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Cooking up Success

After years under the radar, Stanley Cheng, owner of Hestan Vineyards, steps into the spotlight.



Photography by Matt Edge

It's perfectly typical to see food items and country housewares in winery tasting rooms across Napa and Sonoma counties these days. But high-end cookware and a harp? Now that’s different.

Welcome to Hestan Vineyards, Yountville’s newest sipping gallery. Here, in an übermodern building that incorporates porcelain floors and walls covered in Italian marble, owner Stanley Cheng’s passions come together seamlessly under one roof.

First, there’s the wine: one dry Chardonnay and a bevy of reds that showcase Bordeaux varietals expertly blended. Then, there’s the other stuff: copper and stainless steel cookware that represents the very best of Cheng’s other businesses, and a large string instrument that his daughter, Stephanie, has played all over the world. For some visitors, the trio of wine, cookware, and harp might seem a bit disparate, maybe even eccentric. But for Cheng, 66, this is life.

Over the past 20 years, Cheng has quietly become one of the most prominent personalities in the Napa Valley, dovetailing business success with serious philanthropic contributions. Now, with the tasting room, the unassuming entrepreneur is stepping into the spotlight.

“It is our window to the world,” he says proudly, “our chance to show what we are about, and what we can do.”
 

Wine Life

When it comes to wine, perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic is provenance. Cheng’s winery produces about 5,000 cases annually under three labels: Hestan, Meyer, and Stephanie. Almost all of these offerings are made with fruit from the Cheng family’s 120-acre Gordon Valley estate.

When Cheng and his wife, Helen, purchased the estate in 1996, the property was part of a cattle ranch. Gradually, as they built the place into their second home (Helen raised their three kids from a house down in Hillsborough), they turned over the property to grapes. Today, 56 acres are devoted to grapevines. The estate also boasts a man-made, 11-acre lake.

Jeff Gaffner, who makes the Meyer and Stephanie wines, says the land has a huge bearing on the flavor of the wines. Because the Gordon Valley gets windy every afternoon, grapes don’t grow as quickly here as they would on the Napa Valley floor. This—coupled with the fact that Gaffner can use lake water to irrigate the grapes as necessary—helps create an extended growing season that results in more complex fruit.

“Every site has a signature, and if I do my job well, the wine tells a story of the site,” Gaffner says. He adds that for Hestan wines, the story revolves around “extra hang time, without having over-extracted and overblown wines.”

Cheng, a self-proclaimed “Bordeaux nut” with a collection of nearly 6,000 bottles (and counting), describes his own wines as elegant, serious, balanced, and seductive.

Wine critic Robert Parker is certainly a fan: The 2002 Hestan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon—the vineyard’s first release—scored 95 out of 100 points, while subsequent reds have averaged 92 to 95 points. Others have embraced Hestan wines, too: Hestan wine even appears on the list at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry down the street.
 

The Inventor

Wine is a second career for Cheng. His other business—his primary business, really—revolves around cookware.

The Hong Kong–born engineering whiz came to school at the University of Oregon in the 1960s; invented a number of nonstick cooking surfaces in the ’80s; and launched several product lines around these projects. Today, the parent company of those products, Vallejo-based Meyer Corp., is the largest manufacturer of cookware in the United States, and makes more than 100 lines, including KitchenAid and Farberware, as well as pots and pans for celebrity chefs such as “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro and Rachael Ray. Cheng still serves as CEO.

Cheng, who exudes a reserved passion for his business and his wine, is involved with some other interesting companies, too.

One of his passions is flying model aerobatic airplanes, and in the 1990s, he and two friends founded The World Models, a Chinese company that manufactures aerobatic airplane parts.

“I like to consider myself the silent partner in the airplane business,” Cheng says, joking. “My job is to take the things we make and test them as often as I can.”
 

The Philanthropist

While Cheng has built this vast empire of diverse businesses, he has also given back to the Napa community in big ways. Along with Margrit Mondavi, Cheng was one of the largest donors to COPIA: The American Center for Food, Wine, and the Arts, a cultural and educational museum that, unfortunately, closed in 2008. He served as trustee there for 10 years, donating money along the way and helping to raise funds in efforts to save it.

Since COPIA, Cheng and his wife have moved on to other philanthropic endeavors. The couple has become involved with the Napa Valley Vintners Association, donating one of the most elaborate lots in the 2014 Auction Napa Valley. (It involved dinner at the Cheng estate and a cruise in the Mediterranean, and sold for a cool $300,000.) Cheng has also signed on to become a fellow at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena—news that has CIA affiliates buzzing.
 

Adventures Ahead

Like most entrepreneurs, Cheng never sits still for very long and is always thinking about his next endeavor.

Earlier this year, he set up a new manufacturing company in Anaheim, to create heavy-duty commercial kitchen equipment designed to help make food preparation easier.

In a separate effort, Cheng is in the process of developing a new cooking technology that incorporates induction, to help home cooks prepare food quickly and effortlessly. He declines to reveal specifics of this project (the concept is still being tested) but notes that it likely will incorporate electric heat instead of gas, because cooking with electricity is more efficient.

These are the kinds of problems Cheng thinks about at night—the kinds of engineering challenges to which he has devoted his entire professional life.

“To me, Hestan stands for not only fine wines, but also culinary inventions born in the Napa Valley,” says Cheng. “In order to keep that going, we must constantly innovate and remember to always be resourceful.” Open for tastings Sun.–Wed., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. and Thurs.–Sat., 11 a.m.–7 p.m., hestan.com.


Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.

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