarvis Bliss," 06/11/98 WineDay.  
About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.



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