Bold Wines Bolder Risks: Napa Valley’s Renowned Vintner John Conover

Page-1-Image-10With the 2013 Auction Napa Valley fast approaching, it would only seem appropriate to check in with one of Napa Valley’s most renowned vintners. John Conover of PlumpJack Winery, CADE Winery and most recently Odette Estate has been a wine enthusiast and connoisseur for the majority of his life, hooked by his first taste of Napa Valley Cabernet out of a real barrel.

Conover’s introduction to the wine industry started with becoming the social chairman of his fraternity at California State University, Chico. In his role, he found himself responsible for purchasing alcohol for fraternity events, eventually befriending the owner of the wine shop he frequented. The owner promptly hired him, eventually bringing him to Napa Valley to experience the real deal.

 Future generations are going to inherit this winery, and we wanted to make something great for years to come.”

After marrying his high school sweetheart, Ann Marie, Conover moved to St. Helena, joining Gavin Newsom and Gordon Getty as a partner and general manager at PlumpJack Winery (named after Shakespeare’s Sir John “PlumpJack” Falstaff) in December 1998. PlumpJack winery, built in 1880, boasts 50 acres of pristine property highly regarded for Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard is well known for taking a risk that defines the work ethic of all three partners: the use of screw caps for the ‘97 PlumpJack Reserve Cabernet. The act changed the perception of bottle closure for upscale wineries and has been widely adopted in Napa. “The screw cap had a ripple effect. Many people really associated it with a sort of cheapness that fine wines should avoid, but in truth TC A, a mold byproduct that can change the taste of wine, can come from the use of corks. We can’t afford to alter taste when it’s this good,” says Conover.


The success of PlumpJack eventually encouraged the purchase of a new 54-acre property. CADE Winery, founded in 2005 by the three partners, rests in the dramatic slopes of Howell Mountain at 1800 ft. The grapes grow in soil characterized by mountain ash and minerals, and the temperatures provide the perfect conditions for ripening, producing grapes with balance and density. From the outset of this new endeavor, Conover felt a responsibility to the area, which led him to take another risk: building CADE as the first LEED-certified estate winery. “No one had ever done this before, even the contractors, so we really had to come up with an original plan. We used everything from recycled concrete to insulation made from blue jeans. We incorporated solar panels to minimize the amount of electricity we use on the premises, utilized renewable cork flooring and are extremely careful with water use. Future generations are going to inherit this winery, and we wanted to make something great for years to come.” The first Cabernet released from CADE earned 95 points from Robert Parker, and the second achieved 98 points, a real victory for the whole team.

Most recently, in 2012, the team started Odette Estate. Odette spans 45 acres and will also be LEED certified, producing Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery is farmed organically.


 “We’ve been privileged in our access to such an amazing landscape, and in return we have to protect it.”

In every profession, successful businessmen and women often find themselves inspired by the work of others. When asked about his own personal mentors, Conover explained, “Off the top of my head, there are three. Andy Beckstoffer came to the Valley in the 60s and was really the first to ‘brand’ vineyards. I’d have to say Bill Harlan, for relentlessly pursuing quality, and Robert Mondavi. Mondavi was a gracious entrepreneur and an innovative marketer. I’ll have to add Gavin, whose philosophy has driven our business. He insists that you have to be willing to fail to succeed and he even instated a ‘Failure Award,’ maintaining we’d never get anywhere without our failures. And Gordon…I have never met someone more passionate. He’s developed a business that creates opportunity for people with their careers in mind, not just his own.”

Besides being known for a variety of excellent Cabernets, these Napa Valley wine producers stress the importance of giving back. The partners truly understand the value of the natural environment in Napa Valley, and Conover remains a board member of the Napa County Land Trust. He is also active in the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association. “We’ve been given so much. We have to give back,” Conover says. “We’ve been privileged in our access to such an amazing landscape, and in return we have to protect it.” Gavin Newsom’s sister Hilary also founded an organization to help support breast cancer research, and the wineries host an annual golf tournament and live auction to support the cause and her efforts.


On the topic of philanthropy, Haute Living would be remiss not to mention the 2013 Auction Napa Valley, which kicks off on June 1st. “It was small a few decades ago, and now the event has grown on a massive scale. The earnings go to educational programs, local community health clinics and hospitals, charities and building grants. The event is extraordinary.”

From good wine to good causes, Conover is a truly outstanding member of the Napa Valley community.