ZD Wines is an award-winning winery that creates masterful vintages, which have graced White House tables and suburban patios alike. But there’s more to the art of the creation than what appears on the surface.
When you walk up the driveway toward ZD Wines, at first it seems like many other Napa Valley wineries – a quaint building with lush foliage lapping at the walls, a welcoming alley leading you to the warm tasting room blanketed in red, gold and purple hues, a friendly staff willing to answer questions and pour you a glass of fine wine, all set to the backdrop of rolling hills and miles upon miles of vine rows. The mood is relaxed, but the atmosphere is refined.
But there’s something more underneath the public view. There’s a reason behind the smiles on the faces of staff members. You can tell they really love being here, and they believe in what they’re doing. Maybe it’s the pride in their organic farming practices, or their dedication to sustainable environmental initiatives. Or, maybe it’s because they love the feeling of being part of a family.
Passion from the start
Norman deLeuze and Gino Zepponi were aerospace engineers with a vision. Not a vision of rocket components, or pneumatic controls – a vision of sipping velvety wine from grapes grown with their own hands. A vision of family coming together to toil the land and build a business around something that brings joy and delight to people from all over the globe.
In 1969, ZD Wines, LLC, was established – the name reflecting the founders’ initials, with a tip-of-the-hat to their engineering background: “Zero Defects” was a quality control program at their place of business, and that’s how they wanted their wine to be. Perfect.
The business was a labor of love from the beginning, with both Norman and Gino continuing to work their day jobs while following their dream in the wine industry. They started with just $3,000 each and a rented building in the Carneros region of California. They enlisted family members to help with day-to-day tasks, and for a decade, they sold small lot wines. Eventually, the winery became a full-time operation.
A family affair
More than 40 years later, the deLeuze family carries on the legacy of ZD Wines, with three generations still working the family business. Though sadly he passed away in 2007 from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Norman’s influence is seen in every aspect of the winery. The precision of the equipment design for pressing the grapes and bottling the wine is the product of his engineering background. His desire for an environmentally-friendly footprint shines through the sustainable practices that continue throughout the winery and vineyard – from solar power, to rainwater collection, to hand-picked grapes, and much more in between. His belief that organic growing is the healthiest and most logical way to produce grapes for wine is at the heart of ZD’s farming.
The deLeuze family. From left to right: Robert, Winemaster/CEO; Rosa Lee, Marketing; Jill, Hospitality and sales; Julie, Administration; Brett, President/Marketing; Brandon, Assistant winemaker
Robert deLeuze, Norman’s son, is now the CEO and Winemaster. Since he was 11 years old, he has been helping with the business, pressing grapes and learning everything he could about winemaking. Following in his father’s footsteps was a natural progression for Robert.
“I literally just grew up in the winery, and I always really enjoyed it. I love the agricultural nature of the business, and looking forward to the next season, and certainly the action of harvest is always a big draw for me,” he says. “I am amazed when I look back at where the winery started from with essentially nothing, to where we are today. It’s really a true American success story.”
Norman’s wife – Robert’s mother – Rosa Lee is also still active at ZD Wines. In fact, the winemakers have a special wine that they produce each season that’s labeled “Rosa Lee’s Whim.” The wine is whatever unusual varietal Rosa Lee would like to do, and is made in small lots.
“It gives the winemaking team some new challenges, and it gives our wine club members and people who have been here before something new to taste,” says Scott Ferguson, marketing coordinator for ZD Wines.
Norman and Rosa Lee’s other children, Julie and Brett, round out the second generation at the winery. Julie handles much of the administrative work, and Brett is president and part of a marketing team with his mother. Robert’s son, Brandon, and daughter, Jill, are also a big part of ZD Wines. Brandon is following in Robert and Norman’s footsteps as assistant winemaker to head winemaker Chris Pisani, and Jill splits her time between pouring in the tasting room and representing ZD out in the marketplace.
“I’m amazingly lucky that I have both my son and daughter working at the winery at this point,” Robert says. “It’s hard to keep a business in a family for multiple generations for a lot of reasons, and looks like so far, so good!”
An organic approach
When the current Napa vineyard on Silverado Trail began producing grapes in the early ’80s, Norman noticed a leaf-hopper pest problem. As many people did back then (and as many people still do today), he sought a solution through a common petrochemical spray. Along with the spray, a sign had to be posted to warn people not to go into the vineyard.
That got Norman thinking about the pest-elimination process. He decided that he didn’t want to take the approach of putting a chemical that posed a safety hazard into the vineyard, and he started researching. He grew a desire to farm organically, and over the years, he and the rest of the team, headed by vineyard manager Rafael Llamas, found a natural balance that worked.
“That’s the key to organic wine growing – you’re looking for balance in the soil,” Scott says. “You go with the right cover crop, the right time to mow it and let it all decompose in the soil. It keeps down costs, people working in the vineyard are healthier, and the vineyards are healthy.”
ZD’s primary wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, which is grown on their main Napa Valley winery land, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are grown on their Carneros region property. They also contract to other vineyards around California to gather a cross-section of regional flavors; most of the vineyards are certified organic.
To keep away pests and maintain healthy vineyards, ZD employs a multi-pronged approach. They have owl boxes for nesting barn owls, who keep the rodent population at bay. They have vineyard chickens that help with grubs and bugs. They plant cover crops and provide a setting that is not hospitable to pests.
“For us, it’s all about the diversity and creating an environment that will not encourage the types of pests that are coming,” Chris says.
Robert is proud of ZD’s organic farming, and says that although they are one of only a few taking this approach, it is a growing trend among vineyards. “I think a lot of people, even though they may not be certified organic, are appreciating the goodness of using less petrochemical materials and being careful about contaminating our soils and streams,” he says. “There are many growers around that have at least reduced those kinds of inputs and are moving in the right direction.”
Glancing out over the acreage of the Napa vineyard, a metallic glimmer catches your eye. Tucked among the vines is a one-acre block of solar panels, which provide electricity to the entire winery. Both the Napa location and the Carneros vineyard are equipped with photovoltaic installations – and according to Scott, the average monthly electric bill for the winery is about five dollars.
But sustainability efforts don’t stop there. ZD also dry-farms the vineyards, meaning they do not irrigate unless they’re growing new vines or the fruit desperately needs water. This is not only a good way to save water resources, but it also makes for better wine.
“Grape vines like a certain amount of stress for high-quality wine,” Chris explains. “We obviously don’t want to push it too far and get things like dehydration and the vines falling apart, so late in the season when we get hot weather, we have a technique where we can go in and help bring some of the subsurface moisture back up with a cultivator.”
A cultivator uses tines to dig into the soil about 18 inches. “Because you loosen up that top layer of soil, that top 18 inches becomes like a sponge. It works amazingly well,” Chris says.
For times when they need a little more water, such as new plantings, ZD uses a rainwater collection system masterminded by Robert. The vineyard in the Carneros region has a house and an agriculture barn on the property that have a lot of roof surface area; every downspout off of the roofs is plumbed underground to send water to tanks that hold about 75,000 gallons.
When it comes time to harvest, ZD doesn’t use machinery to pick the grapes – it’s all done by hand by about 48 laborers, and it’s done at night.
“Night-harvesting is mostly for temperature, so we can bring the fruit in at a lower temperature and save energy,” Chris says. “The thought was hey, if we can do it at night, we won’t have to turn our cooling on at the winery to chill the juice down to 50 degrees, which is where we want it before it goes into that cold room. And in general, the pickers like it, too – they’re not out with the bees in the high heat. It’s hard work.”
ZD Wines’ staff is thoughtful and thorough in its focus on being friendly to the Earth in its operations, but their everyday tasks are also deliberately eco-responsible.
“A lot of it is being smart,” Robert says. “When you leave a room, you turn the light off. When you go to throw something away, think about whether or not it can be recycled – almost everything can. So a lot of us, it’s just the way we manage our day-to-day business.”
Cheers to your health
ZD Wines is a place you can go to relax, take away the bustle of the day, or indulge in the delicacy of exceptional wine. Knowing the responsible and health-conscious manner in which it was prepared, and the care and passion that goes into the craft, makes it even more delectable. And that warm fuzzy feeling you get may not just be from the tannins – it may be your subconscious recognizing the sense of family that radiates from this winery.
“I think there are a lot of great wineries in the Napa Valley, and I feel like we’re one of them,” Robert says. “In the end, that’s our business – growing grapes and making great wines. The way that we approach our business is based on our family values, and so not only do we want to take care of our Mother Earth, but also our employees and all of the people we work with, and run a business well and make sure that everybody that is a part of it is a part of the success. That’s our focus: to make big, rich, flavorful wines. When you come by our winery and you know us, then forevermore when you open a bottle of our wine, you’ll have that connection.”
The hunt for a natural cure
When Norman deLeuze was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2003, he was told that without traditional forms of cancer treatment such as radiation and chemotherapy, he only had eight months to live. And even if he did those treatments, his prognosis was poor. Norman did not like the idea of toxic treatment, and decided he would pursue a natural cure.
Norman lived until October 2007 without chemotherapy or radiation, trying several promising alternative and nutritional approaches while working closely with UC Davis Research Oncologist Dr. Joseph Tuscano. His passion for finding a non-toxic solution to lymphoma led to the creation of the UC Davis deLeuze Family Endowment for a Non-Toxic Cure for Lymphoma, which was launched in 2006.
To read about Norman’s fight and to donate to the endowment, click here.
Hear it from the Winemaster:
Chris Pisani on going organic
Chris Pisani on staying sustainable
Plan Your Trip
Got the itch to see the beautiful rolling vineyards of the Napa Valley? Here is a list of certified organic vineyards you may want to visit:
|ZD Wines |
8383 Silverado Trail
Phone: (800) 487-7757
|Tres Sabores |
1620 South Whitehall Lane
Saint Helena, CA
Phone: (707) 967-8027
Staglin Family Vineyard
1570 Bella Oaks Lane
Phone: (707) 963-3994
Silver Mountain vineyards
Silver Mountain Drive
Los Gatos, CA
Phone: (408) 353-2278
|Peju Province |
8466 Saint Helena Highway
Phone: (707) 963-3600
|Long Meadow Ranch Winery |
1775 Whitehall Lane
St. Helena, CA
Phone: (707) 963-4555
|Grgich Hills Estate |
1829 Saint Helena Highway
Phone: (800) 532-3057
|Frog’s Leap |
8815 Conn Creek Road
Phone: (800) 959-4704
|Casa Nuestra Winery & Vineyards |
3451 Silverado Trail North
Saint Helena, CA
Phone: (707) 963-5783