27th Nov 2023
27th Nov 2023
Christine O’Sullivan and Jim Bean met in Silicon Valley while working for Apple, but nearby Napa Valley was their love story. They bought their first Napa vineyard in 2013. Before long, they had 65 acres of vines—20 in St. Helena and 45 in Oak Knoll District. Selling their fruit to well-known wineries in the region, they lived between Silicon Valley and wine country. A few years later, they left Silicon Valley and sold these vineyards so they could give their all to their new estate on Pritchard Hill: Brand.
“This is our second act,” says Christine. “We were only interested in doing this if we could be the best of the best. And we felt confident in our willingness to go all-in. We are family-owned and we are the sole owners. The mistakes we endure will be our losses.”
Christine was born in Ireland, her voice maintaining a melodious Irish lilt. Jim grew up on the East Coast.
“We both loved French wines,” Jim explains. “While living in Silicon Valley, we discovered Sonoma and Napa Valley. Driving up here was so relaxing. It’s where we fell in love. We got married in 2001 at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). When the kids were born, we started renting a farmhouse in Calistoga. Our kids loved running through the creeks and doing things you couldn’t do in Silicon Valley. Christine left Apple in 2009, and we bought a house in St. Helena. We bought our first vineyard in 2013 and, as growers, got to know a lot more people in the industry. This was our apprenticeship.”
Jim left Apple at the end of 2017. “We were both too young to retire, so we decided to follow our hearts to Napa. But Napa didn't need more labels. It needed the labels it had to be better. So, we decided to sell our other vineyards to focus everything on Brand.”
In 2019, the couple bought Brand’s winery and vineyards on Pritchard Hill. The property was previously owned by Doug Long and then the Fitts family, who first made wine from the original 2001 plantings and then built the winery in 2009.
“The previous owners interviewed us before we were able to buy this property, only we didn’t know it was an interview,” laughs Jim. “I think they sold to us because we respected what they had accomplished. You have to acknowledge all the heavy lifting they did to create this. Also, we kept the original name: Brand.”
The Fitts family was passionate about horses, as evident in the Brand name, the barn-styled winery, and the horseshoe-inspired label designs. Christine and Jim have modernized the labels impressively, yet they have maintained the property's theme and kept the original winemaker, Philippe Melka.
“Philippe was involved in building the winery and was the previous winemaker. No one knew this place better than him,” Jim explains.
The new owners’ first vintage was 2019. However, 2020 was a lost year for many in Napa Valley, including Brand. First, there was Covid, then the wildfires. Pritchard Hill vineyards were particularly hard hit by the smoke, considering the region’s first major fire broke out near Lake Hennessey, at the base of Pritchard Hill, and the Glass Fire wasn’t far off. Brand was unable to produce any wine that year.
“We chose to look upon 2020 as a gift—to be able to think about the business and our customers,” said Christine. “Focus is essential in this business. We aren’t the kind of people to sit back and say the sky is falling. We learned in Silicon Valley about the vast number of times you can fail. But man, when you win!”
The major changes at Brand since Jim and Christine took over are in the vineyards. Brand is, in fact, three separate vineyards on a 110-acre parcel. “No 95” is the name of the lowest vineyard, at 1200 feet elevation, on Hambright soil and composes the backbone of the wine of this name. The middle vineyard is the coolest and consists of Aiken loam, an ideal situation for Cabernet Franc. This is the source of the “Proprietary Blend,” which is mainly Cabernet Franc blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. The highest vineyard, at 1400 feet, is the rockiest and is all Cabernet Sauvignon. This is the source of the “Cabernet Sauvignon” label.
“When we came on board, our first focus was making the vineyard sustainable,” says Jim.
The vineyard was recently certified organic, and biodynamic practices have been established. But with only 10 out of the 110 acres under vine, part of the redevelopment plan is to expand the vineyard to 30 acres. Jim and Christine are only now finishing the arduous ECP (Erosion Control Plan) process, which is required for any new Napa Valley plantings on hillsides.
“Can you believe I shipped two Apple operating systems in the time it takes to get an ECP?” remarks Christine. “But this was an easy decision for us. We had this ethos in our DNA. One thing we understood at Apple is that you have to control the whole ecosystem, and we believe that translates to wine. Owning all our own vineyards and winery is essential so we can control everything from budbreak to when the wine gets in the bottle.”
My palate tells me this has as much to do with selection and blending decisions as the changes in vineyard management. The Proprietary Blend and Cabernet Sauvignon labels in 2019 and 2021 are right up there, with some of the best Napa Valley wines made in those years. As for the style, these are shimmery wines emphasizing brightness and perfume as opposed to some of the rich, powerful blockbusters produced by Pritchard Hill neighbors such as Colgin and Bryant Family. The Cabernet Franc-dominant Proprietary Blend is genuinely singular and simply electric.
“When we launched the Apple stores,” Christine says as I’m packing up after our tasting, “our motto was ‘surprise and delight your customers.’ That was as much our goal then as it is now.”
Count me surprised and delighted.
Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photography by Svante Örnberg
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