Frog’s Leap: A Story of Farming and Fortune in Napa Valley
A lot has changed in Napa Valley over the last forty years. Today, if you’re looking to start a winery, you better have a few million dollars in your pocket. But back in 1974, when John Williams arrived on a Greyhound bus from New York, all you needed was little determination, a lot of hard work, some good friends and a motorcycle to sell.
That was the beginning of Frog’s Leap. Today, John has over 200 certified-organic acres in Napa Valley, and his family-owned winery exudes a genuine sensibility and commitment to place, marked by its coming of age during the California wine boom.
John’s auspicious entry into the Napa Valley wine scene seemed blessed by good luck and great opportunities from the beginning. When he first arrived in Napa, he set up camp in an open field (previously a frog farm) that happened to belong to Larry Turley, who soon became a good friend and future business partner. Shortly after, he began working with Warren Winiarski, as the only other employee in the winery. That first year, they bottled the 1973 Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon that would win the Paris Tasting and put Napa Valley on the wine map. A few years later, he took a winemaking position at Spring Mountain, while simultaneously working on a side-project with Turley to make the Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel (with grapes they purchased from Spottswood).
Given the reins to his own wines, John was soon leading the movement for organic farming in Napa Valley (earning him the amiable nickname of the “hippy farmer”), and by 1989, Frog’s Leap was awarded CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) status. Shortly after Turley left to create his own wines, John was able to purchase property in Rutherford, which included a historic red barn and some vines in need of love. Working with Frank Leeds and Roy Chaves, he was able to resuscitate his vineyard, applying dry-farming and organic practices for all his wines.
His philosophy on wine was (and still is) simple: If you let the grapevine interact naturally with its environment - on a calendar dictated by the warmth of the sun, the tug of the moon, and the surrounding life of bugs and birds - you celebrate the living nature of the fruit. In turn, you reap flavors that show balance and restraint, which are the expression of the grapevine’s inherent wisdom and connection with its terroir.
Over the years, John has constantly kept an eye out for vineyard opportunities, purchasing 50+ acres along the river for Sauvignon Blanc and then the Rossi estate along Hwy 29 in Rutherford for his Cabernet Sauvignon. Long-term leases for Zinfandel in St. Helena and Chardonnay in Carneros have balanced out his program. The environment has always been at the forefront of his decisions, and it is apparent in the character of his wines. John will tell you, “We don’t make great wine, we grow it.”
“Luck is not chance, it’s toil. And fortune’s smile is earned.” Such is the case with John Williams, who has spent a lifetime finding and extracting his ideal expression of Napa Valley. By seeking out, and purchasing, his dream lots in Napa, then treating them with respect and letting them grow naturally, he has developed wines that reflect this unique place like few else.
Kristy Byrd, from Frog’s Leap, will be pouring wines in our SF Store on Thursday night from 5-6:30pm and in Redwood City on Friday night from 5-6:30pm.
- Megan Greene