Family-owned and continuously farmed for over 75 years in Napa Valley, the story of the Hendry Ranch is legendary. I recently had the pleasure of meeting George O. Hendry, the son of Margaret and George W. Hendry, to get a first-hand look at how one family has managed the business of making really good wine. Let me just say it was by far the most in-depth, scientific, and interesting graduate seminar on the chemistry of winemaking/tasting that I have ever attended outside of a classroom. [Pictured in the gallery is Kevin standing in front of the photograph of Hendry Vineyards autographed by George O. Hendry above our tasting wall at Teller Wines.]
Margaret Munn and George Whiting Hendry married in 1932. George, an agronomy professor, divided his time between teaching at the University of California campuses of Berkeley and Davis. After the birth of their sons George O. and Andrew, George and Margaret purchased the Hendry Ranch, and moved to Napa. Portions of what is today the Hendry Ranch were some of the first vineyards planted in Napa. For Napa, the planting boom of the late 1800s was followed by an equally severe bust. In this case it was an insect pest called phylloxera, a native North American insect that feeds on grapevine roots. The next blow to viticulture in Napa was even more serious, however. Prohibition began in 1920, and ended in 1932, but its effects lasted much longer. In 1890, vineyard acreage in Napa surpassed 20,000 acres, and that number was not reached again until 1974.
George W. was a teacher, a photographer, historian and adventurer. His professional interests included wheat and other grain crops, root vegetables and beans. He had a talent for combining his interest in history and travel with his vocation. In the 1920s, George traveled around the world documenting and studying agricultural practices in many different countries. Another of one of his hobbies was locating, documenting and researching the buildings associated with the earliest Spanish settlement of California. By studying the composition of the plant material found in the old adobe bricks, he was able to document the earliest varietals of wheat in California, and study the existence and spread of wheat pests.
Tragically, just 5 years after they had purchased the property, George W. Hendry died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. The ranch was left to Margaret, and their two sons George O. [pictured in the gallery with me on October 7] and Andrew. For the next 30 years, the resilient and resourceful Margaret singlehandedly maintained and managed the ranch, raised her two children, and cared for her ailing father. During that time, she oversaw the farming of grapes, prune-plums, walnuts and cattle. In addition, she took-in boarders at the house, and for a time taught in the local school to make ends meet through tough times. She made certain that both her sons understood the privilege and responsibility of a good education. Her eldest, George O., graduated from U.C. Berkeley, and her younger son, Andrew, from U.C. Davis.
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George O. Hendry grew up on the ranch and learned to tend the goats, the cows, the prune orchard and the grapevines. After two years in the Navy, he also completed a master’s degree. Following graduation, George began working for a company called the Cyclotron Corporation. (Cyclotrons are a type of particle accelerator primarily used for the production of radio isotopes used in medical imaging.) Over the next 40 years, George distinguished himself as a cyclotron designer at various companies including his own. Many of his designs and innovations are in use in cyclotrons and hospitals around the world. George’s latest innovative cyclotron design was completed in 2008, and he continues to consult for the company he founded. (One of the first things George said before we started touring the winery was that he still has his day job!)
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a profound change in Napa’s wine industry. The price of grapes was rising rapidly, the focus of wineries was shifting from quantity to quality, and vineyard plantings were on the rise. With his engineering earnings, George built a reservoir, and in 1973, ‘74, and ‘75, replanted most of the ranch to vineyard. Some of these plantings returned vineyard to land that had been fallow for nearly 100 years.
In the 1970s, Robert Mondavi was a rising star in Napa’s wine industry, and was soon buying the grapes from the Hendry ranch. By the late '80s Mondavi was buying all of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and dividing the Cabernet Sauvignon with Opus One. After 50 years of growing, the Hendry Ranch was beginning to develop a reputation for its grapes. With the 1970s plantings now well established, and the vineyard on firm financial footing, George began to make wine. Initially, George grafted only Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, but with time, and with a growing understanding of the ranch’s potential, George regrafted 20 acres of the Zinfandel to Chardonnay, and 20 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon. The first vintage in the Hendry label was 1992, and included Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel. Over the next 10 years, George sold smaller and smaller quantities, and crushed more for his own wines. George’s cyclotron business partner Jeff Miller, and neighbor Susan Ridley became partners in the winery business, and helped with its expansion. Today, Hendry Ranch totals 114 vineyard acres and is divided into 49 blocks. George’s nephew, Mike (Andrew’s son), has been managing the vineyard full time since 2001, after having spent summers working the family ranch and obtaining degrees in physics and engineering. A new winery building was constructed and now the bottling line is also on the property.
If you have not tasted any Hendry wines, you should do so immediately. Hendry makes 21 different wines, some of which are not available outside of California. At Teller, we have traditionally carried the big reds- Block 28 Zinfandel, Block 7 & 22 Zinfandel, the Primitivo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a couple of the whites – the Pinot Gris, and HRW Screen Porch White.
As many family stories go, Hendry is one of grit, determination, hard work, and respect for the land and for making great wines. We are proud to have represented the Hendry brand for fourteen years.