The point when (or is that where… damn, I can never keep that straight) any normal person realizes that Stanley Cheng is loaded, and I mean God-calls-him-when-He-needs-a-loan loaded, probably comes pretty early during the course of meeting him; in my case, it came about ten minutes before I met him, while coasting up the lengthy, gated drive that marks the entrance to his newly-finished home and vineyard estate in the outskirts of Napa Valley.
It wasn’t the need for a security gate, the fact that he could actually afford a piece of land that spacious in Napa Valley, or even the fairy-tale mansion at the end of the drive that tipped me off to the Laurentian-abyss-level deep pockets; it turns out I’m too obtuse to pick up even those obvious clues. In fact, at first I thought the house had to be a winery facility made up to look like a mansion, because it just seemed too big and gorgeous to really be someone’s home.
No, for me the moment came when I pulled up to the much sparser but still handsome building a little more than halfway between the gates and the mansion, thinking that it had to be Stanley’s house because it was about three times the size of my place. Then I took a peep through the large glass doors and noticed that I wasn’t peering into an office building or a residence, but into a sort of garage / gymnasium.
That’s when it hit me that Stanley Cheng had more money than god…
Stanley is the CEO of Meyer Corporation, which explains the money because chances are if you have a functioning kitchen then you also have several Meyer products somewhere inside of it (he’s kind of the granddaddy of non-stick cookware). He was born in Hong Kong, one of seven children (though he and his wife Helen have only three, including a daughter whose name graces their Stephanie line of wines). Stanley has the wine bug, and not just because he thinks it’s pretty to have 41 acres of vineyards surrounding his mansion; he has encyclopedic knowledge of what’s growing/happening/not-happening in all of the vineyard blocks (each of which boasts the most detailed block markers I’ve yet seen, including info. on the clonal selection – I mean, who does that if they’re not obsessed?). The Chengs planted vines in 1997 and for years sold grapes to high-end producers in the Valley before deciding in 2005 to bottle some `02 Cabernet Sauvignon under the Hestan label. The “getting more serious about wine” thing continued to escalate, and in 2009 they brought on winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown.
The dichotomy of visiting Hestan is that you want so badly to hate Stanley Cheng (à la the familiar “uber-rich guy pops into the Valley and starts making $100 Cab” story that has become almost as commonplace in Napa Valley as tourists stopping along the Silverado Trail to take photos of mustard blooms in the vineyards)… BUT… at heart he’s a wine geek, and it’s almost impossible for a wine geek to hate another wine geek, especially one as gracious as this guy…
And make no mistake, Stanley is very wine geeky – he is clearly borderline-obsessed about wine. One minute, he’s waxing rich-dude-philosophic about Stephanie’s harp, a musical instrument so gorgeous that its only rival is the 1800s Steinway sitting across from it – and its only rival can be found in modern history museums in continental Europe; the next, he’s giddy showing some of the bottles in his wine cellar in a moment that transcends race, creed and estate-tax brackets: the moment of wine geeks being wine geeks and, well, geeking out over wine. His garage is home to Chinese artifacts, golf carts for traversing the vineyards, and large model airplanes which he test-flies for a friend’s company (“I never crash them” was about the height of the egomania that I could muster from Stanley during my visit).
“I vainly named this block of Cabernet after myself,” he told me as we cruised around in one of the golf carts, driving by a plot of vines nearest the front of his “house” and overlooking a small lake on the property. “I thought the quality might be excellent because of the aspect and the proximity to the lake.” Is the Cab from that block extra-special-good? “No, no… just average, really. Well, average for our fruit, I mean.”
Turns out “average” is pretty darn good, and there’s enough diversity in spoil and aspect that the Bordeaux varieties vines planted on the rolling hills surrounding Cheng’s home to provide a pretty interesting palate of flavors from which to choose to blend in complexity for their wines, many of which are priced in the $30-$40 range, though there is one (ripe, fruit-driven but very, very good) pricey, small-production Cab.
Hestan also have a new Chardonnay (creamy, smooth apricot & spice but pretty well-balanced overall) from the San Francisco Bay AVA from what might be the only vineyards planted there currently (“we like to think of it as pioneering the appellation” Cheng told me, clearly joking). Two of the Hestan wines I tasted during the visit stood out for me, and one of them is accessible even to those of us who don’t roll so much coin that we could teasingly refer to the subscribers of Worth Magazine as “Junior Varsity” (not that Cheng does that, mind you; he just probably could):
2007 Hestan Stephanie Merlot (Napa Valley)
All of Hestan’s wines are on the ripe side (hello, it is Napa Valley we’re talking about here) and so this one has the juicy profile and a dollop of raisiny Cab Sauv blended in; but it also has a lot of other stuff going on, like olives and pepper, that make it a potential crowd-pleaser for a dinner party with friends at [ insert trendy new BYO restaurant in your town here ] – and a fairly-priced one, at that.
2007 Hestan Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
One sniff of this and two things are absolutely and totally clear: 1) it’s on the ripe side and 2) it is impeccably made. If you’re the fruit-first kind of vino lover then this one is probably gonna rock your socks off with plums, currants, and dark cherries. It’s just the kind of wine that’s fun to smell, and even the finish (which is quite long, by the way) carries a great, complex profile of juicy red and black fruits.