Winston Hill: Where Our Story Begins

By Rich Frank 

Before the Hill 

In the late 1980s I was presiding over the motion picture and television production at Disney, in my role as President of Disney Studios. I had grown to love the Napa Valley from weekend excursions to wine country. I felt like Napa was the perfect getaway from all the noise of Hollywood. It was a short flight and a short drive, but it felt like you were worlds away. Since you weren’t losing a day to travel, the time spent was so much more fulfilling. It was at this time that I began to think about owning a vacation home in Napa Valley. 

I came across a beautiful Tudor style home built in the 1930s, quietly nestled in a grove of trees above the Silverado Trail. Planted beside the house was about ten acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. I wanted the house, but there was a caveat: if you bought the house, you had to buy the entirety of the hill, including the field of planted fruit. I just really liked the charm of the property, and the view was spectacular; the same view that I had grown to love when I would first visit the Valley and stay at Auberge du Soleil. The fact that the house came with a hillside vineyard was really just a bonus to me at the time. There was already an offer on the property, but I made one anyway. When the first offer fell through, the house and vineyard became mine. I named the property Winston Hill, after my black and white English Springer Spaniel, Winston, who loved running and chasing birds in the vineyard, but never catching a single one. 

Winston the dog on Winston Hill in the 1990s

When word got out that the hillside property in Rutherford had a new owner, I started to receive a number of phone calls from wineries in the neighborhood inquiring about the availability of my grapes for purchase. That was the first time I thought to myself that there might be something really special here. I decided to continue the existing grape contracts, but kept enough fruit for myself to make a small amount of wine to give to family and friends at the holidays.

A Partnership is Formed 

I remember I was eating dinner at Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena, and I asked the waiter if he could recommend a local winemaker that I might be able to talk to. He suggested I try Koerner Rombauer, who had a winery on the Silverado Trail. Koerner Rombauer was a winemaker and proprietor of his own winery, Rombauer Vineyards, who had found success making Cabernet and Chardonnay. I went to meet Koerner at his winery the next day, and though he wasn’t in, the staff directed me to Mr. Rombauer’s house, also on the winery property. I walked over and knocked on the door, he invited me in, and we spent the next few hours talking about Napa Valley, wine, and business, in between watching the 49ers game on television.  Koerner’s advice to me was “sell your grapes and keep your day job”. 

Ultimately, I disregarded that advice and decided to pursue a partnership with Koerner.  In 1992, we bought Kornell Champagne Cellars on the property which housed the Historic Larkmead Winery in Calistoga. The following year, the first Cabernet from Winston Hill, under the label “Frank Rombauer”, was created. I was the proprietor, overseeing all financial decisions while remaining President of Disney Studios, and Koerner was Winemaker and General Manager, overseeing production and sales of the wine. On weekends, I would come up to the Valley and work with Koerner to get our winery up and running and to learn about the business, then return to Hollywood by Monday morning.  

Historic Larkmead Winery built in 1884

In 1998 after expanding the Winston Hill vineyard, we added an exclusive Cabernet blend to our portfolio of wines which bared the vineyard’s name.  However, what transpired in 2000 was devasting and unforeseen.  Fire tore through our historic winery property, burning for three days as firefighters from across Napa County tried to put out the flames. The aftermath was a period of rebuilding, and Koerner and I decided it was time to part ways as business partners, but we remained the best of friends. I rebuilt the damaged portions of the winery, with the historic stone building still intact, and that is when Frank Family Vineyards was born.  

Today, more than two decades later, the very best fruit from the original 10 acres of Winston Hills still goes into our flagship proprietary red wine blend.  

A Place Unlike Any Other  

Our winemaker Todd Graff, who’s recently completed his 17th vintage with us, loves Winston Hill for its terroir and beauty. The gently climbing hillside vineyard on the eastern banks of the Vaca Mountain Range experiences some of the longest hours of sunshine throughout Napa Valley. But the beauty is in the cool nights, due to the site’s elevation, that allows our grapes to retain their natural acidity while developing sugar and flavor during the growing season. This microclimate in addition to the vineyard’s well-draining soil is the secret to our fine wines. 

“Due to the rocky and volcanic soils, Winston Hill is self-balancing, meaning natural concentration, structure and texture in the Cabernet Sauvignon. This vineyard produces wines with bones, muscle and body, no blending from other sites is necessary.” – Todd Graff, Winemaker & General Manager 

The summit of Winston Hill at sunset in summer 2017

Today Winston Hill is the origin of five wines in the Frank Family collection including the highly acclaimed Patriarch and our flagship Winston Hill. The hillside that I fell in love with so many years ago sits on 107 acres, 25 of which are planted vineyards dedicated mainly to Cabernet Sauvignon.  

Winston Hill in combination with Frank Family’s other estate vineyards named for my and Leslie’s grandchildren, all bring a special personality and characteristic to our wines. But for us, nothing is more quintessentially Frank Family than the wines crafted from grapes grown on our first property. It is here that the intersection of sunshine, mountain breezes, and soil crafts the perfect sip that can be savored like a moment in time.  

In the mornings, I now take our German Shepherd, Magnum, for his walk around Winston Hill.  I love to watch the vines transform over the growing season, watch when bud break happens, and when veraison sets in. It brings back such fond memories to now watch as Magnum runs and chases birds in the vineyard, never catching a single one.    

German Shepherd, Magnum running through the vines of Winston Hill in summer 2019

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