Woman of the Vine
Suzanne Phifer Pavitt is a vintner with a dream that just won’t quit.
"To know me is to know that I love a project." Suzanne Phifer Pavitt isn’t one for understatements—but this might be the most restrained thing she’s ever said. The founder of Northern California’s Phifer Pavitt winery doesn’t just love a project; she throws herself into it, can’t be torn away from it, and, as is the case with her beloved Calistoga winery, becomes totally consumed by it.
As a former tech professional, Phifer Pavitt envisions the result of a project first, then backs into the process of making it happen, always keeping her eye on the final goal. This is exactly what she did in 1999, when, along with her husband Shane Pavitt, she decided to buy “23 acres of potential” in the Calistoga region of Napa Valley. The mission was clear: To create a world-class winery. Nevermind that Phifer Pavitt was better versed in coding than agriculture; her avid interest, acute palate, and intense drive were plenty to get the job done.
It ultimately took more than a decade to realize, but the rewards were reaped in spades. Phifer Pavitt, the winery, debuted its first release in 2007 with the 2005 Date Night—a Cabernet Sauvignon that has become the winery’s flagship. The couple completed their dream home (”a little piece of Montepulciano,” Phifer Pavitt says) and in 2010 opened an elegant, appointment-only tasting room. Next, there was the expansion into white wines, led by Suzanne’s father-in-law, Dr. Gary Warburton, who earned raves for his Sancerre-style Sauvignon Blancs and sparkling wines. Additionally, there was also a project with Kentucky’s Bardstown Bourbon Company: a nine-year-old whiskey finished in the winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon barrels that sold out in a flash. Life was good.
Then, in September 2020, the Glass Fire wiped the slate clean. Phifer Pavitt lost every last vine—some of which had only just reached harvest potential for the very first time. “It was astonishing,” she recalls. “Nothing was salvageable.” But what the winery didn’t lose was just as incredible: The bottled and barreled wine, stored off-site, mercifully survived, as did the wine-making facilities, encased in concrete and insulated with recycled denim.
When the smoke cleared, Phifer Pavitt’s next project was laid before her: It was time to rebuild. Luckily, when you’ve done everything yourself once already, you’re well equipped to improve the process the second time around—and that’s exactly what she’s doing. “We threw ourselves into recovery,” she says. “I really tried to shift my energy from profound sadness to asking, ‘What are the silver linings?’ and ‘How can we become more efficient and environmentally sensitive than before?’”
Rather than pulling everything from the ground and starting from scratch, Phifer Pavitt convinced her viticultural team to carefully remove each dead vine and replant new ones right into the charred soil, which by then was rich with nitrogen and nutrient-dense ash. “It was not the most cost-effective way by a long stretch, but we knew they’d come back even more prolific,” she says of the new vines. That kind of creative thinking and environmental sensitivity has led to more plans, including the creation of a butterfly pollinator garden and the establishment of a forest health restoration project. Plus, the winery received a federal re-forestation grant, including applying native seeds via a drone for minimal impact in burned areas.
Right now, however, the most pressing new project on Phifer Pavitt’s plate is the 2021 harvest—a momentous occasion after a devastating 2020. Due to the drought conditions throughout California this year, the harvest will be much smaller in yield. The result? More intense and concentrated flavors. After the year Phifer Pavitt— the woman and the winery—has had, the small but mighty vintage is sure to be a fitting return. “This is our renaissance and our next phase of life,” she says. “Phifer Pavitt is alive and well.”
Club Members can book private Phifer Pavitt tastings by emailing ERmember@phiferpavittwine.com. -- phiferpavittwine.com