Before his passing in 2010, Art Finkelstein had many conversations about the “romance” of wine—or, rather, the lack of romance.
Finkelstein founded Judd’s Hill Winery in 1988 with wife Bunnie, and named it after their son. It’s located in the eastern hills of California’s Napa Valley, and home to a 14-acre hillside vineyard.
“Creating music from an instrument, ceramics from a lump of clay, or a great meal from fresh foods all represent forms of art to me,” Finkelstein said. “But to take grapevines, farm them to produce the highest quality fruit and then turn them into wine…well, this process gets me closer to and more appreciative of whatever higher power there may be out there than anything else.”
But a romantic endeavor? Finkelstein was always amused by that thought.
“Crushing grapes is nasty, grungy, necessity-fulfilling labor,” he said. “Beginning in August and lasting through October…from early morning until after dark…we’re hoisting bins, shoveling pomace, pitch-forking stems, hauling hoses, hand-bucketing must into the press, pumping over, punching down, picking grapes, lugging lugs, towing trailers, sorting MOG [material other than grapes], and getting through a myriad of other toils.
“Also, it’s darn hot out!” Finkelstein added. “The sweltering weather can be brutal, but we must wear long-sleeved shirts with collars up, long pants and heavy gloves to protect ourselves from the masses of bees and yellow jackets which swarm to sip the sugary grape juice covering not only the crusher, but our sticky selves as well.
“Romantic? It’s barely pleasant.”
But don’t misunderstand; Finkelstein was not complaining. Really, he wasn’t. He said that the reason he put himself through the myriad of tiring tasks each harvest season was that he was selfish.
“Once the grapes stop arriving and that last press-load has run into a barrel, a wonderful sensation fills me,” he said. “The understanding that we have taken our hands to the soil to grow luscious fruit, and then from that, employing our senses, have created and crafted a sumptuous wine which gives great pleasure to so many, is the greatest satisfaction I have known.”
It’s a feeling he embraced for more than 30 years—after studying music, ceramics, cooking and architecture. He began making wine at home in the early 1970s, and earned top honors from numerous wine competitions.
His “homemade” wines were getting better with each vintage, and a trip to Napa Valley in 1971 marked the beginning of his pursuit of winemaking as a profession. In 1979, he purchased a vineyard south of St. Helena, where he designed and built Whitehall Lane Winery.
There, he released his first wine in 1980. The estate became quite successful, and as demand grew and production increased, Finkelstein found himself spending more time managing and less time making wine, which was not what he had set out to do. With the winery growing to more than 30,000 cases a year, he and his partner/brother decided to sell Whitehall Lane in 1988.
Believing that smaller is better, he and his wife built their second winery: Judd’s Hill. The idea was to produce no more than 3,000 cases of wine annually, an amount that would allow Finkelstein to enjoy a hands-on approach to every aspect of wine production—yes, even the non-romantic aspects. His first release of Judd’s Hill wine was a 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Our idea is that great fruit makes fine wine, and we want that fact to show through,” Finkelstein said. “To that end, we use oak subtly, keep the alcohols at moderate levels and blend carefully. We let the grape shine, which results in wonderful wines with true varietal characteristics.”
Because of Finkelstein’s reputation as a fine winemaker, many grape growers began approaching him to make small quantities of wine in order to showcase their fruit quality to prospective grape buyers. Soon, enthusiasts were retaining his services to produce small lots of ultra-premium wines. Custom MicroCrush was created, a business that Finkelstein ran along with his winemaking duties at Judd’s Hill.
An accomplished ceramicist, he continued to make fine art ceramics. He also was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle as a master winemaker and chef. But he always said he and Bunnie got the greatest satisfaction out of sharing the family business with their son Judd and daughter-in-law Holly.
“You romantics can keep your ideal visions,” he said with a smile. “I know the harvest has toil, trouble, heat and vermin—and I say, ‘Bring it on!’ Because in the end, it makes me happy.”
It was a philosophy he held until the very end.
Judd’s Hill Winery
2332 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558
Open daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., by appointment only