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Heaven on Earth

Ten years after putting down roots in the Spring Mountain region, Duane and Susan Hoff are living the dream on their picturesque estate.



PHOTOS COURTESY OF FANTESCA ESTATE

Duane and Susan Hoff have a most unusual commute. They walk from their peaceful Wine Country dwelling through a wine cave—two minutes at most—to begin a typical workday. Their light at the end of the tunnel? Fantesca Estate and Winery.


 

Life for the Minnesota natives hasn’t always been so picturesque. The couple arrived in Wine Country from Minnesota in 2007, looking to spend more time together with their family. After years working as top executives for the corporate family business, Susan and Duane wanted to slow down, and create something together they are both passionate about: wine.

You could say these college sweethearts discovered heaven on earth at Fantesca. What they found was a St. Helena vineyard with a rich, romantic history dating back to one of the region’s pioneers, Charles Krug. The acreage, located in the prestigious Spring Mountain District, was included in the dowry of Caroline Bale, who married Krug in 1860. And in 1889, Hannah Weinberger, one of Napa Valley’s first woman winemakers, won a silver medal at the Paris World’s Fair for wine she crafted at the vineyard.

“Legend has it that this is an abandoned silver mine,” Duane adds, though silver was never found.

No matter—the Hoffs struck liquid silver, so to speak, in their wine barrels. Ten years later, the well-regarded Fantesca brand and the family behind it have established deep roots in Napa Valley.

Susan and Duane started dating in college. At the time, Susan worked for a small chain of stereo shops in Minneapolis founded by her father, Richard Schulze. By the time Susan and Duane married, the chain had grown to 12 stores, and Duane joined the business. Today, millions know the company as Best Buy.

Moving to the 53-acre spread in St. Helena was a major but welcome lifestyle change for the couple and their two children. A mountain ridge of volcanic tuft splits the breathtaking property in half—with a residence on one side, and the vineyard on the other—separating the family’s personal and business lives.

On a recent afternoon, Duane and Susan stroll the property. They point to a door on one end of the wine cave that opens up to their family retreat. “We can close the door to the cave, lock it, and say to ourselves, ‘OK, all our troubles today stay on that side of the cave. Let’s go home and have a cocktail,’ ” Duane says with a hearty, infectious laugh.  

Nearby is a patio with a large outdoor fireplace nicknamed “the reservation killer.”

“You sit out here drinking wine, talking with friends,” Susan says. “Then you realize, ‘Oh no, our dinner reservation was an hour ago.’ ”

The two walk past Meyer lemon trees that envelop the swimming pool. “We use them to make limoncello for friends and family,” Susan says. (She’s currently learning to make preserves.)

As they approach the front yard, they pass under a pomegranate arbor. The aroma of rosemary wafts from a nearby hedge. The sweeping views overlooking Napa Valley’s northern side are enough to stop any visitor in his or her tracks. Below, a tennis court encircled with fig trees punctuates the property, reminding guests of the other passion the Hoffs share: good health.

Duane is an avid triathlete who completed the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon, and Susan competes in lightweight bodybuilding. With the abundance of wine and lush produce growing in their own backyard—not to mention the “pizza garden” they maintain for homemade artisanal pies—“balance is the key,” Susan says.

“Our health and wellness is the most important thing to us as parents,” Duane adds.

The Fantesca namesake embodies a strong, savvy, and sensuous woman. The Hoffs were inspired by their love of Cirque du Soleil, which has roots in Italian comedies from the 16th century. In that era, the only female character on stage was Fantesca, a captivatingly beautiful and intelligent character.

“There’s been this constant of these strong feminine characters infusing the story of this property,” Duane says, “from Susan as the owner to Hannah Weinberger as the first proprietress to Heidi Barrett’s accomplishments.” (Barrett is a superstar winemaker who joined the close-knit Fantesca team in 2008.)

The couple marked Fantesca’s recent 10th anniversary earnestly by opening an older bottle of their estate Cabernet, a beloved vintage that drew them to the property at first sip.

Looking forward, the Hoffs see themselves continuing to act as guardians of their property.

“We’re stewards of this land and these wines that will be here for our kids, if they want it,” Duane says. Their daughter, Chelsea, is studying viticulture and enology at UC Davis.

“I’m hopeful my daughter will be the next ‘La Fantesca’ of the property,” Susan says with a smile.

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