Joe Heitz

Joe HNeitz

Date of Interview: 7/06/1983
Interviewer: William Ferdinand Heintz

William: Today’s date is July 6, 1983. My name is William Heintz. I’m at 500 Taplan Road, St. Helena, California, at Heitz Cellars. I’m going to be taping an interview with Joe Heitz about himself and the history of Heitz Winery. Is it actually Joseph?

Joe: Joe.

William: Is there a middle initial?

Joe: It’s either J.E. or Joe.

William: Have I told you that I get a phone call about two or three times a year for your winery?

Joe: It doesn’t surprise me much.

William: There’s quite a difference between the names, but somebody looking for Heitz can end up with Heintz. like to go back just a little bit for some personal information about yourself. Were you born here? I always get a little confused since there’s a Heitz Road here in the Napa Valley.

Joe: No, that’s a whole different clan. That’s named after Michael Heitz. As a matter of fact, the wine crest out in front of the beautiful Christian Brothers Greystone Winery is Michael Heitz’s old wine crest. I was born in Illinois and came out to California during the War.

William: Did you say there’s no relationship?

Joe: None.

William: I just got a call from a Mrs. Heitz, whose married name is Heitz. There’s a story in the Napa newspapers about my looking for the oldest wine making and grape growing families in the county. She wanted to make sure I was aware that the Heitzes were an old grape growing family. I thought that she had said you were related.

Joe: This was probably Olivia Heitz. When we first came to the Napa Valley, we didn’t know many people. We did meet Fred Heitz. He was making wine at the Co-op [Napa Valley Cooperative Winery] at that time. They also happened to be Catholics, so when our daughter was christened, we asked them if they would be godparents. That’s the nearest we’ve come to a relationship.

William: What year were you born?

Joe: 1919.

William: When did you come to California?

Joe: I got out of high school in 1938, and then I went to the University of Illinois for two years. would’ve left school in ’40.

William: What were you majoring in? That means I [Break in tape] 2 Pr

Joe: My dream was to be a veterinarian, but this was during the Depression. I had a scholarship to go to the University of Illinois, but it didn’t have a veterinary school at that time. It does now. I didn’t have money to go to school out of state. I was just taking general agriculture, heavy on animal science — hoping something would happen. Well, something sure as hell did: World War Two broke out. Anyone could see it coming; it was just a matter of when. I enlisted in what was then called the Flying Cadets. I was sent to Muskogee, Oklahoma. I was discharged after it was discovered that I didn’t have any flying abilities. Instead of going home, where I would maybe earn 35 cents an hour if there was any work, I hitchhiked to California where I got a job with Northrop Aircraft.

I worked there for two or three years until the War broke out. I was eventually drafted and stationed at Fresno as a crew chief on a P61 Night Fighter. I’d previously worked as an experimental inspector on this type of plane. The crew chief didn’t fly with them, just simply serviced them on the ground in the daytime. They were not a big airplane like the B-24. 3 fr Being a GI, I liked to date, drink beer and spend money. PFC or corporal wages weren’t very much, so like many of the soldiers, I got a job working nights. I went up and down the street knocking on doors. I got a job at the Italian Swiss [Colony] Winery, at their La Paloma plant, which was close to the airbase.

The winemaker, Dale Mills, lived on the premises. He would come out to oversee me, and we would talk. He would take me to the lab, show me the fundamentals of winemaking, and invite me to his home for Sunday dinner. taste wine. I learned to drink and also to I was eventually shipped out, but when I was discharged I came back to Fresno because I’d met and married my wife, Alice. When I came back, I went to see Dale. He said, “I can give you a job, but it would be just a job. Why don’t you go to Davis, finish your degree, and get a good job?” That sounded great, so I got my degree.

William: What year did you graduate from Davis?

Joe: Must have been ’48. If you recall the history of the California wine industry, shortly after the War somebody pulled the rug out from under it. Instead of getting a good job, there were zero jobs available. Alice had been putting me through school by working at Sacramento. I stayed on at the University, working half-time towards a master’s degree, which I wasn’t really interested in, and working half-time to support us. Then things loosened up, as they usually do, and I went to work for Gallo. In fairly rapid succession, I worked at Gallo, Wine Growers Guild, Mission Bell [Winery], and then Beaulieu Vineyards. I stayed at Beaulieu Vineyards for about seven and a half years. It was a great job, a wonderful place to live, but in all seriousness, I was puttering along at half power because there was no interest in the wine business at that time. I was just basically an insurance policy for Andre [Tschelistcheff]. As you know, he’s still alive, still working, and he stayed on at Beaulieu many years after I left.

William: What year again did you go to work for Beaulieu?

Joe: I think it was 1951. I was there seven and a half years, as I said, and I think I left January 1, ’58. I just wasn’t utilizing my energy at Beaulieu, so I went to work at Fresno State.

William: But wasn’t Beaulieu still the premiere winery of California at that time? It was selling quite well, wasn’t it?

Joe: Yes. I remember one huge discussion we had; it was whether we could break the two dollar barrier on the four or five.