Guinness, whiskey and tea might be the first drinks that come to mind when you think about Ireland, but what about wine? As it turns out, Ireland has an extensive wine story – one that continues today in the Irish American vineyards of California’s Napa Valley.
The relationship between the Irish and wine reaches far back into history. A 16th century stained glass window from the Church of St. Patrice in the French city of Rouen depicts St. Patrick drinking wine with the High King Laoighre at Tara in 433 AD. Along with the gospel, Irish monks carried and planted vines throughout continental Europe.
“The Irish saints Patrick, Columbanus, Fiacre, Nessan, Gall, Fridolin and Killian are honored in the vine-growing regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône Valley and the Loire Valley in France; and in the cantons of St. Gall and Grisons in Switzerland, Lombardy in Italy, Jerez in Spain and Franken in Germany, where St Killian is the patron of wine-growers," writes Ted Murphy in his astonishing book, "A Kingdom of Wine, A Celebration of Ireland’s Winegeese," published by Onstream Publications of Currabaha, Cloghroe, County Cork.
There is one city in Ireland whose name appears over and over again, whether you’re talking of centuries ago or the roots of winemakers today in California, and that name is Cork. Yes, Cork is well-fixed, and has been well-fixed for centuries, in the wine trade.
The art of grafting has played a major role in the development and preservation of the wine trade, and the grafting of Irish and French cultures upon each other is also notable. After the fall of Rome and the Germanic invasions of Gaul, French scholars fled to Ireland. In 1685, many French Huguenots were exiled to Ireland, where they established themselves in the wine trade.
Conversely, there was the 16th and 17th century exodus of Irish people to France, which saw many Irish settle in Bordeaux and become active in the French wine business as growers, developers and world-wide traders of the vine and its products.
These Irish entrepreneurs supplied wine to the American armies fighting the Revolutionary War, and afterwards provided their expertise in stocking the wine cellars of Washington, Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They also shipped cognac to the Czar of Russia.
In 1844, a family of Irish immigrants named Murphy led the first wagon train across the Sierras into California, and their descendants were not delinquent in getting into the business of vineyards and wineries in the Golden State. There are fifty or more wineries of Irish-America heritage in California today.
Here are the stories of just a few of these California Irish-American wineries, told mostly in their own words.
San Francisco, California
Brian Mast and Jennifer Waits recently visited Ireland and Irish wineries, and even brought back real Irish wine.
Brian’s late mother grew up in Louth Village, Co. Louth. His father was a visiting scholar from the States and met his mother in Ireland in the late 50s. “Our family always stayed close to our mother’s Irish heritage, and we spent a few summers there when we were kids,” he says.
Jennifer’s heritage is a little more distant, dating back to the 18th century and the McShanes from Country Tyrone.
After starting to make wine in 2005, Waits-Marst Family Cellars quickly gained acclaim, with inclusion in the San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Wines of 2009 and a Gold Medal in the 2010 S.F. Chronicle Wine Competition.
“Our goal is to continue making the best small lot, single vineyard Pinot Noir that we can. Our current production is 200 cases and we’ll likely continue on that scale for the foreseeable future.”
Rutherford, Napa Valley, California
The Sullivan family left Ireland in the 1840s/50s and landed in Eureka, California. During a trip to Ireland in the late 1970s, the family traced their roots back over 150 years to the small town of Kilmurry in Co. Cork.
Jim and Jo Anna Sullivan purchased property in Rutherford, in the heart of the Napa Valley, in 1972. Their first vintage, Big Red, came in 1981. In 1992, The Wine Spectator cited Sullivan Vineyards as one of the top 50 wineries in the world.
“Best known for their Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignons, Sullivan Vineyards has made a mark on the winemaking community and is currently run by a second generation, with Sean Sullivan as CEO and winemaker,” writes Ted Murphy. And it’s still very much a family endeavor. Sean’s sister, Kelly, designs the company’s labels such as Coeur de Vigne (Heart of the Vineyard with a new piece of artwork each year.
St. Helena, California
Peter Murphy’s great-great-grandfather immigrated from Cork to Canada. Peter’s father moved to California to attend U.C. Berkeley.
Peter came to Napa Valley in 1974 to put his degree in Fermentation Science from UC Davis to work. After a year of helping manage a 2,000 acre vineyard in Delano, he worked in Pope Valley, on the development of a 4,000 acre ranch converting cattle land to productive vineyards. He then moved into the winemaking side of the business with crush and cellar work at Cuvaison in Calistoga. He established his own company, Ag Tech Services, Inc. (ATS), a vineyard management business, in 1987.
The Murphy family says that Peter’s “connection to the soil instilled in him a desire to create his own wine.” In 1995, he created Murphy Vineyards with its first Cabernet Sauvignon.
Murphy’s produces 800 cases of wine each year. Peter and his son Kevin handle everything from the vines to the wines. Another son, Michael, designs and builds winery equipment. His daughter, Melissa, handles admin at the winery, wine sales, events etc. His wife, Nancy, runs the admin for AgTech Services.”
The Murphys’ award winning varietals include: Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), Syrah, Cabernet Franc, a red blend, and a Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from the Sierra Foothills.”
The Kelleher family owns an upscale restaurant named Brix, set amid their own small farm and vineyard.
More than two acres of gardens and orchards provide ingredients for a menu inspired by the culinary traditions of the winegrowing regions in Southern France and Northern Italy.
The restaurant’s name reflects the measurement of sugar levels at which the grapes for the Kelleher Family Vineyard’s Cabernet Sauvignon are harvested.
Valerie Kelleher’s paternal grandparents, Daniel Kelleher and Johanna Connell, were both from Macroom, Country Cork. The family believes Daniel and Johanna Kelleher arrived in New York around 1903-04. Valerie’s grandfather, Dennis Kelleher, was born in San Francisco in 1908.
“My parents purchased the land in Yountville in 1995,” Valerie says. We dove head first into the restaurant business in March of 1996 and it has been a learning experience each day since!
“We planted nine acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. The view from the restaurant’s back patio now is of our raised beds of fruits and vegetables, then on to our vineyards and finally to the beautiful Mayacamas Mountains. They bottle about 360 cases each year of Kelleher ‘Brix Vineyard’ Cabernet Sauvignon.
From Ted Murphy’s Kingdom of Wine: “Robert Foley Vineyards has 82 acres of vineyard at Angwin in the Napa Valley, California. They house over 1,000 barrels in an extensive cave system which they completed in summer of 2008.
Husband and wife team Bob Foley and Kelly Kehoe have been producing a highly acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon, which is labeled Claret, for ten years. Kelly is the business manager of the winery.
Robert’s Irish connection? “My dad’s side of the family – Foleys and Gilmartins. Foley is obviously direct – from Country Cork to NYC, potato famine days. Great grandfather was Michael Foley, died very young but his son, Jack Foley, my grandfather, grew up in Brooklyn, knocked around with the likes of James Cagney and Cary Grant and made it to California with Universal Studios in the ‘20s. He developed the sound effect technique still known in motion picture production as Foley Art or simply as ‘Foley.’
“My dad took an interest in viticulture and winemaking as a hobby. I ran with the hobby and it became my career thirty-five years ago.”
There you have a few of the many Irish-American wine makers in California today.
If you happen to be in California next springtime, about St. Pat’s Day, please come to the When Irish Wines Are Smiling ‘winedig’ in Rutherford, Cork’s sister city in the Napa Valley north of San Francisco. In the meantime, contact any of the above wineries if you are in the mood for a glass of Irish-American vino.