Falling in Love with Napa Valley’s Countryside through a Winery
By Finer Things Contributors
“He’s a Seattle transplant, artfully skilled in the ways of the Valley. Together with wife, Shelley, and father and Costco founder, James, David Sinegal has acquired the historic Wolf Family Estate, now renamed Sinegal Estate. An accomplished marketer, and with the help of a support team comprised of the best minds and palates in the business, Sinegal is creating a masterpiece, using 30 acres of Napa Valley’s finest terroir and a Robert Parker 96-point rating for his Cabernet Sauvignon.
On Learning The Business
I was born and raised in Southern California; then as a young adult in 1982, I moved to Seattle with my father to start a new retail concept called Costco Wholesale.
I worked there for a couple of years, then went back to California to attend college at San Diego State. After, I returned to Costco doing everything from stocking shelves to being vice president in charge of e-Commerce. I left Costco in 2002 to start a product development consultancy, working with various established consumer products companies, such as Starbucks®, Pepsi®, Frito Lay®, and H&R Block®. I also created and marketed my own line of nutritional food products. More recently, I began developing an enterprise architecture for distributing vaccines and essential medicines in the Third World.
On His Interest in Wine
At Costco, part of my management domain was buying and merchandising the beer, wine, and spirits departments, but there was a personal attachment there, as well.
I’ve long had a passion for wine borne out of shared experiences with my family–those occasions where we would be together, enjoying wine and sharing our passion for it. I was also very intrigued by the challenge of figuring out how to create a viable business in the wine industry.
On the Wolf Family Vineyards
We bought the property from the Wolfs who owned it as a vacation property.
However, for most people in Napa Valley, it’s known as the Jaeger family estate. On a scouting visit, I stopped to say hello to an acquaintance. As I was about to depart for the airport, he said, “Quick, before you go, have you seen this?” He opened up his laptop and showed us a picture of the property.
Immediately, my father and I got in the car and drove to the address. When I saw it, I knew, “This is it!” My dad’s reaction was the same. For Shelley, it was a magical place. She loved it immediately.
The Estate occupies thirty acres, nine and a quarter under vine; a large lake; and the winery. It also includes the botanical garden, a small vegetable and fruit gardens on the residential grounds, the main house built circa 1881, a guest house, the pool, and a tournament-grade tennis court. The caves are dug out now–about 6,000 square feet. We’ve undertaken a major remodel of the entire property; so, for all practical purposes, it’s a brand new winery.
On Becoming Sinegal Estate
When I purchased it, it was planted with different varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon and good complements of the Bordeaux blending varieties, including Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The property has good dirt, and we’ve planned our viticulture strategy around that fact. I want it to be renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
We’ve teamed with the best in the business. Jim Barbour is recognized as one of the very best at what he does. He had a tremendous history with the property, and I trust him implicitly.
The winemaker is Tony Biagi who is truly hands-on. That singular focus is really important to me, given that it’s not the usual practice with consulting winemakers.
The blending consultant is Craig Williams who has been making wine for 40 years and has been recognized as Winemaker of the Year multiple times.
Trevor Antognini, the Estate Manager, joined us from Sloan Estate. He’s been fantastic in picking up where the property had left off. His role has evolved more broadly to operations chief for the overall enterprise.
On the Wine
With our inaugural vintage, 2013, we’ll make about 1,200 cases: 150 Sauvignon Blanc, 100 old vine Cabernet Franc, 300 reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remaining 650 all Estate Cabernet.
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We’re aiming for a wine that’s very balanced, not overly dense, not overly supple and fruit-forward, but very well balanced with acid.
It’s going to deliver the sensory richness that all Tier 1 great Napa cabs possess. Our benchmarks reside on a continuum of O’Shaughnessy at one end and Schrader at the other. We’ve identified Spottswoode and Scarecrow as points of reference–bookends, so to speak. We want to be somewhere in the middle between those two.
On Adjusting to Being a Winery Owner
The big cultural adjustment has been in recognizing and acknowledging the degree to which the wine business is a relationship business.
Donald Trump would not do well in Napa. We’ve been very warmly received, but it takes time. There are people who have lived here and been in the business their entire lives. They see newcomers, successful in other careers, parachute in with grandiose plans and promises; then six months later they’re gone, except when they show up for cocktail parties.
I had to prove that I was committed to doing it right, committed to doing it with them and not just on their shoulders or their backs.
The other adjustment has been the cadence and time that it takes to get things done. It’s slowing me down and has actually been an unexpected benefit. My attitude prior to this was very urban–very driven by the need for immediate results.
On His Mentors
Obviously, my father is my mentor.
That’s a dad thing; but he was my boss for more than 20 years, so we have an unusual relationship.
He’s famous for his critique. Sometimes I’ll say, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right.” And other times I’ll say, “You’re absolutely right,” but in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Maybe trimming that rhododendron is not the most important priority right now.”
And I look to Craig Williams, whom I really respect, to provide wisdom and adult supervision. Craig has forgotten more about wine than I will ever know.
On Building a New Life in St. Helena
We moved here [on] May 9, 2013, the day they handed me the keys. My wife and I thought this would be a great place to raise a family, so, there was certainly a lifestyle component to it.
The most pleasant surprise has been just how much we love living in St. Helena. Prior to moving here, I never would have thought I would enjoy living in the country, but I love everything about it.
Photography courtesy of Sinegal Estate. This interview was conducted by Alf Nucifora, founder of Leading Wineries of Napa and The Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco. This article was edited and formatted by Franki Hanke.
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