Wine — The new face of fine wines

Laely Heron puts passion, awe and good grapes in every bottle

By Tim Protzman

Do you remember your first crush? Laely Heron does, and she’s more likely to tell you about the boy she sat behind in fifth-grade math class than the day in 1995 when she made her first wine.

Heron doesn’t spout the technical talk. She talks about the feelings and passion she has for wine and life itself. But she can afford to be happy; she just got back from a trip to Bali, where she relaxed and toured local vineyards. I’ve never wanted to be a woman before, but I did the day I spent an hour chatting with her. I wanted to be Laely Heron, one of the world’s top female winemakers.

I’m only emphasizing the gender issue because Heron does. She’s proud that 10 years ago she was among only a handful of women who had started a wine company from scratch. But she’s very modest, too. She says she got into the wine business almost by accident.

That accident started 41 years ago (although she still could pass for 29). Heron’s parents were young, just 16, when she came along. Her father became a mining engineer and, when Heron was 9, the family began a world tour — visiting, working and living around the globe.

Heron’s parents weren’t wine drinkers, although she remembers there was a jug of Almaden Mountain Rhine in the fridge and leisurely Sunday afternoon dinners with wine and friends when they lived in Algeria. However, she credits her parents with providing her with an insatiable curiosity, unique perspective and determination that helped her go from producing 500 cases of wine in 1995 to 60,000 today.

Heron went to college at the University of Colorado and spent her junior year in Bordeaux, at the Institute of Enology (Grape School). There she discovered her love for great wine. Heron worked for Lindemans Wines and ran a restaurant in Copenhagen. Later, after the end of a relationship, Heron returned to the U.S., broke and looking for a job. Over lunch in a San Francisco restaurant, she asked a friend in the wine industry for work. He said no, start your own business. Anticipating that Merlot would be the next big thing, she headed back to France.

In the tiny little appellation of Saint-Chinian in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Heron met up with two vineyard owners and they loaned her enough grapes to make her merlot. It was pretty with cherry fruit and a touch of strawberries but had structure and backbone, like a sturdy French farmer’s wife. It was just the thing to nose it ahead of the flood of Kool-Aid merlots hitting the market.

Today, Heron makes seven wines. She doesn’t have her own winery (no need for the overhead), and she probably won’t, considering the success she’s already had. Instead she’s what is called an “Alternating Proprietor” winery. She’s legally bonded as a winery, but she sublets space in southern Napa Valley from another winery. She’s also a negociant, since she buys her grapes from the farmers, but she always makes her own wine — the original French Merlot, a Californian Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah and a Chardonnay. This summer she brings out a wine from Terra Alta, an up-and-coming wine region located in Spain’s northeast, next to the red-hot Priorat region.

I tasted the Chardonnay and was delighted. It was very much like a French Macon-Villages or even a Saint-Veran but it was a bit more substantial. And, at $9.99, there’s a big, big difference in price. It had a bit of cream, a touch of nutmeg and some lemon and green olive fruit flavors. No wonder Heron wines are catching on. Very few wines deliver as much for this price. I was enchanted with what she termed a “judicious” use of oak. Some vineyards use oak barrels, some place oak staves or oak chips into the stainless steel vats and some use oak esters, which are artificial oak flavoring.

Heron gets her French oak barrels from a guy she calls a “cooperage freak.” He recently purchased a stand of timber in the Forest of Trouncer, which is first growth. He thinks it makes for a tighter, more gnarled grain. And she doesn’t use Malolactic Fermentation, which uses bacteria to convert the harsher malic acid into the mellower lactic acid.

Heron told me about two great wine experiences in her life. One was three years ago when she got a phone call from the head sommelier for the Four Seasons hotel chain. Her Cabernet Sauvignon had placed in the top 10 out of almost 1,000 other cabs in a blind tasting done by a panel of 12 wine experts.

The second was when she was 20, in Amsterdam. She was on a date with a “cute guy who was a bit of a twit.” It was at an elegant Asian restaurant with a décor like a set from Flower Drum Song. He handed the wine list to Heron and told her “pick anything you want.” She guiltily chose a 1953 Chateau Margaux, a 75 percent cab, 20 percent merlot and 5 percent petit verdot/cabernet franc blend. Today, the wine costs $615.51 retail and it’s $2,520 at Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant in Chicago. She doesn’t remember her date’s name, what she ate or the price of the wine, but she can still taste that first glass.

“Complex, velvety, with flavors that intermingled; licorice, hay, tobacco smoke and fruit,” she said. “The texture was fascinating, thin, then thick. It was wonderful.”

As I write I can still feel the passion and awe she puts into her wines. Yes, I still want to be Laely Heron, but more importantly, I want to go out with that twit from Amsterdam.

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Selling Heron Wine

Martingetti Companies of N.H., on Fir Street, has Heron Wines for Queen City grape lovers.

Heron Wines, founded by Laely Heron in 1994, makes Merlot, California Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah at an “everyday price” of about $12 a bottle. Most varieties are available at Angela’s Cheese and Pasta Shop at 815 Chestnut Street, Manchester, 625-9544.

Under New Hampshire liquor laws, Matingetti’s new offering is considered a test until the company sells a certain amount of the wine. The Martingetti staff says that won’t be a problem.

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