If you have been to one of the ubiquitous charity auctions around the Napa Valley during the last 30 years you have probably heard Fritz Hatton’s voice booming from the stage. His friendly and powerfully disarming demeanor have helped bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to the local community for worthy causes. You may know his voice, but you may not know that he and his wife, Caren, also have a wine brand called Arietta.
“When our friend John Kongsgaard told me he had access to some amazing grapes and asked if we wanted to make some wine together, of course I had to say ‘yes,’” Hatton said. “Making wine sprang from our friendship and our shared love of wine and music.”
Arietta was created in 1996 through a collaboration between Napa Valley winemaker John Kongsgaard, his wife, Maggy and the Hattons. But before becoming partners together in a wine business, the couples had been longtime friends, often sipping wine and listening to music into the early morning hours. One of their favorite composers was Beethoven.
“John and Maggy loved Beethoven, and so did we,” Caren said. “We’d be together enjoying wine, and it could sometimes get very late. At 1:11 in the morning, John would call for Beethoven’s ‘Arietta, Opus 111,’ to be played.”
Often on those late nights the couples were joined by a classical musician who would then sit down at the piano and play the piece. When such a guest was not in attendance, Fritz — who is an accomplished pianist in his own right — would play.
“It was a magical time, being together, listening to Beethoven’s piano sonata,” Caren said. “It is just such a wonderful piece of music, starting out simply and then growing in complexity — just like a fine wine.”
Although Beethoven’s “Arietta” was a prominent component of the couples’ friendship, naming the wine brand did not come easily. Prior to releasing the first vintage, they struggled to decide what the wine might be called.
“We were going back and forth with names, but nothing seemed to fit,” Fritz said. “But at one point, Caren looked at me and said, ‘We have wine that needs to be bottled, so we need a name. Look in your music books; that’s where you’ll find it.’ And she was right. There in my lap was the music score for the Arietta. We all agreed immediately that it was the perfect name.”
The couples also agreed that the wine they’d make would not be your standard Napa Valley wine but would instead take its direction from the classical music they all loved, focusing on sourcing grapes that were grown only in vineyards that might create the depth and ethereal serenity they’d found together through music. They found what they needed primarily in Lee Hudson’s famous Carneros vineyards.
In 2005, Fritz and Caren took over as sole proprietors of Arietta, and John handed over the winemaking reins to Andy Erickson, who has worked at such prominent Napa wineries as Dalla Valle, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and Staglin.
Normally visitors to Arietta taste wine where it is actually made, at Chateau Boswell on the Silverado Trail, about halfway between St. Helena and Calistoga. However, when I met the Hattons I was lucky enough to visit them at their beautiful home in St. Helena, where we sat out in their shady backyard sipping wine from the most delicate and expressive glassware I’ve ever used — hand-blown “Gabriel-Glas,” from Swiss/German wine critic René Gabriel — all while I became familiar with the family’s four dogs and two cats.
The three wines that stood out on that afternoon were the 2014 Arietta “On the White Keys” Sauvignon Blanc, the 2012 H-Block red wine blend and the 2012 Arietta Merlot.
The 2014 Arietta “On the White Keys” Sauvignon Blanc ($62 a bottle and 500 cases made) is blended with Semillon grapes in oak barrels, both of which provide the wine with an expansive and complex mouth feel. The nose is of candied lemon-rind, beeswax, dried mint and white peach. The flavors mirror the aromatics but finish with a limestone minearality.
The Cabernet Franc-focused 2014 H-Block red wine blend ($150 per bottle and 400 cases made) is Arietta’s first to have been commercially released. This wine is 50 percent cabernet franc that is co-fermented with merlot. Aromas of dried plum, shiitake mushrooms, fresh sage and new leather dominate this wine. Rich and creamy on the palate, its softness and surprising brightness are in intriguing contrast to the lingering flavor of beef broth in the finish.
The 2013 Arietta Merlot ($75 per bottle and 300 cases made) was the standout of the tasting. This wine is complex and speaks to the wonderful depth of Merlot grown in the clay soils of Carneros, which is similar in some ways to the most famous Merlot producer in the world, Pétrus, which is grown on 28 acres of blue clay on a piece of land called the “button” in the Pomerol region of Bordeaux in France.
The Arietta Merlot has a blue-plum and cardamom -coffee aroma, and once in your mouth this wine expands in talcum-powder layers that include milk chocolate, dried blueberry and wet cedar. If you can wait long enough between sips, you might find the lingering flavor of dried violets.
Fritz and his wife, along with their friends, the Kongsgaards, and winemaker Andy Ericson have created a wine brand that represents their love of music, friendship and the wines of the Napa Valley. The wines are wonderful, truly representing the best of what the area can produce. But what is the future of such wines? That is, will such wines last more than the life of the founders?
In California, we have an amazing knack for refining and improving things. Think of technology. Think of food. Think of wine. But what is less clear is what happens to these things over time. We are creative, passionate and generous. And Arietta exemplifies these values in both their wines and in the personalities of their founders. My hope is that such special wines and important values somehow find a way to carry on, presenting future generations with concrete examples of what it can mean to be true citizens of the Napa Valley and the broader world beyond.
Arietta’s wines are well-distributed in California and are available in select states. Locally, you can find them at 750 Wines in St. Helena, Backroom Wines in Napa and retailers. Tastings are by appointment only. For more information or to order the wines, visit www.arietta-wine.com.