Catharine Headley Niven (1920-1999)

Bronze sculptures of Catharine and Jack Niven by Tim Lloyd. Object ID: WHP-JNIV-001-002

Catharine Niven's Tiffany Hill wine bottle
True Myth Edna Valley Chardonnay etched bottle
Tiffany Hill Edna Valley Chardonnay 1990 label

Summary

Catharine Headley Niven was the first woman in San Luis Obispo County to plant her own vineyard, and to make wine under her own label, Tiffany Hill, in the Edna Valley. She was the first in the Niven family, owners of the Paragon Vineyard Co., who planted extensive vineyards in the Edna Valley in 1973 and became famous for the quality of their Chardonnay grapes, to produce a family estate wine commercially and that decision led to the opportunity for the Nivens to develop the Baileyana brand. Five more brands would be established because of her pioneering leadership.

Impact on the Wine History of San Luis Obispo County

  • Catharine was the first woman in the Edna Valley to plant her own vineyard.
  • She is the first in the Niven family to design and produce her own wine brand, Tiffany Hill, which was later renamed Baileyana and described as boldly beautiful.
  • Catharine is the first woman to become a commercial wine producer in San Luis Obispo County producing Chardonnay and Sparkling Wine.
  • She developed a marketing strategy to sell her wines to restaurants by making phone calls from her own living room rather than traveling to potential customers.
  • She mentored winery owners to develop their own marketing skills.
  • Her wines inspired the development of the Baileyana brand at Paragon Vineyard Co.and the establishment of Orcutt Cellars.
  • Catharine and her husband, Jack Niven, invited wine writers and wine lovers to the Edna Valley to raise its profile in the world of California winemaking. She included all Edna Valley winemakers and their wineries, promoting their wines at events and on winery tours.
  • Catharine was famous for her entertaining friends and wine connoisseurs. She invited local chefs including Wilhelm Hoppe to cook in her kitchen and hosted wine dinners with a gracious and elegant style. She was the first to host Julia Child at a luncheon in her home.
  • Catharine was interested in people, her neighbors and employees. Rosemary Talley and artist Tim Lloyd remember her with great affection.

The Legend

Catharine was born and raised on her family’s horse farm in Kentucky. She was an entrepreneur who owned her own racehorse, which ran to win. She married Jack Niven and they had four children, sons John and James, daughters Jane and Julia. After selling the chain of grocery stores, Purity Markets, which Jack had founded in Northern California, they looked for a new commercial venture to invest in.

After much research and with the advice of professionals at UC Davis and Fresno State, they selected land to farm in the Edna Valley in 1972. The location is 5.4 miles from the Pacific Ocean in a classic cool climate. They selected grape varieties to plant in 1973 in their new vineyard of 547 acres which they named Paragon Vineyard. Local Agricultural Advisor to San Luis Obispo County Jack Foote and Vineyard Manager Jim Efird were key in selecting grape varieties and irrigation methods. Their business plan was to grow premium grapes and sell them to producers throughout California. The Chardonnay grapes thrived and were known for their quality. However, in the 1970s, the challenges were staggering because no one had tasted wines made from grapes grown in the Edna Valley.

The partnership with Chalone Wine Group advanced the Niven family to the second stage in their business model, from grape supplier to a partnership in Edna Valley Vineyard and a partnership with large winemaking corporations. Paragon Vineyard Co. provided the grapes and Chalone made the wine and was responsible for marketing and selling the wine produced in the facility at Edna Valley Vineyard.

The third stage of the business model began when Catharine made the decision to plant her own vineyard in the front yard of her home in the Edna Valley which was located on a hill on Tiffany Ranch Road. She planted 3½ acres in Chardonnay grapes. She was the first in the Niven family to produce a family estate wine commercially and that decision led to the opportunity for the Nivens to develop the Baileyana brand. The Niven family transitioned to an estate winery with six brands with the wine produced from the grapes of Paragon Vineyard Co. The vineyards grew in size, covering over 1,000 acres. The family winery, Orcutt Cellars, made 126,000 cases per year by 2015.

Catharine not only made history as the first woman in the Edna Valley to plant her own vineyard, she made history by producing her own wine label and develop a marketing strategy to sell her wines. She sold directly to restaurants in Honolulu, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Catharine did not travel to her prospective customers, she marketed her wines by making phone calls from her home to restaurant owners to sell her Chardonnay. She was very successful in selling her vintages.

The label was a beautiful design of grapes hanging on an arbor. Catherine wrote this description on the back label:

“Tiffany Hill is a small family-owned estate, producing only Chardonnay wine in the classic Burgundian style. The wine derives its character from the grapes grown in the extremely rocky Tiffany Hill vineyard supplemented with grapes from the neighboring PARAGON VINEYARD which our family also owns. Both of these vineyards are located in the EDNA VALLEY and benefit from a southern exposure, experiencing the mild long summer days, and cooled each night from the light coastal breeze from the nearby Pacific Ocean. These conditions promote a long cool growing season which assures the rich varietal characteristics and properly balance acids and sugars. We pioneered the plantings in the Edna Valley twenty years ago and today we cultivate nearly 1,000 acres of premium varieties here. All of our wine is fermented and aged in small oak barrels imported from the Nevers and Allier forests of France. We encourage our Chardonnays to go through a secondary malolactic fermentation in order to provide more complex and better-balanced wines. Enjoy!”

It was quite a shock when Catharine received a “cease and desist” order from the famous Tiffany & Co., based in New York. A bottle of the Tiffany Hill Chardonnay had been presented to the chairman of the famous jewelry store and he responded with a claim that the brand Tiffany Hill was infringing on the name Tiffany & Co. It is not known if he otherwise enjoyed the wine. Catharine argued that she selected the name for her brand based on the hill and the street, Tiffany Ranch Road, where her vineyard was located, reflecting a sense of place. However, the settlement was negotiated and her Chardonnay was renamed Baileyana. This name was selected because it is the name of the street where her husband Jack grew up in Hillsborough, California. The last vintage of Tiffany Hill was 1990.

By 1989, the family began producing their wines under the new label, Baileyana. Catherine continued to market the wines, the vineyard management staff expanded and Christian Roguenant was hired in 1998 as the winemaker. There was much to be learned about each new grape variety planted including selecting the best rootstock, trellising system, irrigation, and sun exposure. Paragon Vineyard was farmed to make the best wine with grapes controlled and sourced from the estate vineyard.

Jack died in 1995 and Catharine died on February 6, 1999, at the age of 79 at her home.

The Niven family continued operating the family business for almost five decades.

The second generation brought both sons into the business. John H. Niven, Catharine’s son, became vice president of sales and marketing. His brother James served as chief operating and chief financial officer. The company acquired more land, expanding the family vineyards to over 1,100 acres.

Two of the nine grandchildren entered the business in 1997. John H. Niven became the vice president of sales and marketing and his cousin Michael Blaney, vice president of operations. They worked together to reposition Baileyana as a national brand.

During their tenure, a new state-of-the-art winery was built with the collaboration of winemaker Christian Roguenant on the hill overlooking Paragon Vineyards, and the century-old yellow schoolhouse, formerly known as the Independence Schoolhouse, was converted to the tasting room with gardens for picnicking at 5828 Orcutt Road.

The company purchased the Firepeak parcel, expanding the vineyards, and developed a series of brands produced in their estate winery. New labels included Tangent, Trenza, Cadre, Zocker, and True Myth Chardonnay – all made from cool-climate white grapes.

The Edna Valley Vineyard was sold to Gallo in 2011 and Paragon Vineyard Co. and Orcutt Cellars were sold in 2020, ending an era and leaving a legacy of grape growing and winemaking that shaped San Luis Obispo wine history.