Storybook Mountain Vineyards: a Life in Zinfandel

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Time to raise a glass - it’s National Zinfandel day! This seductive varietal, with its powerful dark fruit, rich spices and elegant tannins, has charmed winemakers and drinkers since the early wine days in California. When we think of Zin, its story and its captivating charm, it’s hard not think of Storybook Mountain and Jerry Seps. His vineyards were part of the early winemaking pioneers in Napa Valley, and today, Seps and his family are creating highly awarded Zinfandels, raising the bar (as well as awareness) for this Americana grape. 

The property was originally planted in the 1880s by two brothers from Germany, Adam and Jacob Grimm. They dug three deep caves in the side of the hill and named the winery The Grimm Vineyards and Wine Vaults. Jacob Grimm, the Winemaker, became part of the “the three Jakes of Napa Valley,” which included fellow winemaking pioneers of the time, Jacob Beringer and Jacob Schram. When Prohibition hit, Jacob continued to make sacramental wines, but later abandoned the winery in the 1940s. In 1964, the property and vineyards burned in the tragic Hanley Fire. After that, it remained empty, charred ruins amid wild brush and weeds. 

That was the scene Jerry and his wife Sigrid found the place in 1976. But even then, it was hard to miss the stunning beauty of the property. Seps left his job as a university professor in Los Angeles and moved his family to Napa. He refers to this point in his journey as “ground zero.” There was no vineyard, no winery, just a few caves, and clean, open slate on which to build his dream. In the 70s, when everyone was planting Chardonnay, he chose instead to listen to the  land. He looked at the soils, climate, exposure and topography and consulted Andre Tchelistcheff, who told him, “There is no better place to grow Zinfandel.” So he went all in and planted 40 acres to Zin. 

To honor the property’s history and the Grimm brothers, they renamed the winery Storybook Mountain. In 1979, prior to his first commercial vintage, Seps realized he would need to learn to make wine. He contacted Joseph Swan, who was the foremost producer of Zinfandel in California at the time, and offered to work for free if Swan would teach him everything he knew. In this way, Seps learned the fundamentals, and in 1983 he released the first vintage from Storybook Mountain Vineyards. 

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From his early days as a sommelier at the Ahwahnee Hotel, Seps’ had developed a classic European sensibility that ultimately influenced his winemaking. This approach, combined with the cooler-climate conditions of his vineyard, results in wines with beautiful structure and elegance. His Zinfandels show refined grace with long, complex flavors, bright acids and supple tannins to age well over time.  

Seps’ passion and dedication, in the vineyards and cellars, transformed the once abandoned land into a place of world-class wines. Within a few years, his wines were winning medals. Parker named Storybook Mountain as one of the “Six best Zinfandels in the world” and Wine and Spirits Magazine has repeatedly listed Storybook Mountain Vineyards in the “Top 100 Wineries of the World.” His wines have been served in the White House to three different presidents, as well as being poured in Stockholm to Nobel Prize Laureates. 

As a small producer, it was easy to become entrenched in the millions of little details in making wine, leaving little time for marketing. Recognizing this, Seps figured if he could pull a group together for collective marketing, it would make this daunting task more manageable. In 1990, he met with Bob Trinchero and eleven other leading Zinfandel producers in California, including Ridge, Rosenblum and Ravenswood, to form ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates Producers). He served for six years as the president and worked tirelessly to get Zinfandel recognized as “America’s Heritage Grape.” Today, ZAP has over a hundred members and its annual tasting is the largest single-varietal tasting in the world.

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Forty years after planting his first vines, he has not slowed down. He still very active at the winery, driving his tractor through the vineyards and making wines. He has also recently added a Cabernet Sauvignon and Red Blend to his lineup of Zinfandels. With a lifetime of accolades and achievements, his biggest pride is that Storybook Mountain Vineyards is still family owned and operated. His daughter has been working with him as Associate Winemaker for over twenty years and his son-in-law handles the marketing. In addition, the Ayala family, who helps in the vineyards, has been with them since the very beginning, for over forty years.

When you see the land, with the meticulous vineyards hugging the curves of the hill, surrounded by pines and set against the backdrop of the Palisades, you can see power of place and grape and understand how the Seps Family and Zinfandel became so intrinsically entwined throughout a lifetime. 

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Megan Greene