Trees have always been an important part of Dickerson vineyard. The eucalyptus at the north end of the property imparts an inarguable influence on the wine’s flavor, but the tree that meant the most to Bill Dickerson was a 100-year-old oak. Long before he bought the place in 1971, this ancient sentinel supported an old-fashioned wine press, which was attached to a hook in its trunk. After the press was retired, somebody hung a few barrel hoops on the hook, and in time the bark enveloped them like skin around an earring. For Bill, this was a monument to the history of the spot, and he had the image emblazoned on his own wine label.
A fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Dr. William J. Dickerson had an influential passion for wine. In the 1960s he helped bankroll a young vintner named Joe Heitz who created a Napa icon: Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (which is also redolent of eucalyptus). Eventually Bill procured a vineyard of his own on Zinfandel Lane in Napa Valley: 21 acres of old, head-pruned varieties that were hardly in demand. But the elegant, focused Zinfandel made from them was so distinctive that Bill never even considered replanting. He passed along his passion and knowledge of wine to his young daughters, Anne and Julie, as he taught them how to prune and sucker the vines, and every fall, when harvest was over, they held a party there for friends and families.
After Ravenswood began vinifying Bill’s grapes in the 1980s, the critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. called Dickerson’s wine “the Heitz Martha’s Vineyard of Zinfandels.” By that time, California wine—Zinfandel in particular—had gotten its due.
In his 70’s, Bill showed no sign of slowing down. While still being involved in his private practice, he and his wife Jane developed a tradition of traveling overseas for the holidays. They were especially fond of Southeast Asia and, as a result, on the day after Christmas of 2004, were on the coast of Thailand when an earthquake sent a calamitous tsunami rolling across the ocean from Sumatra. The next day Bill’s body was found on the beach, and Jane’s was identified a month later – a tragically premature end to a pair of productive lives.
Bill had previously expressed a desire for his ashes to be scattered at the vineyard, so Anne and Julie honored that wish. A few months later, a windstorm swept through the valley. The next morning Anne found the old press oak prone on the ground, toppled amid a riot of branches and foliage. The conclusion seemed quite appropriate.
And yet another era has begun. Anne and Julie are now running the vineyard that meant so much to their father, who invested the century-old grapevines with more than three decades of love.
Location: Napa Valley
Years Planted: 4 acres planted 1930, 3 acres planted 1979, 3 acres planted 1985
Acreage: About 10 Acres
Soil Type: Bale clay loam
Climate: Warm St. Helena climate
Elevation: Sea level