Carl Kanowsky | Tales from Napa: The Peju saga 

Carl Kanowsky on Wine

We just returned from Napa Valley, attending the Napa Collective Barrel Auction, one of the top wine charity events in the world. My future columns will cover that. 

While there for a few days, we had the unique opportunity to meet and get acquainted with one of the veterans of Napa, Herta Behensky Peju, affectionately known throughout the valley as HB. 

In 1983, HB and her husband, Tony, and their two daughters moved from a comfortable lifestyle in Los Angeles in a quest to satisfy Tony’s dream of having a successful winery — even though he’d never been in the wine business before. 

They bought 30 acres on Highway 29, St. Helena Highway, almost directly across the street from the famed Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard and just about a mile from a winery you may have heard of, Robert Mondavi, and down the road from Oakville, home to California’s most expensive wine, Screaming Eagle. 

That’s kind of like (in reverse) moving from Napa to a place with large homes like Bel-Air by throwing darts at a map. Blind luck, or did Tony and HB know what they were doing? 

But not only was their site selection rock-solid, so was their foretelling of California’s wine industry. According to Napa Green, there were 100 Napa wineries in 1980, just a few years before the arrival of the Peju family. Now, California Wine Advisor reports that there are an astounding 1,850 registered Napa wineries! 

Regardless of whether they realized that they had struck gold by choosing where they did, when they did, Tony and HB got to work, planting vines (there were some already planted but they added to that), working the soil, and generally trying to get their venture off the ground. 

They had exhausted much of the reserve they brought to Northern California by then. They wanted to build a winery where they could make wine, maybe even have a tasting room. But they didn’t have the capital necessary to begin construction. 

So, they went to their neighbors and asked them to crush their fruit. Tony planned on making his wine that way – in what is now known as a custom crush facility. He would do that until he garnered enough sales to build their own winemaking facility. 

But this was a revolutionary concept that Napa County authorities would not countenance. Either you had a winery, or you did not. According to county rules, you could only sell wine at the place where you made it. The only way Tony and HB could get around this restriction was to sue Napa County, which they did. Finally, in 1987, they settled with the county and began making wine. 

Peju Winery went from 2,000 cases initially to 50,000 cases now. They started with 30 acres. Today, the winery owns five properties totaling 558 acres, 232 of which are currently planted. Despite all of the obstacles, Tony and HB created a thriving, vibrant winery, a true measure of the success they jointly accomplished. 

For the longest time, HB didn’t mingle in Napa society. Then, after her daughters graduated from college, being both a loving parent and an astute business owner, she made the conscious decision to reverse course. She joined the Napa Valley Vintners Association in 1997 and got involved.  

Since HB was born in Austria and then her family moved to Venezuela when she was young, she’s fluent in German, Spanish and English. Consequently, she naturally transitioned to become one of the prominent worldwide ambassadors of all things Napa.  

Unfortunately, Tony died last year, but HB marshals on, turning the winery over to her daughters, Lisa and Ariana, while she works on the history of Peju Winery. And, she told me that she still signs the checks, so she knows where the money is going. 

HB is a delightful, charming and elegant lady of Napa Valley. Everyone seems to know her, always greeting her with, “Hi, HB. How you doing?” The next time you are in Napa, stop by Peju and say hello to my friend, HB.  

Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker.    

HB Peju left Los Angeles for Napa Valley in 1983 along with her husband, Tony, to fulfill his dream of having a successful winery. Photo courtesy of Carl Kanowsky.
HB Peju left Los Angeles for Napa Valley in 1983 along with her husband, Tony, to fulfill his dream of having a successful winery. Photo courtesy of Carl Kanowsky.

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