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Lillian Harrison, 100

Leo Joseph Estate Cellars
A new wine from four generations of women
By Jack Heeger
(edited for publication)

Thursday, November 29, 2007
New wine brands are released just about every week, it seems, but one brand that made its debut last weekend is quite different from others. It’s made by a company that has four generations involved. And they’re all women. Leo Joseph Estate Cellars in St. Helena produced the wine from the Lawrence Harrison Vineyard, a partnership of 100-year-old Lillian Harrison and her 63-year-old daughter, Carolyn Harrison Lawrence. Carolyn’s daughter, Donna Lee Lawrence Costa, 38, helps with the accounting and business side of the organization, and the youngest member, Lillian’s great-granddaughter, Erika Lawrence, 19, is being groomed to help in sales.
        Lillian’s official role is an investor, but she also serves as a taster, Carolyn said. “When we tried the wine for the first time, we brought it to her (Lillian) and she liked it.” She explained that her mother knows wine — she comes from an Italian family that always had wine on the table at their home in San Francisco’s North Beach. “She was raised with it — it was always red wine. My dad was raised in St. Helena, so he was always around wine, too,” she said. Thus, there was no question that Leo Joseph wine would be red — it’s 83 percent cabernet sauvignon and 17 percent cabernet franc, all grown in the tiny vineyard, just eight-tenths of an acre, on one side of the property ... that is also home to two houses, one occupied by Lillian, the other by Carolyn.  

Vineyard planted in 2002
The decision to go into the wine business was made in 2002 when the vineyard was planted. Carolyn credits family friend George Vierra, a long-time wine industry veteran, with urging her to consider removing a lawn and planting vines ... The tiny vineyard yielded just a little over four tons, and they ended up with 270 cases. They plan to sell it all directly, either via the Internet or through word-of-mouth. Carolyn said she also is considering selling to a restaurant. She seemed apologetic for selling the wine so soon. “This is a baby wine,” she said. “Still, it goes wonderfully with a variety of foods, and is even good for just sipping.”
          The reason for putting the 2005 out now, when many other premium wineries are releasing their 2004s, is to coincide with Lillian’s 100th birthday, which was Oct. 31.
          “I know it’s a little early (to release it) but what better time to do it,” Carolyn said. Asked about how it felt to go into a new business at age 100, Lillian responded, “It’s very exciting, but I was in my 90s when we started it.” She added, “I’m never too old to start a vineyard.”  

Showed some concern
But there was some concern on her part. “Mom was nervous (about going into the wine business) — would she be around to see a profit?” Carolyn said. “That was the scariest thing for her. She asked, ‘What if it doesn’t sell,’ and I told her that then we will have a heckuva good party.
          “When we sold the first case of wine she was ecstatic,” she added. “When someone compliments her on the wine, she’s very happy.” Under Vierra’s guidance, Carolyn, a retired school teacher, took classes at UC Davis and Napa Valley College and immersed herself in wine knowledge. She said she studied all aspects of viticulture, she worked in the vineyard pulling leaves, pruning and picking — “I really have respect for the people who work in the fields all the time,” she said — and she goes out and walks through the vineyard every day. "They (the vines) kind of talk to you, like a relationship,” she said.
          Paul Garvey handles the actual vineyard management, and Vierra made the wine at Bell Wine Cellars in Yountville. It was aged 22 months in used French oak barrels closed with new Hungarian and French barrel heads. “The new heads give just enough oakiness,” Carolyn said. The wine comes in at just 13.9 percent alcohol, far below many of the cabernets produced today. “George (Vierra) and I want to go back to the European style,” Carolyn said. “Women have said this is elegant.”  

Appeals to women
In designing the packaging, she wanted to appeal to women because women buy more wine than men, she said. “All red wines have either a red or a dark green capsule, but we have one that is sage green. Only a woman would worry about things like that.” The same color is used on the label, which features an old woodcut drawing that she said depicts a servant presenting wine to her father for his approval.
          The name Leo Joseph comes from the first and middle name of her father, who died in 1993. It’s a tribute to him, she said. When the time came to price the wine, Carolyn said Vierra had them taste a variety of wines ranging from $60 to $150 per bottle, then compare it to their own wine. She said that although the Leo Joseph wine was younger than the others, it stacked up favorably, and they settled on a price of $75 per bottle. During an open house to introduce the wine, a man told Lillian that his father recently celebrated his 100th birthday, too. His was on Oct. 2, just 29 days before hers. He must have been trying to make a match because he told her, “My father likes younger women.”  

No family discounts
Carolyn’s daughter, Donna Lee, works in the finance department of the city of Napa and watches over the business side of the venture, and it looks like she’s a strict manager. “There are no family discounts,” she said. “The hard part is realizing this is a business and I have to pay for a bottle of wine.” Carolyn agreed. “We can’t drink it (ourselves) because there goes the profits.” Donna Lee is a self-professed white wine drinker, and said she is picky about cabernet sauvignon. But she loved the 2004 vintage. The 2004? That crop was very small (the vines were only two years old) and a friend bought the grapes and made the wine, Carolyn explained. During an interview, Donna Lee seemed to enjoy the 2005, too.
          Lillian’s great-granddaughter, Erica, who is majoring in international relations and Italian language, plans to go to Italy next year. She had planned to take a minor in viticulture, but any involvement with the wine business will have to wait until after she graduates. Carolyn said she hopes Erika will help on the sales side. As the family concluded an interview, Carolyn alluded to the fact that the business would be successful. “None of us is wishy-washy. We’re four generations of very strong-willed determined women,” Carolyn said. Donna Lee whispered to a reporter, “Stubborn is a better word.”
          Leo Joseph Estate Cellars can be found at


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