Mayacamas Vineyards is a wine estate located in the Mayacamas Mountains that divide the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Near the top of Mount Veeder, the old stone winery was dug into the side of a dormant volcano crater in the late 19th century. Fifty-two acres of vineyards are planted on mountainsides ranging from 1,800 to 2,400 feet above sea level. Deer, eagles, cougars, foxes, bobcats, and an occasional bear and mountain lion still inhabit this rugged terrain. Obsidian arrowheads and stone grain-grinding bowls found on the property bear silent testimony to Mayacamas' first human inhabitants, the Native Americans of the Wappo tribe. It is from the Wappo language that the name "Mayacamas" derives. Mayacamas is believed to have meant "the howl of the mountain lion" in the Wappo tongue. But other possible meanings of the word exist: alternatively, Mayacamas may have meant "the source of the water", referring to the springs and headwaters of creeks that feed the Napa and Sonoma Rivers. A third possible meaning of Mayacamas is "standing place" referring to a trail marker, or perhaps sometimes a human scout who stood at a position on the trail in the area, and indicated the direction in which the rest of the traveling party should go. Perhaps, in some way lost to present understanding, "Mayacamas" meant a combination of all of these ideas to the Wappo. But, as the language was never written, and its speakers are no longer with us, the original sense of the word Mayacamas remains shrouded in the the quiet that abides after voices have ceased, and their last echoes have faded. What remains is a homage to the first meaning, "the howl of the mountain lion," on the Mayacamas label, in the emblematic "M" which bears two lions rampant dancing within.
The winery was built in 1889 by John Henry Fisher, an intense-looking, chiseled-jawed German who had emigrated from Stuttgart to America. Fisher first had landed in Philadelphia, where he'd worked as a sword engraver. Later he moved to San Francisco where he went into business as a pickle merchant. Fisher and his family established Zinfandel vines and raised the edifice of the winery on the grounds of an old sheep herding ranch at the end of the steep, dusty, Redwood-shaded trail on Mount Veeder, in the amphitheater-like bowl of the volcano crater, and named it Fisher and Sons. He used the pre-existing barn (built circa 1850) to stable the horses he used to deliver his canned pickles to clients in San Francisco. He sold his wine by the barrel, ferrying the barriques by barge from the dock in the Napa River south across the bay to the Embarcadero in San Francisco. From there, the barrels were rolled up the streets to a collective bottling house, likely the large and then-thriving (and fellow Germanic) Gundlach Bundschu establishment.
In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire leveled Fisher's pickle concern, along with most of the rest of the city. In the smoking rubble of the aftermath he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Soon thereafter, the winery estate on Mount Veeder was sold at auction on the front steps of the Napa County Courthouse for $5,000 in U.S. Gold Coins.
The winery officially fell into disuse until the end of Prohibition, although the new owners, Pietro and Maria Marenco, an Italian-American couple, did bootleg wine and grappa in the conveniently remote cellar. They also sold wine legally to the Catholic Church for use at Mass. The Marencos sold the winery to Henry Brandlin, whose family today thrives as vintners on other properties on Mount Veeder. Brandlin, in turn, sold the property to Jack Taylor, who was British, and to his Californian wife, Mary.
The Taylors re-christened the estate Mayacamas Vineyards upon purchasing the land in 1941. 1941 was the year of the London Blitz; Jack was escaping Hitler's falling bombs for a new, pastoral (and still not undemanding) life of New World winemaking. The Taylors planted Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, and inaugurated the biannual Mayacamas newsletter, which announced new releases of wines and described their rough-hewn life on Mount Veeder, which, after decades of viticulture, maintained an air and spirit of pioneering, with no electricity yet on the mountain and a very basic infrastructure, including a gravity-flow winery design.
The current ownership is that of the Travers family. Robert and Elinor Travers, Californians both, bought Mayacamas Vineyards in 1968 when they were both 30 years of age. Bob had worked at Heitz Cellars, living with "Nonie", as she was known to those who knew her, in a cottage on the Martha's Vineyard property in Oakville. Bob's apprenticeship with Joe Heitz, as well as his scientific background as a petroleum engineer at Stanford University, held him in good stead in his new career. He loved the land and deduced its potential, until then only hinted at, for producing wines of great character, depth, complexity, and ageworthiness, and, together, the young couple focused their efforts on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, with Bob as chief winemaker.
Bob Travers has created wines of classical, balanced, intense, and deeply authentic character for the more than four decades hence. He is still the winemaker. The roster of former winemakers, assistants, and viticulturalists at Mayacamas runs deep---Philip Togni made the 1959 vintage for the Taylors; Bob Sessions, now of Hanzell Vineyards, was the assistant winemaker at Mayacamas during the late 1960's and early 1970's; Lore Olds of Sky Vineyards was on the winemaking team during the late 1970's and early 1980's; Randal Johnson of The Hess Collection also served as an assistant winemaker during that period; Dr. Steven Krebs, PhD (UC Davis), founder and director of the Napa Valley College Viticulture and Winery Technology program, was the vineyard manager during the 1980's; Bruce Neyers of Neyers Vineyards and Kermit Lynch was the vineyard manager during the 1970's in his first job in the wine business.
In 1976, Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, vintage 1971, was selected for the "Judgement of Paris" tasting, pitting a selection of the finest American wines against a similar collection of top French growths. Mayacamas Vineyatds Cabernet Sauvignon was also included in the 10-year and 30-year replays of that landmark event, in 1986 ad 2006, which collectively solidified the tasting's statement about the legitimacy of the best American wines, and the American wine industry in general. More than any other single event, the Judgement of Paris established American wines as being among the finest in the world: it established American wines in the global imagination. The 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon was entered in the event despite the fact that the considerably greater 1970 vintage was requested by the event's organizer, Steven Spurrier (due to the fact that the 1970 was sold out, Spurrier was denied the 1970, and after another entreaty to Bob Travers, he was given the yet-unreleased 1971). True to form, the notoriously long-lived Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon showed better with time. In the original tasting, it placed 7th. In the second tasting, in 1986, it placed 2nd, beating all of the French entries. In the final tasting of 2006, which as much as anything described the wines' ageworthiness, the Mayacamas tied for 3rd., appropriately enough with Heitz Martha's Vineyard, again out-placing all French entries. All tastings were performed blind by some of the most distinguished tasters of the day; the first two were tasted only by noted French judges, in Paris; the last was judged by a panel of experts evenly split between French and Americans.
In 1995, 20th Century Fox came to Mayacamas to film scenes of the film "A Walk in the Clouds", starring Keanu Reeves, Anthony Quinn, Debra Messing, and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon.
Today Bob Travers and his son, Chris Travers, continue to specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, with small lots of similarly classically structured Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc also produced. Bob is one of the longest-serving winemakers in America working at any single property. Chris' apprenticeships at Chateau la Tour Blanche in Sauternes 1994-5, Chateau Margaux in 1996, and Mount Mary Vineyards in the Yarra Valley of Australia in 1999, as well as working in viticulture and farming in Chile in 1993-4 and a degree in Romance Studies (Spanish literature) at Duke University (1989-93), studies at the Napa Valley College Viticulture and Winery Technology program under Dr. Krebs, winemaking studies at UC Davis, and no small amount of other wandering vineyards in Argentina, Spain, Portugal, and other odysseys have have inspired him to double down on the Mayacamas commitment to expressing the unique terroir of this vineyard through authentic, classically structured, ageworthy wines.