Wine Benefits From Renewed Focus on Vines

William Hill Estate Winery
North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015
Lake County, California, $18

William Hill Estate’s North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent value and a perfect wine for drinking on winter nights.

This relatively low alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.7 percent, is rich enough to be a fine match with hardy soups and stews, and its full berry flavors and smooth finish make it a pleasant drink to enjoy on its own while sitting around the fire.

And don’t be scared off by the price. It frequently goes on sale for much less, bringing it within the $10 range.

The William Hill Estate Winery was founded in 1976 by William Hill, a personable Oklahoman who had never been west of Texas until he went to Stanford University for his MBA degree, according to James Conaway in his book, Napa: The Story of an American Eden.

Although he was a late arrival to the expanding Californian wine industry, Hill was a pioneer who saw the future differently than many of his predecessors. Winemakers who came before Hill held the notion that good wine came from skills of the producers and the best grapes came from the lowland valleys.

In contrast, Hill believed the next big advancement for California wines would come from the vineyard, specifically those on steep hillsides with good slopes, the right microclimates and proximity to water. He chose land that was seen at the time to be less desirable.

Few people at the time thought the mountains were worth farming, but Hill found old redwood stakes and vines left from early settlers on the slopes. The old-timers knew the hillsides were frost free — cold air moves downhill and settles in the hollows — and the difficult growing conditions of the slopes produce more flavorful fruit and better wine, Conaway wrote in his book.

Hill wasn’t just a newly minted graduate degree holder. He had studied viticulture and spent enough time in Burgundy to be convinced that the best vineyards in the world are on the western side of continents near deep, cold oceans where the jet stream moves the cool sea air over the vines, and rocky soils allow good drainage. Hill bought land in partnerships with international investors, developed the vineyards and sold them for a profit.

Finally, he settled into winemaking on the 200-acre estate that bears his name at the foot of Atlas Peak on the Silverado Bench overlooking southern Napa Valley. His wines won awards, and the business grew to producing more than 100,000 cases a year. And when he sold the winery in 1992, William Hill had a reputation for developing premium hillside vineyards and producing highly acclaimed wines, a 2009 article in the magazine Entrepreneur says.

However, the esteem of William Hill Estate Winery didn’t fare well after Hill sold it to spirit giant Allied Domecq. That company and subsequent owners allowed the quality of the wines to slip, and the label was not highly regarded when E. & J. Gallo, the second-largest wine company in the U.S., bought it in 2007.

Gallo has rebuilt the William Hill brand, expanded its offerings and broadened its market nationwide. The wine is once again winning awards.

In recent years, Gallo hired Mark Williams as the winemaker. He spent his high school summers working in the research vineyards at University of California-Davis, where his father was a viticulture professor. He learned an appreciation for the hard work that goes into growing grapes, he said in a 2015 interview with the Capital Press, a weekly newspaper focused on western agriculture.

“It was hot, dirty and physically demanding, and I only saw the manual labor aspect of viticulture,” he said, adding that it was after studying enology in college that he learned to appreciate the adage: Wine is made in the vineyard. Since graduating, Williams has worked in vineyards and wineries around the world including in the Eden Valley in Australia and Edna Valley in California.

For William Hill’s North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, Williams uses grapes primarily grown in Lake County, mostly from the company’s high Snow’s Lake Vineyard in the shadow of the Mayacamas Mountains.

Williams spends a lot of time in the vineyard tasting fruit before and during harvest. Grapes from each vineyard are fermented separately, and Williams blends each lot later to preserve the characteristics of where the grapes were grown, he says on the winery’s website. The 2015 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is 97 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 3 percent other varieties, such as Petit Verdot.

The vineyard’s warm temperatures and volcanic soils contribute to the wine’s layered flavors of ripe plum, blackberry and black cherry, Williams says in the tasting notes.

William Hill North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is widely available, and I have found it on sale for as little as $12.99. Check it out, it’s an exceptional wine for the money. The other William Hill varietal wines also are great bargains and well worth trying.

Editor’s Note: The William Hill Estate Winery was reportedly destroyed by recent wildfires. However, only the sign and some grass burned. Gallo, according to a news release, has given $1 million for fire relief and is matching employees’ contributions two to one.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at

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