Rivera Vineyards Donates All Its Wine

Accidental vintner lets his Atlas Peak wines do good works

by Paul Franson
Rivera Vineyards Donates All Its Wine
Rivera Vineyards
Napa, Calif. -- The wine community is famous for its generosity, and many wineries donate wine to charitable events, but Steve Rivera has taken generosity to its extreme: He donates all of the wine from his Rivera Vineyards to Bay Area charities.

Rivera not only donates the wine (and sometimes accompanying events at his vineyard), but he pays all the expenses of growing grapes and producing the wine. He then donates the wine to good causes that use them to serve attendees or to auction.

He can't even take a tax donation for the gifts, for since he has no revenue from the vineyard, he can't deduct any expenses.

His major focus is on causes benefiting children and health. A large bottle plus a dinner went for $40,000 at the recent V Foundation Wine Celebration, for example, and other wines have been auctioned for big bucks to help other charities. "We look for events that attract the firepower that can make these donations," Rivera says, adding, "We prefer charities that have low overhead."

Other beneficiaries have included the Taylor Family Foundation, which raised $30,000; Summit Bank Foundation, and SportStrong Youth Sports Foundation. A 3-liter bottle of Rivera Vineyards wine raised $2,500 for the Special Olympics. Most of the wine has been bottled in large formats since they are especially popular at auctions.

Rivera Vineyards Donates All Its Wine
Rivera bottle
Not surprisingly, the wines have serious pedigrees. The winery's location, producers and exclusiveness bestow status almost by default. They are big but not overblown Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons from a small rocky vineyard in a secluded box canyon 1,550 feet above Napa Valley in the Atlas Peak AVA. And they seem to be attracting the types of bids normally reserved for famed cult wines.

Recognizing that it takes cult-type wine to attract top dollar, Rivera chose two of Napa Valley's top wine artisans to make the wines: winemaker Karen Culler and vineyard manager Pete Richmond of Silverado Farming Company. Karen Culler is the winemaker for Ladera Vineyards, Wolf Family Vineyards on the historic Inglewood Estate, and her own label, Culler Wines. Before founding Silverado, Pete Richmond managed Kendall-Jackson vineyards in Napa, and now manages vineyards for Harlan Estate Winery, Bryant Family Vineyard and Littorai Wines.

No intention of getting into the wine business

Rivera founded the glossy East Bay Diablo Magazine in 1979, later added North Bay and East Bay franchises for the in-hotel reference Concierge; Napa Sonoma and Design for Living, and still owns and is directly involved in managing these publications. He also maintains a financial interest in San Francisco Focus--now just San Francisco--but brought in partners including Modern Luxury publications and stepped back from management.

Rivera and his wife Marilyn bought 65 acres in the Atlas Peak area above Yountville nine years ago, and they first planted 7.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in an exquisite private valley. More recently, he added 3.5 acres more including some Petit Verdot, all the while preserving the property's native live oak trees.

Rivera Vineyards Donates All Its Wine
Steve & Marilyn Rivera
The Riveras intended to use the secluded property for weekend getaways, not to make wine. "I didn't intend to get into the wine business, just to grow grapes," he vows.

Industry friends who saw the quality of the grapes encouraged Rivera to make wine, he says.

The vineyard is picked very late, typically starting in mid-October; because of potential spring frost at that altitude in the small canyon, the vines are also pruned very late to discourage early budding.
Rivera only produced 100 cases of wine in 2003, and 250 cases of the current, 2004 release. The 2004 is elegant and restrained, just 13.8% alcohol with a tannin profile that suggests great aging potential and a fine match with food. Rivera expects eventually to reach 400 to 450 cases, and admits that he may have more wine in the future than he can donate alone.

He is talking to Michael Mondavi about adding his brand to Mondavi's Folio Winemakers Partners portfolio as a charitable effort, and Mondavi has offered to handle it at no cost, though the deal isn't yet completed. "It's an idea chiseled in Jell-O," Rivera admits.

The wine would probably sell for about $100 for a 750ml bottle, with the buyer able to designate it to certain charities. "This would allow people who can't donate $50,000 a chance to support good causes," Rivera says.

The first pouring of the wines was at a media tour of Atlas Peak AVA recently, but Rivera says he needs to start getting the word out. That shouldn't be difficult for someone with his background in publishing.

For more information, visit riveravineyards.org.
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