By Craig Smith
Dan Capp, a fifth generation Napan and owner of Capp Heritage Tasting Room at the corner of First and Randolph Street in downtown Napa, drove a tractor on the family farm, as he says, “as soon as my legs were long enough to reach the pedals.” Until he reached that height, he lugged boxes of peaches and apricots, some weighing almost as much as he did, to customer’s cars. Farming is basically all he’s ever done, planting his first vineyard in 1973. He and wife Marguerite have produced award winning wines, but it’s hard work. That’s okay though – Capp comes from hearty stock.
Capp’s great-great grandmother, Frances Griffith, came to the Napa Valley at 13 years of age, on what may have been the first wagon train party to successfully make it over the Sierras, in 1845. Her family had been living in Missouri, where times were tough. The family sold everything they had, purchasing plows, seed, clothes and tools to start a new life in Oregon. The oxen that pulled the wagons would pull the plows at their new home. One hundred and thirty-five wagons started the trip to Oregon Territory. Along the way, some of the group decided to come to the Napa Valley instead, and thirty wagons broke away and headed out on their own.
The trip took six months. When the smaller party reached the Sierras, they fashioned pulleys out of lumber and rope, and hoisted the wagons, one by one, over the mountains. Fording rivers meant cutting lumber to build rafts. It was brutally hard, and not everyone, or the wagons, made it. One of the travelers was David Hudson, age twenty-five, whose sister gave birth to twins en-route. One of them died in the desert.
The small group settled in Calistoga, which was still Mexican territory. The ruling Mexican government considered the newcomers to be illegal aliens and would not rent or sell them land. Fearing war with the US, officials decided strip the group of their supplies an expel them. The former Missourians had not traveled that far to move again without belongings, and a small group, including Hudson, formed the Bear Flag Republic. Their flag was sewed, in part, from the petticoat of Capp’s great-great aunt. A few weeks later, US troops claimed the territory, raising the American flag in Sonoma, where Frances Griffith and her parents now lived. Over a year after leaving Missouri, the surviving wagon party members now had a permanent home.
Capp’s relatives mined for gold before the Gold Rush even started, and were able to purchase property from Dr. Bale that included everything from the Napa River in St. Helena to the Sonoma County line. Hudson and Griffith were married in the Sonoma Square in 1847 by the new governor of California. Griffith, then 15, was the first American woman to get married in the State. One of their sons, Capp’s great uncle, was Rodney Hudson, the first person born in St. Helena. David Hudson planted vineyards there in 1852, after building a large house, where they raised their five children, including two who survived the Donner Party. In the late 1860s, he sold his property to his vineyard foreman, Jacob Beringer. The now-famous Hudson House still stands on the property.
Capp’s paternal grandmother married Giuseppi Antonio Caporicci. A strong woman, she insisted that her new husband become a US citizen and anglicize his name to Joe Capp. The family stayed in farming. Their youngest son, Robert Lee Capp, took over the business after WWll. Robert Lee had two children, Dan Capp being the oldest.
Some of Dan’s earliest memories are of working on the farm. In 1963, he joined and spent four years in the Navy. After leaving the service, Capp finished college at Cal Poly with a degree in agricultural engineering. He met Marguerite a month after she turned 17, and it was love at first sight. He handed her a glass of water, and both felt a spark when their hands touched. Ironically, neither knew the other had the same electric experience until five years ago. He took her to her high school prom, and married her a year after she graduated. The Capps have two children, a son and their daughter-who got married in the new tasting room several months ago.
Dan Capp was the first person to be hired at Franciscan Vineyards, and planted all of their first vineyards. He and a partner planted their own vineyard in 1973. Sixteen years later, Capp bought his partner out, and has been independent since. The wine business has changed since Capp first got involved over forty years ago. It’s big business now, with many small wineries having been swallowed up by large corporations. While he and Marguerite agreed that it was time for them to start making their own wine, the business model dictated by the corporations made entry into selling it prohibitive. Capp figured he had three options, travel the country extensively and set up independent distributors, wade through years of the permitting process and then spend millions to build a winery, or open a tasting room. Option three, which Capp said wouldn’t have made sense ten years ago to open a tasting room in downtown Napa, is today the most logical.
“Opening a tasting room,” means different things to different people, but to the Capps, it meant designing a room that reflects Dan’s heritage as well as their wines. The space they wanted had the dark, wooden bar from the old Carriage House at the Noyes Mansion in one of the two rooms. Dan was inspired to design that room the way the lobby of an 1880’s San Francisco hotel would look, an homage to his great-great grandfather. The room features a pulley system of ceiling fans that conjure up images from a Jules Verne novel. The second room is done in art deco, a tribute to his mother’s family, and utilizes curves and more feminine colors. While in the service in Monterey, Capp spent evenings listening to ad hoc musical groups playing in Cannery Row. Performing on sawdust floors, it was magical, and he wants to recreate that magic in the art deco room. Music is low key, so that people can talk or focus on the
players, as they wish. The commercial kitchen in
the building will be increasingly used to produce small plates.
The Capps have built their lives and farms methodically, and intend to let their tasting room develop at its own pace. They are much more concerned with organic quality than immediate profits. Their cabs are terrific, but Marguerite said that if someone was to try only one of their wines, she would suggest the Barbera. She describes it as “medium to full bodied. A rich wine with high but not excessive acidity that works well with Italian food. It is not a wimpy wine.” The Capps currently produce 2000 cases a year for their labels and sell bulk wine, plus grapes, to others wineries. Marguerite said that they don’t make cult wines, but good, upper end wines that anyone can drink, any day. “Our wine is made to be enjoyed with good food,” she said. “Drink it slowly, and enjoy life.” The Capps are committed to following her excellent advice.