Napa’s Salvestrin Family Carries the Legacy of Dr. Crane

The Salvestrins, now making top-flight Cabernet, have stewarded their piece of the historic Dr. Crane Vineyard since Prohibition

Published Oct. 20, 2020

Napa has a long history of immigrant families coming to the valley and helping to fuel the wine industry. Names such as Mondavi, Gallo and Martini are well-known to many wine lovers. The Salvestrin name is one that probably isn’t, but should be.

Rich Salvestrin’s grandparents fled Italy and the ravages of World War I to arrive in St. Helena in the 1920s. In 1932 they purchased a part of the ranch started by George Belden Crane in 1858. The property has had a continuously operating vineyard ever since, and is considered one of Napa’s most historic vineyard sites. At its peak, the 300-acre estate had about 100 acres of vines, and today there are still 50 acres spread among four owners, including Andy Beckstoffer.

Originally planted to a mix of Alicante Bouchet, Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah and others, Dr. Crane Vineyard is now squarely Cabernet Sauvignon country, as its Bale clay and loam soil produce rich, mineral-edged wines that cellar well. Both Salvestrin’s grandparents and parents farmed the land, benefiting from the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 to start selling grapes to the Napa Valley co-op and begin building a small family business.

Salvestrin, 56, owns 19 acres, nearly all of it under vine, along with Dr. Crane’s original house, which has been restored. Under his stewardship, the vineyard has been replanted, twice, thanks to the phylloxera infestation of the late 1980s, and has been converted from the original head-pruned vines to a more modern trellis system that provides ample shade on the fruit to temper the Napa Valley sun. In 1994, he stopped selling his grapes and started his family wine label.

“I figured the only way to keep it in the family was to increase the value of and build the business further,” he says. “I call us owner/operators. It’s just my wife and I, Natalie and one other employee doing the work. I still run the tractor.”

Natalie is winemaker Natalie Winkler, 33, who joined Salvestrin in 2017, coming over from Westwood, a Sonoma-based Pinot Noir producer. It’s an unusual progression, since winemakers tend to go off and chase Pinot Noir after working with other grapes first.

“I had always dreamed of working in Bordeaux, and I just really wanted to make Cabernet,” she says. “This was just too good an opportunity to turn down.”

“Winemaking is secondary for me,” says Salvestrin. “I did it in the beginning, but as we grew it became a lot to handle. I started with 160 cases in 1994 and now we’re at 6,500. The vineyard is what I know like the back of my hand. So having someone passionate and knowledgeable who can help you get to the next level is key, and Natalie is helping us do that.”

Since joining, Winkler has helped spearhead a shift to fully organic grapegrowing, though the property has always been farmed sustainably.

“My father didn’t even have herbicides,” says Salvestrin. “And I grew up watching him work that way. So as I replanted I tried to mimic that approach even as we changed trellis and irrigation while we replanted. I think one of the changes over that time is it’s a lot more natural now. We approach crop loads and balance not by aiming for less tons per acre, but the right tons per acre.”

“Lower yields don’t automatically mean better wines,” says Winkler. “It depends on the soil, and vigor as well. Rootstock, clones, everything is playing a part.”

While most of the plantings now in production are relatively young (the oldest date to 1995), Salvestrin is farming for longevity.

“If it’s healthy and in balance, we want to keep going with it,” he says.

The estate Cabernet usually contains a dollop of Merlot. It’s aged for 22 months in a nearly equal mix of new and neutral oak barrels. The Salvestrin Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Dr. Crane Vineyard 2001 marked the first vintage vinified on site after Salvestrin built his own facility. Today it’s showing a supple and stylish profile of mature red and black currant fruit, with touches of loam and cedar. There’s a late mineral tang, too, that shows consistently in the wine over time. The 2017 version is a sleek and taut wine with warm cassis, tobacco and mineral notes. At $70 per bottle, it’s one of the better relative values in ageworthy Napa Valley Cabernet.

The top bottling here is the Three D Cabernet, which debuted in the 2003 vintage. Named in honor of both the family’s three daughters and the original three barrels that were produced that year, the cuvée is selected from the vintage’s best lots and aged for 34 months in all new oak. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Dr. Crane Vineyard Three D is very focused, with sanguine and iron notes running in unison with red and black currant fruit. The iron note helps to really stretch out the wine on the finish. A barrel sample of the 2018 shows the vibrancy of this nascent vintage, with lovely energy driving a super fine-grained currant fruit and iron profile. The current release 2016 (95 points, $150) will easily age for a decade or more.

The Salvestrin estate is located right on the west side of Highway 29 in St. Helena, but as soon as you pull into the narrow driveway and pull up to the house, you feel the busy buzz of the valley melt away. A mix of olive, fruit and old oak trees add to the allure of the property, which features a small B&B and tasting room open by appointment.

“We’re living the life,” says Salvestrin. “I get to farm the land my parents and grandparents passed down, while watching my three daughters grow up here. What else could I ask for?”