There are people who start wineries and work for a long time to get to the point that their names become synonymous with good wine, regardless of whether their names are on the bottle or not. And then there are those who you wonder at how they managed to avoid having their name on a wine bottle for as long as they did.
Robert Lieff has a long history with wine, and with Napa Valley in particular. How he has managed to only just now end up with his name on a bottle, is in part a testament to his success in his chosen career, but also to the persuasive powers of his wife Gretchen, who finally convinced him a couple of years ago to consummate a lifelong flirtation, and have a wine made in his name.
Even though Lieff Wines is a new project for Robert, it is far from the first vineyard or winery that he has owned.
As a bright-eyed young lawyer in 1966, Lieff managed to get himself a job working for Melvin Belli, who, at the time, was one of the most prominent lawyers in Northern California. Together, they began work on a legal case that in its resolution, would literally define some of the most famous vineyards in America.
The project was litigation of a trust, where the main asset was 4000 acres in the heart of Napa Valley held by the Stelling family. As the case wound down, chunks of this land were spun out and sold off to become what are now household names in Napa, at least to anyone who knows wine. To Kalon, Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Bond, and even the iconic Robert Mondavi Winery, all were purchased out of this chunk of land that Lieff and Belli spent almost a decade wrangling about in court.
In the process of all this litigation, Lieff became friends with Doug Stelling, and when Doug ended up getting 12 acres alongside Highway 29 in Napa, Lieff became his partner and together they founded a winery that would be called Far Niente. This particular plot of land wasn’t anything special at the time, and included an old farm house that couldn’t even charitably be called decrepit. It was completely overgrown with ivy, and had been for so long, that when Lieff and Stelling dragged the ivy off by tying it to their pickup trucks, the local planning and zoning commission sent them a letter telling them they were going to be fined for putting up a building without a permit.
That old farmhouse is now one of the most picturesque of Napa’s historic landmarks and Far Niente and its sister winery, Nickel & Nickel, are some of the valley’s most recognized brands.
Lieff sold his interest in Far Niente to his partners in 1984, but by that time, he had been bitten by the vineyard bug. From the early 1970’s onward, Robert Lieff lived a strange double life. During the week he was building one of the country’s most successful plaintiff law firms, and on the weekends he was planting vines and coaxing a 1940’s tractor through his vineyards.
Lieff is now well known for his part in building the firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, but his closet affection for wandering around in vineyards led to him partially owning several more wineries over the years, and perhaps more importantly, owning and personally farming a small vineyard in Kenwood. He took viticulture classes at U.C. Davis Extension, and tried to learn as much as he could about how to run a vineyard. In the process, Lieff got to know a lot of people in the wine business, including, most notably, the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff, with whom he traveled through Bordeaux, and alongside whom he was inducted into a fraternal order known as the Commandres de Beautemps Medoc et Graves.
Lieff lived in Napa on and off starting in about 1980, and in 1997 he purchased a 22 acre property on the eastern hills of Napa’s Rutherford appellation where he had architect Scott Johnson build him an award winning house. This property was the first arable land Lieff had owned in Napa in some time, but he wasted no time getting vines in the ground. Not with any intention of making wine, mind you, simply with the idea that it would be nice to have some vines around to hang out with and to be able to sell some grapes to neighbors and friends.
And that is exactly what he did with his little three acre vineyard, until his wife planted the seed that grew into Lieff Wines.
Now, with the help of his wife Gretchen, who does all the sales, marketing, and general management, and the help of vineyard manager Jim Barbour and winemaker Cary Gott, Lieff produces around 300 cases of Cabernet from his little hillside vineyard.
With such a small vineyard and production, the crop can be precision tuned by Barbour, and Gott can baby the wine from vine to bottle, which is exactly what happens.
The vineyard is still maturing, and the Lieff’s are still settling into their roles as winery owners, but this wine represents the early beginnings of what will undoubtedly become a sought-after label in Napa.
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry cola and cassis. In the mouth it is juicy and lively, with great acidity that gives it an overall impression of enthusiasm. Medium bodied with smooth cherry fruit and hints of tobacco and leather, the wine has soft, suede-like tannins emerge in the finish, though the memory preserved is one of fruit more than anything else.
Given the opportunity, I would love to drink this wine with a chipotle rubbed flat iron steak.
Overall Score: around 9
How Much?: $50
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet