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ZD Wines: Historical Perspective

ZD Wines: Historical Perspective

It was the early 1960s and the Russians had launched Sputnik; Kennedy spurred us into the race to space; the Civil Rights Movement was changing the way we looked at the world; and two aerospace engineers were dreaming of grapes. The air was electric with change and possibilities, and Norman deLeuze and Gino Zepponi were ready to capitalize on that energy. Norman deLeuze began working for Aerojet General in Sacramento for his chance to participate in the race to space that was driving the nation. With a new wife, Rosa Lee, and children on the way, Norman began working in the design department for the liquid rocket plant where he was responsible for advanced concepts in liquid rocket engines used on
projects such as Apollo. It was here that Norman first met Gino Zepponi and a friendship formed that would change both of their lives forever. By 1962, Aerojet General had grown exponentially from 7,000 to 20,000 employees in a short period of time and the advanced concepts that Norman had been working on were taking shape and becoming operational. There was a lessening need for design development and Norman left six years later in search of new work. Along with thousands of other engineers, Norman became a sort of gypsy as he contemplated his skills and how to apply them in other fields.

During this time, with big ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit, the two men began talking about forming their own company. While planning to start some business Norman and Gino began making small amounts of wine out of their homes that were not half bad.

In 1968, while Gino continued working at Aerojet, Norman accepted a position with Optical Coating Laboratory in Sonoma County where he applied his skills as an aerospace engineer to the development of thin films. His true passion, however, had become the wine industry.
Every spare moment was spent researching the newsest technologies of winemaking. They met Dr. Maynard Amerine at UC Davis who was a driving force behind the success of Napa Valley. His book, “Wine: An Introduction for Americans” became their winemaking bible and the two men spent hours pouring over its pages. They also paid a visit to Fred McCrea at Stony Hill Winery, which was one of the few successful family-operated wineries at the time. If they wanted to get into the wine industry, Norman and Gino would have to come up with a name for their business. There was no hesitation. While working at Aerojet General, a “Zero Defects” quality control program was in effect and large ZD posters were hung
around the facility as a constant reminder. ZD also happened to fit Norman and Gino’s last names: Zepponi and deLeuze. The families agreed and a name was born, ZD Wines.

In 1968, Norman applied for an Alcoholic Beverage Control license from Sonoma County. The director looked at the application, looked at Norman and proclaimed, “Oh yes, I remember someone once did that.” As it turns out, there had not been an application for a new winery in Sonoma County for more than 20 years. The application no longer
existed and the director simply asked Norman to write his request on a piece of paper and he would have it approved. A year later, the license was theirs. In 1969, Norman and Gino spent weekends refurbishing an 1100 sq. ft. farm building in Carneros. Each man had $3000 to invest in the startup of the winery that went directly to rent, supplies and grapes. A
business was born. That year they produced their first Pinot Noir from 4.9 tons of grapes purchased from Winery Lake Vineyard in Carneros. This was enough to create 375 cases of wine. By comparison, ZD Wines now produces 30,000 cases of wine annually. The original concept was to produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the style of France’s renowned Burgundy region. It did not take long, however, to realize that ZD Wines had the benefit of the California sunshine and that they could produce great wines by taking advantage of all that this region has to offer. For the label, Norman and Gino recruited an old friend from Aerojet to design the label that was used for the first eleven years. This label is of historic importance as it was the first to use the Carneros appellation with the statement, “Made in Sonoma from grapes grown in the Carneros region of Napa.”

By 1978 the winery, originally a hobby, became a full-time occupation for Norman and Rosa Lee. Gino had accepted a position as Executive Vice President at Domaine Chandon and he simply didn’t have the time to be at ZD everyday. As a result, with the production of wine continuing to increase, Norman began spending hours drafting proposals for expansion
and submitting loan requests for a piece of land on the Silverado Trail. After the wenty-fifth bank had rejected him, Norman finally found a bank willing to grant him the loan. With this money, Norman purcahsed the land in Rutherford and the two families, deLeuze and Zepponi, came together to baptize it with wine, food, and laughter. With Norman as the sole employee (paid employee), development began at the new facility where ZD Wines continues to reside today. Sadly, Gino passed away in 1985 from an automobile accident shortly after presenting Norman with a decanter with the inscription, “Congratulations on our first million dollars of sales!” Shortly after his death, the deLeuze family purchased Gino’s interest in the winery from his estate. Today, three generations of the deLeuze family continue on in the tradition established by Norman and Gino forty years ago.

Robert, the middle child, followed closely in his father’s footsteps, becoming Winemaker in 1983. After holding the position for eighteen years, Robert is currently the EO/Winemaster of ZD Wines, overssing the management of the winery. Chris Pisani, current Winemaker, studied closely with Robert for five years before taking over in 2001. He is now
responsible for producing ZD’s signature-style well balanced, fruit-driven Chardonnays; intense, flavorful Pinot Noirs; and opulent, rich Cabernet Sauvignons.

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