Michael and Arlene Bernstein

Michael Bernstein

Michael Bernstein and his wife Arlene founded and owned Bernstein Vineyards (1964-1983) and Mount Veeder Winery (1973- 1983).

You were the first to label a wine with the Mount Veeder designation. What prompted that?

In comparative tastings, I always felt that wines from Mount Veeder were distinctive from all other areas - and should have their own appellation. But in the early 1970’s all we had was “Napa Valley”. And we certainly weren’t in a valley! The mountain has always attracted independent minded people, with a real tradition for following our own instincts. So we sort of did an end run around the labeling laws. Instead of identifying our wine as “Napa Valley”, we labeled our 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon “Napa County - dash - Mount Veeder”. This is how we stayed in compliance, but also described the true origin of our wines. Eventually, after Napa Valley sub-appellations like Stags Leap and Oakville were established, the government recognized Mount Veeder, too.

Mount Veeder was the first region in California to grow Petit Verdot. How did that happen?

Barney Rhodes, who planted Heitz’ Martha’s Vineyard, once said that the Bordeaux wineries had nothing to fear from California, unless we discovered Petit Verdot. When I heard that, I hunted all over the state for Petit Verdot, and eventually found that there were four little vines, at U.C. Davis. No one else was interested, so Professor C.J. Alley was kind enough to give me budwood, which I kept collecting over two years, enough to graft 500 vines in 1975. Once we planted them up on Mount Veeder, our neighbors asked for cuttings. We gave them away for years to many Napa Valley wineries, to the point where our own supply was scarce. Most of the Petit Verdot grown in Napa Valley today originated from our vineyard on Mount Veeder.

Mount Veeder Winery Label 1973

And thus began the classic blending of Bordeaux varieties - Meritage - now used by most prestigious Napa Valley Cabernet producers?

Arlene and I were keen to establish the traditional chateau model for our winery. No one else in California had pursued this tack, but the few of us up on the mountain kept trying new things, with a real “can-do” spirit. So we just planted, not knowing what would grow. By 1975 we had all five red Bordeaux varieties growing on our vineyard, the first in the state. Our Cabernet Sauvignon 1977 didn’t say it on the label, but it was made from all five of these grapes, also the first in the state.

It made a lot of sense for us. The tannins on Mount Veeder are assertive. I was fining like crazy - a dozen egg whites per barrel. There were times when I felt I should open a chicken ranch. I believed - and it turned out to be true - that blending the five varieties would make for more agreeable texture and a higher quality, more complex wine. When Christian Moueix was exploring the idea of a Napa Valley counterpart (Dominus) to Petrus in Bordeaux, he visited us on Mount Veeder to see how the five grapes adapted to California. I had vinified and bottled the varieties separately, so it was a good way for him to decide what to plant.

Is it true that the first American wine futures were Mount Veeder wines?

Yes. Arlene and I purchased the property just up the road and planted it to Cabernet, but at first we couldn’t be sure of the quality. So we decided to keep that lot apart, and sell it separately. We harvested in the fall of 1978, and got paid in January 1979. The futures - 400 cases - were sold to four retailers around the country , 100 cases each. The retailers sold the futures to their customers, and two years later we were able to deliver the wine. They got a deal, the wine turned out to be as good or better than the previous vintage. By the way, it was Robert Mondavi who suggested the name “Sidehill Ranch” for this wine. If you ever see a bottle of Mount Veeder Winery Sidehill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 snatch it up, it is a real collectors’ item.

Another fun little story is how we became the first winery in California, I think, to use acrylic fiber nets for bird protection, which protects the grapes without harming the birds. There weren’t many vineyards on the mountain in the early 1970’s, so the birds were having a feast on us, particularly. I found a bird net supplier in France. It really helped when more vineyards were planted on Mount Veeder, because the birds no longer zeroed in on us, and we were able to stop using the nets.

Michael and Arlene Bernstein