Between Highway 29 and the western hills of Oakville, in the heart of Napa Valley, there is a vineyard called To-Kalon, “the place of highest beauty.” Two roadside signs signal arrival, but like all mythic places its exact shape is hard to define. Six entities claim a portion of the vineyard, without clear agreement as to what that vineyard is. Is it the place Hamilton W. Crabb once called Hermosa? Does it comprise all the lands amassed under the umbrella of To-Kalon Winery, the 19th-century Napa brand Crabb made famous from coast to coast? Is it a contiguous tract of abandoned vineyards left in Prohibition’s wake, snatched up by Martin Stelling and swollen in size in pursuit of the valley’s largest wine empire? Or is it just a trademark, first approved in 1906, forgotten, and resurrected by Robert Mondavi? If it can be a vineyard, is it 359 acres or 1,000? And are all acres within it created equal? Or was it just an old winery, engulfed in flames in 1939—its last smoldering remnants now just particles, strewn amidst Wappo arrowheads, the runoff of forgotten streams, and some of the best soils for Cabernet in the world.
The true story of To-Kalon Vineyard reminds us that there usually isn’t one. There are gutsy first steps brushed over and forgotten, legacies and records lost and found, imperfect memories, imagined tales told and retold until they become truth. There are interpretations. We sell stories, and with reverence usually reserved for religious texts we conflate ancient and profound—this is as true for To-Kalon as it is for Burgundy or Bordeaux. How does one really calculate a vineyard’s borders, anyway? What should be cut-and-dried becomes complicated with fame and rising market value. Even in Burgundy, where vineyards have been examined and mapped more thoroughly than anywhere else on earth, one can see almost 100 years of shifting boundaries, legal and otherwise, since the advent of the AOC system, which was designed precisely to maintain and protect traditional growing regions and practices. Grand and premier cru vineyards have grown in size, absorbing their neighbors to simplify labeling and mollify those once excluded. In Bordeaux, where single vineyards are secondary to brand names, the “vineyard” of a château expands or recedes with ownership. In To-Kalon both models, even if incompatible, are at work.
Facing east toward the Vaca Range in Mondavi's To Kalon I-Block
Beckstoffer Vineyards II v. Robert Mondavi Winery
The 2002 To-Kalon Lawsuits
The trademark allows us protection on the term To-Kalon. It says it’s our right any way we choose to use it. In that context… we can use it for I Block Sauvignon Blanc or we can use it, if we choose, to bottle (it as) a wine from Nairobi.
-Tim Mondavi, quoted in the December 26, 2002 St. Helena Star
In 1999, a number of Napa vintners released single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines sourced from five-year-old vines on Andy Beckstoffer’s 89 acres of To-Kalon Vineyard. They all bore the same designation: Beckstoffer Oakville. With the 2000 vintage, Beckstoffer convinced one of his clients, Schrader Cellars, to label the wine as “Beckstoffer Original To Kalon Vineyard.” Robert Mondavi Winery, which had secured trademark registrations for TO KALON in 1988 and TO KALON VINEYARD in 1994, promptly sued Schrader upon the wine’s release in 2002 for infringement and sought an injunction on sales. Schrader filed a counterclaim, and Beckstoffer immediately responded with his own suit against the winery, claiming that it misled the public by exaggerating the original dimensions of the vineyard and by downplaying its historic significance. Beckstoffer even argued that I-Block, the source of Mondavi’s limited and legendary “To Kalon I-Block” Fumé Blanc, was marketed deceptively—that it wasn’t part of the original To-Kalon! The parties settled out of court the following year. While the exact terms were never made public, Beckstoffer won the right to allow his clients use of the name “To Kalon” on their labels, subject to a maximum case cap. (A maximum, Beckstoffer admits, his vineyard would not likely reach anyway.) From 2003 forward, “To Kalon Vineyard” on a bottle of wine could have two very different implications: for Beckstoffer it is a vineyard designate and indication of geographic origin, subject to TTB rules on label language; for Mondavi it is trademark, theoretically free from TTB oversight. The vineyard name on a bottle from Beckstoffer’s plot signifies a minimum 95% of To-Kalon Vineyard fruit. “To Kalon Vineyard” appeared on Mondavi Reserve Cabernet for the first time in 2011—does it mean the same thing?
The Boss Vineyard
Crabb Era: 1868-1899
Among all the wine producers of California none stand higher in public estimation than H. W. Crabb of Oakville…-Pacific Wine and Spirit Review, May 4, 1891
Hamilton Walker Crabb, an Ohio native born on New Year’s Day in 1828, came to California in 1853 propelled by gold dreams but landed in the dirt instead. For a decade he worked orchards and grain fields in Alameda County, just east of the San Francisco Bay, before moving his family north to Napa Valley on the advice of a pioneering winegrower named John Lewelling. (Lewelling planted his first Napa vineyard in 1864, and his name, unlike Crabb’s, remains alive as St. Helena’s Lewelling Vineyards.) In 1868, Crabb purchased 240 acres of farmland from George Yount’s son-in-law, E.L Sullivan. This parcel, located north of Walnut Drive and west of Highway 29, was part of the original Rancho Caymus land grant awarded to George Yount in 1836, and it would become the core of H.W. Crabb’s To-Kalon Vineyard. Andy Beckstoffer and Robert Mondavi Winery are the principal landholders of this original parcel today.
In the 1860s, grape-growing and winemaking were new and still-negligible activities in Napa Valley. In The Vineyards and Wine of H. W. Crabb, Oakville, CA. and his “To-Kalon” Label (1980), historian William Heintz suggests that only a few hundred acres of grapes populated a valley of wheat country and pastureland. Yet Crabb, spurred by Lewelling, began to cultivate grapevines on his new property. Early efforts with table grapes netted uninspiring returns, so in 1872 Crabb built a winery and made his first wines under the banner of Hermosa Vineyards. By 1878 Crabb had 120 acres under vine, a distillery, and 225,000 gallons of wine reportedly produced in that year alone—almost 15% of Napa Valley’s total production. By the end of the decade, Crabb’s outfit was the third-largest producer of wine in the county, behind Charles Krug and Gottlieb Groesinger.
Like Sonoma’s Agoston Haraszthy, Crabb was an avid experimenter, importer of grapes, and nurseryman. By the end of the 1870s Crabb had curated the largest collection of vinifera grape varieties in the United States. In 1882, the St. Helena Star published his list, including Hamburg, Malbec, Semillon Noir, Pinot, Gamay, Grenache Blanch, Petite Sirrah, Chablis (Sauvignon Vert), Flame Tokay, Petite Verdot, Furmint, Missouri Riesling, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon. There were almost 300 in total, including Crabb’s Black Burgundy, a coulure-sensitive variety later praised by critic Frank Schoonmaker as the best “Burgundy” of California. Long lost, Crabb’s Black Burgundy was not actually Pinot Noir; rather, an 1886 UC Agricultural College Report listed it as a synonym for the Italian Refosco. “Their respective modes of growth and the composition of their respective wines are indistinguishable,” wrote Dr. Eugene W. Hilgard. Hilgard’s comments were echoed by Dr. Harold Olmo in the 1930s, but we now know most “Refosco” in California was mislabeled Mondeuse. Was Crabb’s Black Burgundy really Mondeuse? For a century its identity was clear; now, with only a few faded photographs, tattered drawings, and cellar-notes to draw from, it is not.
Crabb's Black Burgundy
In the 1880s, Napa Valley experienced its first great viticultural boom. Heintz’s research estimates that county vine acreage expanded from 3,500 to 18,000 acres in the years from 1879-1889, and the number of wineries tripled, reaching 165 by the end of the decade. Crabb’s advice and vine cuttings were in high demand, and his winery and vineyards continued to expand. In 1873, Crabb planted vineyards for George Yount’s grandson John Davis, a neighbor whose land pressed westward from Hermosa Vineyards into the Mayacamas Mountains, and Crabb began purchasing Davis’ fruit in 1879 to increase his own production. In 1881 Crabb bought a second parcel of farmland, comprising an adjacent 119 acres south of Walnut Road and north of the Oakville Grade Road, for a sum of $12,000 from Eliza Yount. For Andy Beckstoffer, this second purchase cemented the historical boundaries of To-Kalon, and he offered this declaration in court: “My review of the official maps, property records, and Chain of Title Guarantees confirm that Crabb owned two parcels of land totaling approximately 524 acres. The first parcel was the approximate 359-acre To Kalon Vineyard (comprising the original 240-acre parcel and the 1881 119-acre acquisition), and the second parcel of land was the approximate 165-acre of land up in the hills west of Oakville.” It’s home to Harlan Estate today, but this southwestern parcel was not cultivated with vines during Crabb’s lifetime. Essentially, Beckstoffer argued the modern shape of To-Kalon should only include land owned by Crabb, planted during his lifetime, and used for the production of To-Kalon wines.
With his 2003 declaration, Beckstoffer left no uncertainty: supported by deeds of sale, county maps from the time, and William Heintz’s 1980 historical report The Vineyards and Wine of H. W. Crabb, Oakville, CA. and his “To-Kalon” Label, the 359-acre To-Kalon Vineyard stretched 0.7 miles west of the highway with the Oakville Grade as its southern border. But in Heintz’s report the historian marks the western border “more than one mile” to the west of Highway 29, where the valley meets the hillsides. If true, Mondavi’s 1945 I-Block, 1973 Z-Block, and Monastery Block—arguably the winery’s best tracts of vineyard—would actually be within To-Kalon’s boundaries, contrary to Beckstoffer’s assertion. Today these sections of vineyard, along with a small sliver of Opus One’s holdings and the parcels owned by the Detert and MacDonald families, all lie along the western side of Crabb’s 1868 and 1881 parcels. These were John Davis’ vineyards. Crabb planted the vines; Crabb purchased and used the fruit for To-Kalon wine.
Several years after the settlement, brothers Graeme and Alex MacDonald returned to their family’s 15-acre vineyard adjacent to the original 1868 Crabb parcel. In 2010, they began bottling a small amount of wine under the family name and meticulously digging through old records, deeds, newspapers, and other yellowed relics of the past. In a Napa County Reporter story dated January 25, 1873, the MacDonald brothers found proof that Crabb planted Davis’ first vineyards; winery sales receipts and an interview with Crabb’s winemaker Hans Hansen legitimized the claim that Crabb purchased Davis’ fruit for his wines. More importantly, they found an old deed of sale: in 1891 Crabb actually purchased the 650-acre Davis parcel and its 135 acres of vines. The modern I-Block, Z-Block, Monastery Block, Detert, MacDonald, Opus One… they were all incorporated into Crabb’s holdings in 1891! With the addition of this final parcel Crabb’s vineyard assumed its widest historical boundaries. From 1891 on To-Kalon exceeded 359 acres; the records exonerating Mondavi’s claim of “To Kalon I-Block” were there all along. Yet Mondavi still has the trademark and Beckstoffer still defines the vineyard’s shape and size, so the MacDonald and Detert wines—while satisfying Beckstoffer’s methodology—are unable to carry the “To Kalon” name today.
A page from the 1891 deed of sale, courtesy of Graeme MacDonald.
Meanwhile, Crabb was making moves. In 1886, he renamed his Hermosa operation To-Kalon Wine Company, and his wines soon began to accrue awards and recognition across the United States and throughout the world. From expositions in San Francisco to the World’s Fair in Paris, To-Kalon wines garnered praise and Crabb’s name elevated to the top echelon of American winemakers. His wines—Zinfandel, Cabernet, Sauterne, Burgundy, Claret, Riesling, and others—may have been the first American wines to gain fame and market share in the Eastern United States, too. The 1880s boom times led to bust as oversupply caused the local wine market in San Francisco to come crashing down, so Crabb looked elsewhere. By the early 1890s Crabb had set up To-Kalon sale depots in Washington DC, New Orleans, New York and elsewhere. In Chicago, he built a thirty-foot “wine fountain” to flow with To-Kalon for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and he hired a woman specifically to market his wines to housewives. (Duh.) The To-Kalon Wine Co. itself employed nearly 100 people in Oakville throughout the 1890s. In Crabb’s own words: “The name To-Kalon… means the highest beauty, or the highest good, but I try to make it mean the boss vineyard.” For Crabb, the name To-Kalon unquestioningly represented his vineyard, but it also became his brand.
The 1880s were a decade of great hope and expansion for Napa Valley winemakers, but the industry faced peril by the turn of the century as phylloxera advanced. The Grape Phylloxera in California, Vol. 901-925 claims the insect first appeared in Haraszthy’s Buena Vista vineyards in Sonoma in the late 1850s, and Dr. E. W. Hilgard first documented its appearance in Napa Valley in 1877. While it no doubt spread in the interim, Napa’s vineyards began to rapidly succumb by the early 1890s. A late-1880s report on the devastation in the Yountville district cites 20 of Crabb’s 120 acres of vines as infected, with the John Davis property and other neighbors suffering as well. Crabb himself, in an 1894 address to the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners, cautions: “Fully one-half of the vineyards between Rutherford Station and the Bay have been destroyed by phylloxera.” As the first incidence of phylloxera in California predated its discovery in Europe, it most likely arrived alongside vines from the Eastern US, but the sheer number of European vine cuttings imported by Haraszthy, Crabb, and others in the late 1860s and 1870s may have provided steerage for the bug, hastening its spread. Crabb was nonetheless a vital player in the hunt for viable rootstocks in California. He replanted most of his vineyard to Lenoir (Jacquez) and V. riparia rootstocks, which fared almost as poorly as own-rooted vines, and experimented with Zinfandel as rootstock material. He even had V. rupestris St. George—the rootstock that would prove to be Napa’s salvation—in his collection, but it was George Schoenwald of Napa Valley and John Markley of Sonoma County who would successfully argue for its adoption. Despite Crabb’s great successes in marketing To-Kalon wines, his vineyard operations incurred sizable costs from the incursion of phylloxera and from his own grafting efforts, which failed to prevent its devastation.
By the end of the 1890s, falling domestic wine prices and potential yields ravaged by phylloxera forced Crabb’s hand. He sold off the third (1891) parcel and took out a $41,000 loan from the Goodman bank in Napa in late 1898. Four months later, on March 2, 1899, Crabb suffered a stroke and died. His family, unable to manage repayment of the loan, lost To-Kalon Wine Co. in that same year to E.W. Churchill, a bank officer who took possession through public auction. The Crabb era, and the glory days of the To-Kalon winery, ended with the century.
Hamilton Walker Crabb's original To-Kalon vineyard parcels and the Martin Stelling "extension."
Note: Crabb’s ownership of the 1891 parcel never appeared on any of the official county maps Beckstoffer brought as evidence. At the time, the survey maps were commissioned every 20 years or so, while Crabb’s control of the parcel he purchased from John Davis lasted less than a decade.
20th Century To-Kalon
The Churchill Era: 1899-1939
E.S. Churchill followed Crabb to the grave in 1903, leaving control of the To-Kalon vineyards and winery in the hands of his widowed wife, Mary. Crabb’s winemaker Hans Hansen stayed on board into the Churchill era, and Crabb’s son-in-law continued to manage sales for the company’s Washington DC depot. Despite these threads of continuity, To-Kalon in the Churchill era diminished in national importance and brand recognition. The “To-Kalon Vineyard Company,” as Churchill’s 359-acre block was labeled on a 1915 Napa County map, closed its doors with the onset of Prohibition in 1920. Accusations of bootlegging surfaced during the 1920s, and the winery reopened briefly for bulk sales in 1933. By 1937 the Churchill family had sold off the remainder of To-Kalon’s dwindling stocks of wine, and in 1939 the winery brightened Napa’s night skies, ablaze, the victim of a mysterious fire Bottled Poetry author James Lapsley renders, “anticlimactic.”
During the Churchill era one of To-Kalon’s minor modern landowners, the government, moved in. The USDA took control of Crabb’s experimental plot and continued his rootstock trials. 20 acres in total transferred hands by 1922. This plot occupies the westernmost sector of the 1881 parcel; today it is UC Davis’ Old Federal Vineyard, the northern half of the Oakville Research Station.
While Crabb’s 1868 and 1881 parcels continued to contribute to To-Kalon wines under Mary Churchill, the 1891 parcel’s vineyards were ripped out entirely by its new owners. Railroad tycoon, steel baron and all-around enthusiastic “Capitalist” David Perry Doak eventually bought the third Crabb tract in 1911 and planted it to cherry tree orchards. Doak aspired to create a massive agricultural manor and an elaborate house to match, and in 1917 he acquired over 500 acres from the family of John Benson just south of the Oakville Grade, adjoining the southern border of the 1881 To-Kalon addition. (Benson was a winemaker too; he planted 84 acres of Muscat of Alexandria on his property in 1873, and in 1886 he completed his winery, Far Niente.) For the first time, a portion of Crabb’s original To-Kalon estate was joined in ownership with an adjacent but separate property. Further modern confusion over the boundaries of To-Kalon had been sown.
Doak died in 1921; he lived just long enough to see the Benson winery shuttered by Prohibition and the construction of his palatial mansion finished. Doak bequeathed his 1,700-acre estate to his second wife Frieda Vocke DeHaven, a former mistress he kept ensconced on an Oregon equestrian ranch until his first love got wise. After Doak died, Frieda promptly married Colonel John McGill. Her second marriage, like the first, was cut short by the colonel’s demise in 1929. The widow’s only daughter committed suicide in 1942. Amidst David Perry Doak’s elysian dreams, trammeled by inevitability and grief, Frieda Doak McGill sold her entire estate in 1944—including the 1891 To-Kalon parcel—to a San Francisco businessman named Martin Stelling Jr.
The Stelling Era, 1943-1950
In 1943, Martin Stelling purchased all but 110 acres of the 1868 and 1881 To-Kalon parcels from Mary Churchill. One year later, he bought the McGill Ranch, including the 1891 To-Kalon parcel. Most of Crabb’s original vineyard was now under Stelling’s control, while To-Kalon and the McGill Ranch joined other connected parcels on the west side of Highway 29 under a single owner for the first time since the fragmentation of George Yount’s Rancho Caymus. Stelling had assembled an estate comprising thousands of acres of pristine vineyard land. He was at the forefront of a new wave of winegrowers, the first real surge of new energy in the valley since repeal. He was an early and avid promoter of Cabernet Sauvignon, portending its incredible potential in the Napa Valley some 50 years before it became the valley’s most planted variety. André Tchelistcheff called him the “new oxygen” of Napa Valley.
Stelling did not waste time. He replanted his new acquisitions with mono-varietal blocks—a revolutionary practice at the time—of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Johannisberg Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and others he considered superior. Stelling put Sauvignon Blanc in I-Block in 1945. He bought the old Sunny St. Helena Winery in 1946 from a man named Cesare Mondavi to serve as a co-op, and he wanted to transform the old Benson winery into a world-class château. He was named president of the Napa Grape Growers’ Association in 1947. And Stelling referred to his entire property—including part of the 1868 Crabb parcel, all of the 1881 and 1891 parcels, and the McGill Ranch—by the most famous and historic name associated with the western flank of Oakville: Tokalon Vineyards.
1950 Map of "Tokalon Vineyards," courtesy of Graeme MacDonald
Had Stelling finished his renovation of the old Benson winery and achieved his dream of building a super-premium brand, would he have labeled the wines “To-Kalon?” It’s an open question; like Doak and McGill before him, Stelling’s time on the property was cut short. On the evening of May 7, 1950 the 47-year-old Stelling rammed his car into a pole near Yountville. He died the next day. Stelling’s widow, Caroline, did not share his enthusiasm for Cabernet Sauvignon, for To-Kalon, or for wine. In any case she had estate taxes to pay, and thus the dismantling of Stelling’s property began immediately upon his death. She sold a house, 40 acres of cherry trees, and a few vines from Crabb’s 1891 parcel to Hedwig Detert. (This parcel became two sometime in the 1950s, divided between her son Gunther Detert and her son-in-law, Allen Horton—the latter is the modern MacDonald plot.) In 1951 Caroline Stelling sold another 450 acres, including 148.4 acres of Crabb’s 1881 and 1891 parcels and 156.6 acres of the McGill Ranch, to Italian Swiss Colony. The old Doak mansion went next, sold with 29 acres of the McGill Ranch to the Carmelite House of Prayer. The monks still reside on the property today; the mansion towers over Mondavi’s Monastery Block. By the mid-1950s, Stelling’s vast estate of over 2,000 acres was undone. By the end of the decade, Martin’s son Douglas retained only a sector of the McGill Ranch, including the modern estate vineyards of Far Niente.
Of course, there were two parcels of Crabb’s To-Kalon, measuring 110 acres in total, that Stelling never managed to acquire. One was the USDA’s 20-acre Old Federal Vineyard; the other Mary Churchill sold to Beaulieu Vineyards in 1943. It was known as Beaulieu Vineyard #4 until 1993, when Andy Beckstoffer bought 89 of its 90 acres. (The 90th, BV’s Madame de Pims had sold to build a house.)
The Mondavi Era, 1958-Present
In the early 1950s, Italian Swiss Colony was the largest wine producer in California with vineyards throughout the state, and it was one of the best known and distributed wine brands nationwide. It was, however, just a footnote in To-Kalon’s history. Italian Swiss Colony’s Crabb and McGill parcels sold to Ivan Schoch, a former Stelling foreman, in 1953. Schoch remained a grower, selling his harvests to the owners of Charles Krug, Cesare Mondavi and his sons Robert and Peter. But the Mondavi family wanted the land itself. In Harvests of Joy, Robert Mondavi recalls, “… in 1958, I think it was, we went even further. We purchased a 325-acre parcel of To Kalon for Krug, in the name of the parent company my father had formed: C. Mondavi and Sons.”
The story of To-Kalon, and Napa Valley, could have ended quite differently. In his book Mondavi refers to plans to transform the entire 2,000-acre Stelling estate into a luxury housing and resort complex. Bay Area suburban sprawl threatened to encroach, and the corporatization of the valley had begun. There were discussions of an international airport in Carneros. Large wine companies swallowed smaller ones. United Vintners bought Italian Swiss Colony in 1953 and Inglenook in 1964, tarnishing the latter winery’s sterling reputation for decades to come. Major spirits suppliers were also sniffing around. Connecticut-based Heublein Inc., sole distributors of Smirnoff Vodka and by 1970 the second-largest liquor advertiser in the country, acquired a majority share in United Vintners in 1968. (The following year, the company purchased Beaulieu Vineyards and brought an East Coast-based business analyst-turned-winegrower named Andy Beckstoffer out to California. He actually farmed Beaulieu Vineyard #4—To-Kalon—for Heublein 20 years before buying the parcel from BV.)
And of course, the house of Mondavi suffered its own split. Incompatible egos and long-simmering business disagreements between two brothers finally rolled to a boil and spilled over a mink coat. In 1965 Robert Mondavi was ejected from Charles Krug and left without vineyards or winery; one year later, with Ivan Schoch and Fred Holmes as partners, he purchased 12 acres still held by Douglas Stelling for his own, eponymous project—Robert Mondavi Winery. The winery building and visitor center today occupy these 12 acres, along the northeast corner of Crabb’s 1868 To-Kalon parcel. It was the first new winery constructed on the Napa Valley floor since Louis Martini opened his cellar doors in 1933. Mondavi expanded quickly—Seattle’s Rainier Brewing Company acquired Schoch and Holmes’ shares in 1968, and Mondavi used the jolt of investment to buy more land, adding 230 acres of To-Kalon to the estate in that year alone. But as Robert’s own enterprise grew, family relations decayed. There were lawsuits and countersuits between Robert Mondavi and Charles Krug Winery; Robert sued for uncompensated loss of equity while Krug trotted out antitrust allegations. At the conclusion of a long, dragged-out court battle that pitted brother against brother—their mother Rosa died midway through the proceedings; her ashes were scattered over To-Kalon—the judge sided with Robert and ordered the sale of Charles Krug. The brothers, however, arrived at their own settlement in 1978: Peter bought Robert’s remaining shares in Charles Krug, while Robert received enough funds to buy out Rainier and added Krug’s Oakville holdings to his own. For the first time in its history, Robert Mondavi Winery was a completely family-owned company, and its holdings in Crabb’s original To-Kalon Vineyard and the McGill Ranch were complete.
Robert Mondavi’s impact on the future of Napa Valley and interest in wine appreciation in America cannot be overstated. But his interest chiefly lay in promoting his own brand, not To-Kalon. “When I arrived at Mondavi, I remember them talking about To-Kalon. They thought it might have been an old Indian word.” recalls Nina Wemyss, a historian employed by the winery from the mid-1980s through 2004. She was part of a small but vocal group advocating a revival of Crabb’s legacy. Mondavi’s vineyard manager Charles Williams and the viticulturalist Ben Henry were interested. So was legendary Sacramento grocer and wine merchant Darrell Corti. And To-Kalon’s own Gunther Detert wrote a short amateur history on Hamilton Crabb in the 1970s, playing a pivotal role in resurrecting the name around the winery. Robert and his sons Tim and Michael were finally persuaded, and the winery applied for its first TO KALON mark in 1987. The vineyard name first appeared on white wines, making its label debut with the 1986 vintage of Fumé Blanc Reserve. In the 1995 vintage Mondavi released “To Kalon I-Block Reserve” Fumé Blanc, sourced from 5.29 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, in honor of the vines’ 50th anniversary. “To Kalon Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon appeared for the first time in 1997 and was produced through the 2001 vintage.
The 1970s and ‘80s brought unbridled growth, but by the early 2000s the winery faced a troubled, uncertain future. Mondavi went public in 1993; amid an image watered-down by Woodbridge and Coastal, rising costs, sagging demand, and increasing criticism lobbed at its Oakville wines, Mondavi’s shares were plummeting in the first few years of the new century. In 2004 the family lost control of the board; by the end of the year they lost the company. Constellation Brands orchestrated a takeover of the winery and the vineyards. Nina Wemyss recalls cleaning out her office as Tim Mondavi emptied his—“You’ve got to focus on To-Kalon… I told Constellation that ten years ago.” Tim kept an ember aglow, using a majority of To-Kalon and McGill fruit for his first two vintages of Continuum, but amidst the noise of the Beckstoffer court drama and the company’s own internal implosion, Mondavi’s role in the To-Kalon story was suddenly marginalized. It wasn’t until the 2011 vintage—the same year Andy Beckstoffer predicted in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that "The vineyards are the next Robert Mondavi."—that the winery began bottling its flagship Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon with the words “To Kalon Vineyard.” In the post-Robert Mondavi era, Robert Mondavi Winery now employs its trademarks and trumpets the story of To-Kalon Vineyard more often and eagerly than ever before.
To-Kalon by proxy, 1979-Present
In 1978 Robert Mondavi shook hands with Baron Philippe de Rothschild and founded Opus One, a joint partnership and new prestige wine for Napa Valley that debuted with the 1979 vintage. In 1981, Robert Mondavi Winery sold the partnership its southernmost estate parcel, the 35-acre McGill Ranch Q-Block. Opus One added 100 acres on the eastern side of Highway 29 and, in 2008, finally acquired long-term leasing rights to Mondavi’s K Block, a 48-acre marquee parcel adjacent to Beckstoffer, Mondavi’s I Block, and the MacDonald Estate in the heart of Crabb’s To-Kalon. It stands in stark contrast to its neighbors—the Opus One parcel is planted in the high-density Bordeaux style, a sharp departure from the widely spaced, head-trained old soldiers of I Block. Perhaps the most recognized premium Napa wine in international markets, Opus One downplays the To-Kalon connection in its marketing materials. Direct comparisons with other wines from the vineyard are obscured, in any event, as much of Opus One likely originates across the street.
Opus One vines adjacent to I-Block. View is facing west toward the Mayacamas.
The Beckstoffer Era, 1993-Present
Andy Beckstoffer is the most famous name in grape-growing in Napa Valley, if not all of California. Not a vintner, the lanky Virginia native moved to the valley in 1969 as an employee of Heublein, the spirits giant that counted United Vintners’ Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyards among its wine acquisitions. Beckstoffer helmed Heublein’s Vinifera Development Corporation and managed the company’s vineyard farming prior to buying the division in 1973. He renamed it Beckstoffer Vineyards, and slowly began amassing a portfolio that now includes 1,000 acres in the Napa Valley AVA. The lustrous gem of Andy Beckstoffer’s “Heritage Vineyards” collection is undoubtedly his 89-acre parcel of To Kalon, purchased from Beaulieu Vineyards in 1993. From a pure soil perspective, he prefers his Bourn Vineyard in St. Helena for Cabernet Sauvignon—its gravelly soils are warmer and more well-drained—but in name recognition and historical importance To Kalon is the prime plot. Realm vintner Juan Mercado, who has purchased Beckstoffer To Kalon fruit since 2002, agrees: “I'm always looking for an excuse to drop the vineyard—it's so expensive! But it’s an amazing vineyard, and even the weakest sections produce some phenomenal wine. In poorer vintages you still get the opportunity to make great wine; lesser vineyards may give you great fruit in a year like 2012 or 2013, but not 2011. You get amazing concentration and density—almost like mountain fruit—but it has the roundness and big, rich character of valley floor. The raw material is insane!”
When Beckstoffer bought the property, he recalled Tchelistcheff’s advice—get diversity through clones of Cabernet, not through other varieties. The vineyard was dying then; with the high costs of replanting looming Beaulieu sold the prized but phylloxera-ridden parcel to Beckstoffer. He ripped out the Merlot and Petit Verdot and replanted his To Kalon in 1994 with various Cabernet Sauvignon clones, complemented by a few short rows of Cabernet Franc along its western border.
As of 2015, 20 buyers purchase fruit from Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard. All but one (Harlan Estate?) must produce a vineyard-designate wine from the property. And they are forbidden from adding Oakville AVA to their labels: “Vineyard designate is what everyone is going toward. You know who the grower is, where the ground is. You say Rutherford or Napa Valley, you get all sorts of stuff. The last peel of the onion is vineyard designate.” In preservation of that sense of place (and control over the economics of farming grapes), Beckstoffer strictly defines the vineyard practices: “We don’t let them tell us how to farm and we don’t tell them how to make wine.” Yields are left up to individual clients, but there is a minimum tons/acre that vintners pay for regardless of how much fruit they drop. And the per-ton price is sky-high. Estimating 63 cases/ton, Beckstoffer’s model sets the price per ton at 100x the retail price of the bottle and sets a minimum retail price of $175/bottle. Paul Hobbs sells his rendition for about $450. Do the math for 89 acres but don’t be alarmed; in our hunger for authenticity and terroir we’ve nearly sanctified the vineyard, so why be surprised when a grower understands the value of the ground underneath his feet?
Going to Market
Add good cheer to the Thanksgiving festivities with To-Kalon Wines—the choicest products of the best California vineyards—delivered to you just as they come from the winery in California, purity and quality guaranteed.-To-Kalon Wine Company ad in the Nov. 24, 1903 Washington DC Evening Star
In his countersuit against Mondavi, Beckstoffer claimed that the winery misled the public (and the trademark office) by deemphasizing the historical significance of the To-Kalon name. But what was its significance? Today winegrowers who want to be taken seriously think in terms of vineyard über alles, but in the 19th century winery brand was a much more important motivator for sales and prestige. Think of the fin de siècle Champagne posters—beautiful women, flowers in their hair, society parties, inebriated yet genteel good times, nary a picture of a vine or vineyard—or the 1855 Bordeaux Classification. Korbel (or To-Kalon) Champagne. No one in Barolo dreamed of bottling an individual cru for the sake of vineyard expression. Domaine-bottling had yet to appear in Burgundy, but one can argue a Côte d’Or commune was more a brand than an appellation (which didn’t exist until the 20th century anyway) for the négociants. Yes, Crabb had an amazing expanse of vineyard land, but any historical significance his winery cemented in place was likely as much a product of his business acumen and his network of To-Kalon wine depots across the major markets of the United States. In one sense Mondavi and Beckstoffer are, equally, upholding the two sides of Crabb’s To-Kalon legacy.
The Last Families of To-Kalon Vineyard
Detert and MacDonald
To-Kalon began as one man’s vision, but today it is very much a corporate enterprise. Mondavi and the TO KALON trademarks are now owned by New York-based Constellation Brands, the world’s largest premium wine producer and the biggest beverage alcohol company in the United States. Opus One is a joint partnership between Constellation and the Rothschilds. The state university controls its Old Federal Vineyard. Beckstoffer’s enterprise is family-owned, but with more than 3,600 acres of wine grapes in northern California this is not a mom-and-pop shop. There remain only two minor parcels within Crabb’s To-Kalon that operate on a small, family-run scale: the adjoining 25-acre Detert plot and the 21-acre MacDonald plot. Gunther Detert’s grandsons Tom and John Garrett and Bill Cover made the transition from grape-growers to winemakers in 2000 with the debut of Detert Family Vineyards, while Allen Horton’s grandsons Graeme and Alex MacDonald released their first wine under their own name in 2010.
Martin Stelling originally planted Cabernet Franc on the Detert estate in 1949, and from Gunther Detert forward the family kept the variety, even as the valley around them turned ever more monochromatic with Cabernet Sauvignon. Next door, the cherry trees were uprooted and Cabernet Sauvignon went back into the ground in 1954; one half-acre of these old vines still live on the MacDonald property. Robert Mondavi had long-term contracts with both vineyards, and the Detert and MacDonald cousins continue to sell the bulk of their fruit to the company.
Gunther Detert was instrumental in incubating interest in Crabb’s legacy at Robert Mondavi Winery in the 1970s and 1980s; today, Graeme MacDonald has inherited his curiosity and is as much historian as vineyard manager. He lives with his wife and newborn in an old, un-airconditioned, 650-sq. ft. cottage among the vines, a two-minute walk from Mondavi’s I-Block. He farms his vineyard by hand—himself—heeding his agricultural forbearers a generation removed, biodynamic principles, and the “do-nothing” farming teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka more than the flexible sustainability of his neighbors. In (exhaustively) performing the historical research necessary to protect the To-Kalon heritage, he is at once safeguarding and refining a story revived by Detert, William Heintz, Nina Wemyss, Robert Mondavi, and Andy Beckstoffer, while producing a wine that may never carry its name. Ironically, when used by Mondavi the MacDonald and Detert fruit is sold as aTo Kalon Vineyard wine, but for their own products Mondavi’s trademarks prohibit them from labeling it as such.
1954 Cabernet Sauvignon vines at the MacDonald estate
The Dumb Luck of Hamilton Walker Crabb
In the Wines and Vines of California (1889) Frona Eunice Wait lauds Hamilton Crabb as a winemaker without peer in California. Did Crabb, an Ohioan who first cultivated table grapes, oranges and chestnuts on his property in Oakville, also have a sixth sense for winegrowing? He was one of the first men in Napa Valley to produce a wine labeled “Cabernet,” half a century before Martin Stelling loudly promoted for its propagation up and down the valley floor. It was but one wine among many (Sauterne, Chablis, Sherry, Angelica, Blackberry Wine, Claret, Zinfandel Claret, Sweet Muscatel, Extra Dry Champagne, Riesling, Chasselas, etc.), yet his land was perfectly situated for growing the grape. It’s prime benchland terrain. The perimeter of his original vineyard—including the 1868 and 1881 parcels and the planted section of the 1891 plot—is remarkably consistent with modern maps of the alluvial fan beneath it. Again: the gravelly strata that fan out eastward from the base of the Mayacamas are almost completely congruent with and nearly identical in shape to the original To-Kalon Vineyard. The marine-derived sediment, once swept along the veins of seasonal creeks, grows finer toward Highway 29 and the Napa River. There are variations throughout To-Kalon—Beckstoffer cedes a little more gravel amidst otherwise uniform soils to the western end of his vineyard—but overall it is of very high quality for the late-ripening, warm soil-loving Bordeaux grape. Tim Mondavi remembers his father telling him that Louis Martini Sr. proclaimed it as one of the best areas in the valley for Cabernet. The biggest success during Crabb’s lifetime was (Crabb’s) Burgundy, but the future pivoted toward Bordeaux. Things change.
Addendum: The Oakville Research Station
“This might be the most important vineyard anywhere in the world,” proclaims Michael Anderson, emerging from a panoply of classic rock and the spartan garb of a dusty field office into the hard July sun to survey his surroundings—the UC Davis Oakville Station Old Federal Vineyard, a 20-acre parcel sandwiched between Mondavi’s Monastery Block, the Oakville Grade and Walnut Drive, at the heart of Crabb’s To-Kalon Vineyard. “But it was some of the poorer ground Crabb had.” Anderson explains: the vineyard, part of Crabb’s 1881 acquisition, was the site of his rootstock experiments. It’s full of poorly draining clay rather than gravel—a fact not likely lost on Crabb, who chose not to commercially cultivate on this patch of land. But where else in the world is an experimental plot located on an appellation’s most hallowed (and most expensive) ground? The rootstock experiments of the past have given way to more modern observations—microclimate irrigation trials, for instance, in which Anderson alters the amount and timing of drip irrigation for every single vine—but the vineyard’s legacy endures. Genomics inform a breeding program at the station, allowing scientists to look for desirable genes in new grape crossings immediately instead of waiting years for desirable physical traits to manifest. New clones of Cabernet Sauvignon and old heritage selections of Zinfandel are studied. In 2008, the widespread viral disease “red blotch” was first identified here, having long masqueraded as leafroll in vineyards from Texas to Canada. In the 1960s, Dr. Harold Olmo conducted many of his groundbreaking trials on Chardonnay clones at Oakville Station, and 30 years of his research into an old Cabernet Sauvignon selection from Kunde in Sonoma Valley culminated with the release of the “Oakville selection” (FPS 02) from this station in 1965. The original budwood for Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon came from the Oakville Station, and many of the modern trellising techniques utilized in Napa Valley are likewise the product of UC Davis’ research here.
Of all the various experimental stations in the State, the one established at the Tokalon vineyard, Oakville, not many years ago, is the oldest and most extensive, and I am greatly pleased with the results obtained.
-George Hersman (Husmann), Govt. Dept. of Viticulture
(Dec. 2, 1905 Pacific Rural Press)
Prior to E. W. Churchill’s death in 1903, the new proprietor of To-Kalon set aside the 20-acre Old Federal Vineyard for further use in rootstock trials managed by George Husmann and the USDA. The government continued Crabb’s viticultural experiments even through Prohibition, finally buying the vineyard outright from Mary Churchill in 1922. (Presumably on account of the sudden loss of legal income!) A 1930 vineyard map shows blocks of phylloxera-resistant mother vines and grafted direct producers dating to 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1928. By the mid-1940s, however, Napa vintners were petitioning Congress to donate the land to the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology in order to propel research in the valley, but government inaction forced a search for alternatives. In 1947 the group of vintners, led by John Daniel Jr. of Inglenook, purchased another 20-acre slice south of the Oakville Grade from Martin Stelling and donated it to the university. Congress finally followed suit in 1955, entrusting the USDA vineyard to UC Davis. The modern Oakville Station therefore comprises two vineyards of 20 acres each: the Old Federal Vineyard, which was a part of Crabb’s original To-Kalon Vineyard, and the South Station, from Stelling’s McGill Ranch.
There are only a few rare examples of the Old Federal Vineyard’s fruit available in the market. Anderson sells Cabernet Sauvignon for around $7,500-8,000 per ton to select clients, including Silverado Vineyards, who produces an “Oakville Station” vineyard designate wine. In the 2012 vintage, Cornerstone Cellars introduced a vineyard designate Merlot.
Special thanks to the following individuals for their time, materials, and research assistance: Graeme MacDonald, Alex MacDonald, Nina Wemyss, Andy Beckstoffer, Carissa Mondavi, Tim Mondavi, Michael Anderson, and Mark de Vere MW. Additionally, without the written work and prior interest of William Heintz and Gunther Detert this account would not have been possible.
Great read and great information on this storied vineyard! Thank you!