NAPA, Calif. — To get to Mayacamas Vineyards, visitors have to drive 60 miles north of San Francisco, through the back roads of Napa Valley’s wine country and then up a winding single-lane dirt road on the side of a mountain to a place where there is limited cell service.
The entrance to the estate rests about 2,000 feet above the Napa valley floor — complete with the old stone winery and library space that was built in 1889. The house, which has recently been rebuilt after the 2017 fires and will soon open to the public, is surrounded by 475 acres of grapes, in addition to a few olive trees.
Visitors in groups no larger than four then take a utility vehicle to Hunters Camp, Mayacamas’ highest peak, where they can see the entire property (and the San Francisco skyline in the distance on a clear day), while sipping wine.
“Celebrities love it here because it’s secluded,” Kris Kraner, estate director of Mayacamas Vineyards, told WWD while at the estate. “Mayacamas is off the beaten path. Anyway you come, you’re at least a half hour away from any sort of civilization. Nobody even knows when others are here. We don’t let two groups see each other, so nobody is crossing paths. Visitors just feel so far removed from anything that’s even going on within their own lives. It’s very peaceful and calming up here. And it feels very, very private. And I think that’s something that attracts that clientele, knowing that it’s a very private environment.”
Some of Mayacamas’ regulars include celebrities and athletes, such as NBA player LeBron James and Kevin Love. There’s also Jay Schottenstein, executive chairman of the board and chief executive officer of American Eagle Outfitters, whose family purchased the property and business, which includes a downtown Napa tasting room, in 2013.
“My family and I are always open to new opportunities and investments,” Schottenstein said. “Heritage brands have always been an area of focus and passion for us and Mayacamas is one of the most storied vineyards and winery operations in Napa Valley. When the Mayacamas Vineyards became available, we felt it was well worth a visit. We quickly recognized the value in Mayacamas as not only one of the most beautiful properties in all of Napa, but also for being the best premium vineyard. Most importantly, we saw the chance to invest in and be a part of the Mayacamas legacy.”
The transaction made the Schottenstein family — whose portfolio includes the American Eagle, Aerie, Offline by Aerie, Unsubscribed and Todd Snyder apparel and accessories brands, as well as American Eagle Outfitters’ two most recent acquisitions of two last-mile logistics firms, Quiet Logistics and AirTerra — the vineyard’s fifth owners in Mayacamas Vineyards’ 132-year history, following John Henry Fisher, Mayacamas’ original owner; the Brandlin family; Jack and Mary Taylor, and Bob and Elinor Travers.
Schottenstein wouldn’t disclose how much he paid for the business, but did say it has had “substantial sales growth, particularly over the last three years.”
That might come as a surprise to come, considering both the vineyard and downtown Napa location were shut down during the pandemic. There was also the 2017 Northern California wildfires, which destroyed the original tasting room and residence of previous owners. After several years of planning and construction the new tasting room will open to the public next month.
But even during lockdown sales of wines from California actually increased 2 percent in 2020, compared with 2019, according to the Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy organization representing California wineries, thanks to so many people hunkering down at home and in need of a distraction. Mayacamas was no exception. In addition, agriculture and farming were deemed essential, which allowed the vineyard to continue harvesting grapes during the pandemic.
“We have always viewed Mayacamas as a long-term investment and have invested a great deal into the business and property to take the brand to the next level,” Schottenstein said. “Like our other businesses, we have a strong passion for what we do. Wine is a passion and Mayacamas is one of the great legacy wines in the world. [And] unlike many investments, a winery provides you with a physical space to visit and enjoy. We are very excited about Mayacamas’ growth and the reopening of our exclusive tasting room. We look forward to continuing to invest in the property and strengthen the Mayacamas brand to ensure it remains a premium vineyard and a profitable venture for many years to come.”
Today, the business is split, with about 50 percent of revenues coming from its wholesale operation and 50 percent direct-to-consumer, which includes e-commerce orders at mayacamas.com, as well as in-person sales.
Kraner said the best wholesale markets are California, New York, Florida, Texas and Illinois, with the U.K. being the top international market, followed by parts of Scandinavia and Asia. She added that in-person traffic to the estate and downtown Napa location is starting to pick up as vaccines continue to roll out and travel returns.
“Last week alone we had about 150 on the waiting list to come to the estate,” Kraner said. “There’s an appetite [to go out and be social], especially in the valley. Hotel occupancy is up as well. People want to get out and they want to experience things. And Napa is a great place to do that, because you’re outdoors; you’re in beautiful weather, drinking great wine. So what better way to kind of just escape and get out than just come to Napa?”
Tours of the Mayacamas estate are by reservation only. But Kraner said anyone can stop into the downtown Napa location. Tastings downtown range in price from $35 to $85, depending on the number of wines sampled, while the vineyard tour and tasting, which includes five wines, is $115.
“What we want people to do is get a good introduction to Mayacamas throughout our downtown tasting room and then from there grow the relationship with them,” Kraner said. “And we try to bring the mountain downtown. For example, the cheese plates have the fruit that we grow here in our orchard, as well as the wine samples. It’s just a really great way to capture new customers.”
Mayacamas produces chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, rosé and sauvignon blanc. The vineyard is also one of only three vineyards in Napa Valley to sell kosher wines, according to Braiden Albrecht, head winemaker at Mayacamas, something the winery began in 2013. (Schottenstein and his wife keep kosher. His personal favorite is the kosher cabernet sauvignon.) In addition, after the 2017 fires, Mayacamas began making olive oil.
“A lot of [the olive trees] were overgrown and in a couple of places on the property, the  fire kind of burned out the competition,” Albrecht explained. “And all of the sudden these olive trees started popping back up. It gives us a little bit more crop diversity on property, which is really important, too. We don’t want to just be a mono-culture up here, only growing grapes. We want to foster biodiversity.”
In addition to a variety of crops, the winery has had a variety of owners throughout its more than century-long lifespan — but still manages to retain its history, Kraner said.
“Mayacamas is not about any one person, or any one owner,” she explained. “It’s about the legacy of the vineyard and keeping that going and knowing that we’re kind of a steward to the next [generation].
“An individual doesn’t try to come in here and try to change the wine-making style or what we do here,” Kraner continued. “We kind of pick up where the last person left off, make improvements and efficiencies to the wine-making, as well as our facilities. But really keeping true to what we’ve been doing over the past 132 years. And I think that makes us a bit unique in the valley.”
These days, along with Kraner, Albrecht and winemaker Andy Erickson, Schottenstein’s son Joey Schottenstein — whom Schottenstein calls “the family expert in wines” — runs much of the day-to-day operations at Mayacamas.
“Winemaking at Mayacamas is such a history-rich experience and I feel very fortunate that we have been able to enjoy its heritage together, as a family,” Joey Schottenstein said. “When we took ownership of Mayacamas, we were really drawn to the property’s rich heritage and legacy. We wanted to make sure we could preserve as much of that history as possible while investing in efficiencies that would serve Mayacamas well into the future. Our wines are still aged in century-old barrels and the property’s remaining historic buildings are all in use.
“The best thing for us has been having a place that we can enjoy both personally and from an investment standpoint,” he continued. “I visit the grounds many times a month with family and friends as a way to find inspiration, balance and to recharge.” (He counts the 1970s Mayacamas cabernet sauvignon vintage among his favorites.) But, he added, “I can’t wait to drink the wines in the years to come.”