Vintage Values

It's a popular dream, almost a cliché : Hard-charging businesspeople buy a Napa Valley vineyard and live the good life. But for Garen and Shari Staglin, proprietors of the Staglin Family Vineyard, it is neither a dream nor a cliché — and it's as demanding as it is glamorous.

A scene from the good life: Garen and Shari Staglin go out for an evening at Charlie Trotter's five-star restaurant in Chicago. Getting a table at the always-booked eatery is itself a treat. But the Staglins are given a special menu, complete with meticulously chosen wine pairings, and don't receive a bill. Then the good life gets better: Charlie Trotter spends an evening at the Staglins' home, an 11,000-square-foot Italian-style villa set on a 62-acre ranch in Napa Valley. The couple's annual music festival for mental health, which raised $2.1 million last year alone, finds celebrity chefs in the kitchen, art by contemporary masters like Chuck Close on the walls, and the likes of Boston Philharmonic maestro Ben Zander directing musicians from the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra near the vineyard.

It's a popular dream, almost a cliché: Hard-charging businesspeople buy a Napa Valley vineyard and live a life of grape expectations. But for Garen and Shari Staglin, proprietors of the Staglin Family Vineyard, it is neither a dream nor a cliché — and it's as demanding as it is glamorous. The Staglins are a two-CEO family. Shari left her job as an executive recruiter to run their wine business — which means waking up at 3 AM during harvest season and traversing the country on marketing missions. Garen runs eONE Global, an electronic-payments company with 1,100 employees. Its corporate headquarters is in Napa, which allows Garen, a seasoned venture capitalist and the former CEO of Safelite Glass Corp., to stay close to the grapes, even as he masters Internet competition. "Being a global company makes it easier to be in a location like Napa," he says. "We've got business in Stuttgart, Germany; Singapore; Cincinnati; and Denver. So why not run the show from here?"

The Staglins' kids are in the game too. Daughter Shannon, 23, is training to take over the business from her mother one day, going on sales calls, hosting dinners, even cleaning out the tanks after fermenting. Son Brandon, 30, a Web designer, created and maintains the winery's Internet site. The family factor is a big part of the Staglin formula. "As a family," says Shari, "we can do things with the best quality, because there's nobody telling us to do things in a different way."

THE ROOTS OF SUCCESS
Garen and Shari Staglin bought their vineyard in 1985, but the roots of their fascination with wine reach much farther back. They met as UCLA undergraduates. Garen, who grew up in a family where wine was on the table every night, got Shari enthused about his passion for grapes. When he enrolled at Stanford Business School, he took her on visits to Napa. The two agreed on a dream: Retire from the technology business at 40, and start a new life squeezing grapes instead of squeezing profits out of companies.

When 40 came around, the Staglins had the money to buy a vineyard and leave the high-tech rat race behind. But Garen wasn't ready to give up on Silicon Valley. Nor were he and Shari prepared to defer their dreams of Napa. The solution? Do both. "We were seduced by a new idea," says Shari. "Why should we have to retire to live in this wonderful place?"

Their friends thought they were crazy to buy 62 acres of land when land went for $20,000 an acre, especially when they had no experience in the wine-making business. As it turned out, the Staglins bought into Napa just as the Valley was poised for takeoff. There were fewer than 50 wineries in Napa in 1985. Today, there are more than 300, and land goes for as much as $250,000 an acre. Francis Ford Coppola's Niebaum-Coppola vineyard is just up the road from the Staglins', while Robert Mondavi's Opus One is across the street.

And the neophytes truly have become the toast of wine-making circles. Early on, Shari went back to school to study viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis. During their first harvest, the Staglins, along with friends, picked and stomped the grapes themselves, producing only 75 cases of wine. Today, the Staglin vineyard is one of the few entirely family-owned wineries of its size in Napa, with 50 acres of vines that produce 7,000 cases a year of ultrapremium cabernets and chardonnays.

At last year's Napa Valley wine auction, a barrel of their 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon went for $102,000, making it the top bid in the barrel auction. The 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $85 a bottle. It's a remarkable track record about which Shari is remarkably modest. "The grapes are so good, they're hard to ruin," she says. "It's really hard to make bad wine with good grapes."

LABOR OF LOVE
For the Staglins, wine making is a labor of love — with "labor" deserving equal billing. "Vineyard" is really a fancy word for grape farm, as Shari learns every year during the September harvest. She gets up at 3 AM to make coffee for the workers in the field, who start picking at 4 AM. Meanwhile, daughter Shannon has been known to work 14-hour days as a "cellar rat," doing all of the scut work that wine maker Andy Erickson can hand out, including hosing down the floors to wash away stray seeds and stems.

Their dream house required massive amounts of work too. The Staglins didn't move out to the vineyard until 1993, after they built their country villa. "There was nothing on this hillside. We had to bring electricity, water, heat, the road — it was wilderness," says Garen. "Bats become your friend because they eat mosquitoes."

The couple's worst-case financial projections underestimated the costs of growing grapes and making great wine. In this business, the bugs and viruses don't crash systems — they wipe out crops. The culprits: grape phylloxera and leaf-roll virus. Since the Staglins bought their vineyard, they've had to pull out and replant every acre of vines — 50 acres once and 12 acres twice — at a cost of about $40,000 per acre.

But the biggest chore for the Staglins isn't making the wine; it's marketing it. An economy in free fall is not the most hospitable environment for premium wines. That's why, between October 2001 and May 2002, Shari spent 75% of her time on the road, traveling to auctions, tastings, dinners, and wineshops around the country — a grueling schedule that could compete with that of the most peripatetic venture capitalist.

But the hard work produces outsized rewards. "It's the satisfaction of being the caretakers of this spectacular piece of land and having a sense of timelessness about what we're trying to accomplish," says Garen. Indeed, this is one business where change is mercifully slow. Any tinkering with the wine-making process won't show up in the product for about three years, which makes taking risks a delicate process. It's taken 17 years of harvests for the Staglins to learn which parts of the vineyard ripens in which ways under what conditions. "In high tech," says Garen, "you make a decision every second. Here, you just can't make very many decisions." Which may be the greatest reward of all.

Katharine Mieszkowski (km@salon.com) is a senior writer for Salon.com in San Francisco. Learn more about the Staglin Family Vineyard on the Web (www.staglinfamily.com).

Sidebar: Napa Notebook

Garen and Shari Staglin, proprietors of the Staglin Family Vineyard, have been making wine in Napa for 17 years. Who better to serve as guides for your next visit? Here is an itinerary.

1. Eat with the locals. "Everybody talks about the French Laundry, but nobody goes there, because it's impossible to get a reservation," quips Garen. Skip the five-star restaurants, he urges, and revel in the fries at Taylor's Refresher (www.taylorsrefresher.com). It's an old-fashioned-looking burger stand in St. Helena, with both chili-cheese fries and "fresh local" halibut fish-and-chips on the menu. Shari recommends the ahi burger (ahi tuna with ginger-wasabi mayo and Asian slaw on a bun).

2. Feed your mind. Take a biscuit workshop, or learn how to start a wine cellar at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts (www.copia.org). Created by Robert Mondavi, the $50 million nonprofit center opened last year with an Ivy League's worth of classes and exhibits. (Garen is president of the board; Shari cochaired the fund-raising campaign that launched it.) "It's educational without feeling like a museum," says Garen. One special feature: You can taste bits of the exhibits at "sensory stations."

3. Get outside. Most Napa visitors never get off the main roads or get out of their cars (other than to visit tasting rooms and restaurants). "When you're in your car, looking straight ahead, you miss a whole lot of the beauty of the Valley," says Garen. So be sure to rent a bike and spend an afternoon exploring the side roads that connect Napa's two main drags, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.

4. Don't forget to visit the Staglins. The Staglin Family Vineyard doesn't have a tasting room that's open to the public, but visits to the winery can be arranged by appointment (www.staglinfamily.com).

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