WINE COUNTRY

The Wizard of Pots, Pans, and Cabernet

Stanley Cheng poses in his 10,000-bottle tasting room.
PENNI GLADSTONE
Stanley Cheng built a non-stick cookware empire. His passions have led him to Napa Valley where he's wowing oenophiles.
Napa Valley’s Stanley Cheng has changed the way we cook, and his Hestan wines are among the world’s best.

Stanley Cheng stands on the terrace of his multimillion-dollar mansion at the eastern edge of Napa Valley, surveying his 237-acre property with a look that conveys equal parts confidence and humility. He’s fit and trim, and he looks about two decades younger than his 71 years. His only concessions to age are his salt-and-pepper hair and the wire-rimmed glasses he began wearing a few years ago.

What he sees, stretching over the rolling hills, are row upon row of vines, the source of his prizewinning 2014 Meyer cabernet sauvignon, named the eighth-best wine in the world in 2017 by Wine Spectator; two putting greens; a skeet-shooting range featuring a device he invented that releases clay pigeons remotely; a paved walk around an 11-acre lake filled with black bass and bluegills; a landing pad for flying the oversize model airplanes he builds.

To his left, just out of sight, stands an old stone barn where 20 people work on what may be the next revolution in cooking—they’re creating recipes for the Hestan Cue, a smart-cooking system that debuted two years ago and aims to take the guesswork out of preparing dinner. The Cue is one of many culinary offerings from Hestan Commercial, a company that makes high-end ovens, stovetops, and cookware.

Hestan is a mashup of the first two letters of Cheng’s wife’s name, Helen, and the first four of his own. Put the Hestan products together and you’ve got all the trappings of a high-end kitchen paired with some truly great wines.

Businessman and vintner Stanley Cheng stands at the entry was to his Napa Valley home. The Chinese-born businessman built an empire on nonstick cookware.PENNI GLADSTONE
Stanley Cheng outside his Napa Valley home, a Tuscan-inspired estate in the heart of wine country. The Hong Kong-born entrepreneur has built an empire on nonstick cookware.

They and many other innovations live under the umbrella of Meyer Corporation, a company that Cheng, who serves as its CEO, has built into one of the largest cookware manufacturers and distributors in the world. The company is privately held, with offices in Hong Kong and Vallejo, California, and manufacturing plants in China, Thailand, Italy, and the United States. Cheng won’t release exact figures but confirms that Meyer’s annual revenue is upwards of $400 million. The reach of his kitchenware is pervasive, and Meyer produces merchandise under several different names—more than 1,500 items fill the shelves of retailers from Walmart to Williams Sonoma.

Nearly every aspect of Cheng’s life surrounds him at his Napa estate. Aside from being a comfortable home for his family, it’s where he births his next big ideas, tinkers and experiments, and plays with his toys. His curiosity is undiminished by age.

A BETTER WOK

Cheng’s Tuscan-inspired villa is as eclectic as his interests. Each room has a different feel. The entry was designed to showcase an 11th-century tapestry that hangs behind a table formerly owned by the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin. Another room was built for a Steinway piano from 1862, which Helen Cheng often plays for visitors, its music echoing throughout the home. Nearby, close to a fireplace facade from the Flood Mansion in San Francisco, stands his daughter’s harp, gilded with gold leaf. The focal point in the dining room is a massive chandelier that belonged to Maria Callas.

Inside the grand kitchen, outfitted with the first Hestan commercial range, Cheng notices that the burner grates are in the wrong positions and reflexively puts them in the correct sequence. Sitting on one of the side burners is a flat-bottom Chinese wok, one of the first items he created, decades ago. “All the woks at that time, 100 percent, were round bottom, and I made a flat bottom. Why? To suit the Western stove. Instead of using the wok ring, which was wobbly and had terrible heat transfer, I got rid of it. I did a flat wok with a lid that nested perfectly. The design got some awards.”

He points out another piece of cookware on the range, one of his latest inventions—an aluminum sauté pan with stainless steel mesh embedded in the nonstick surface, a design that helps conduct heat more efficiently and keeps oil in the center, rather than allowing it to roll off to the sides as other pans do.

A rustic chandelier hangs from wooden beams above one of the many rooms in the Cheng estate.PENNI GLADSTONE
The villas of Tuscany inspired the not just the exterior of the Chengs’ home, but the interior design as well.

As he describes these attributes, his excitement shows. Years seem to slip away, the mature voice of a high-powered business executive transformed by a higher-pitched energy. He becomes part salesperson, part science fair kid. “It’s a problem that bothered me for years, because you can’t get the oil to stay in the center of the pan where you want it.” Cheng says it took him three years to figure out the design, which is still being tested and should be on the market later this year.

He heads down into the basement, and like the rest of the house, it’s anything but ordinary. Stored here are several golf carts for riding around the property, a Qing dynasty wedding bed, the tables and chairs he’s designed from old wine barrels, and his model airplanes, some with 12-foot wingspans. (When he got into building airplanes, he also co-founded a company that manufactures them.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his work commitments, Cheng has little time to pursue his many hobbies. He flies one of his 12 model planes at least once a month, he plays golf about once a month, and skeet-shoots twice a year.

MAN OF ANALON

Cheng came to the United States from Hong Kong in 1965 to attend the University of Oregon business school but transferred to Oregon State University to study mechanical engineering. While a student, Cheng heard about a new product called Teflon. After graduation, he returned to Hong Kong to work at his father’s aluminum manufacturing plants and convinced his dad to begin producing cookware. They became a licensee of DuPont, debuting their Meyer cookware line using Teflon technology in 1972.

From there, Cheng’s inquisitive nature led him to refine the technology. When he saw that Teflon was prone to scratching, he invented the next wave of cookware from anodized aluminum (twice as hard as stainless steel). Next, he added a “peak and valley” system on the bottom of the pan so the nonstick surfaces in the troughs would be protected. He patented the cookware as Circulon.

The Cheng's Tuscan-inspired home is nestled in the rolling vineyard hills of Napa Valley.PENNI GLADSTONE
The Chengs’ 237-acre Napa Valley estate reflects Stanley’s passions: vineyards, a skeet-shooting range, a lake, two putting greens, and a landing pad for model airplanes.

He followed Circulon, which is still in production, with Anolon, a surface that is even harder and smoother. His big mistake, he says, was not protecting the Anolon discovery with patents. Ohio-based Calphalon started using the technology and now looms large in the nonstick market.

“It was our idea—our technology—and the rest of the world followed,” Cheng says. “But it’s gratifying to be copied by all kinds of people around the world.”

The patent oversight notwithstanding, Cheng would have had a very successful career based on those two products, but they were just the beginning. In fact, they not only stimulated his curiosity and his drive to keep inventing, but also strengthened his determination to continue to manufacture and distribute his own products.

He and his wife relocated from Hong Kong to Hillsborough, California, with their three children in 1992. These days, though, his rigorous business schedule allowing—accompanied by Helen, he traveled 147 days in 2018—Cheng spends most of his time at his Napa home.

ART OF THE SKILLET

Just down the hill from the house, the bright, expansive interior of what Cheng calls the “culinary barn” is outfitted with white subway tile, a wooden counter, and multiple suites of Hestan. In a separate kitchen space in the building, Cheng allowed a team of chefs to train (gratis) for 2017’s prestigious Bocuse d’Or international cooking competition, which they won.

He shows a visitor a Hestan skillet that was used at least 100 times daily for six months at Corey Lee’s In Situ restaurant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A dozen years of research went into perfecting the technology contained in this pan. With a surface four times harder than stainless steel, it has flush rivets, so food won’t catch, and its pure aluminum core helps maintain even cooking. Cheng holds the skillet and beams. Its shiny surface looks about as good as new, visible proof of durability. A 10-piece version of the line, which he branded as NanoBond, retails for about $1,600.

Cheng introduced his Hestan stoves and cooktops five years ago, and they’re already in use at 450 restaurants, including SingleThread in Healdsburg, Bouchon in Yountville, and Birdsong in San Francisco. There are another 18 in the kitchens of the Culinary Institute of America at Copia. There’s such high demand for Hestan stoves that even Michael Mina, owner of some 40 restaurants across the United States and a fellow CIA board member, is on a waiting list for the equipment.

The "Barn" on their property has become a culinary think tank, and it’s where the chefs for the Bocuse D’Or (the culinary olympics held ever two years in Lyon) trained in 2017. The team ended up taking home the gold for the first time.PENNI GLADSTONE
The Chengs’ “culinary barn” on their property is part lab, part lab, part think tank, and part kitchen. It’s where a team of chefs trained for the 2017 Bocuse d’Or, a cooking competition held every two years in Lyon. The team won a gold medal.

Inside the barn, there’s also a workspace where Cheng develops his ideas. One current project is perfecting recipes for the Hestan Cue, the smart-cooking system, in which he’s invested $20 million. The pan and what looks like a sleek hot plate sit on a counter outfitted with suites of more conventional Hestan stoves and ovens. The Cue’s pan doesn’t look much different from other skillets. This one, however, is equipped with Bluetooth technology and thermal sensors that connect to the induction burner and an Apple or Android app.

The system, which retails for about $500, guides a cook through one of several hundred recipes created by Philip Tessier, a former chef at the French Laundry, and his team. The app will tell you when the surface hits the proper temperature, calculate the amount of time required to sear each side of a piece of meat or fish, and offer instructions for preparing your chosen sauce.

Cheng says the Cue is based on a simple idea: that stovetop temperatures should be as precise as oven temperatures. “People will say to me, there’s no market for that,” he says. “Nobody understands temperatures. But people don’t know what they need. In reality, they need it. The next generation will say, ‘How did you guys cook before when you didn’t know the temperature?’ Can you imagine an oven without temperature?”

Cheng equates the Hestan Cue cooking system to GPS, calling his invention a GCS, or guided cooking system. “It’s not that complicated. To sear something, you need a minimum of 400 degrees and a maximum of 450. People will learn that.”

He believes smart gas ranges will soon be mainstream. “It’s not here yet, but within two or three years this will be available. Hopefully we will be the first one to do it.”

Many of Cheng’s inventions are on display at the Meyer corporate offices in Vallejo, a 12,000-square-foot structure on a four-acre parcel of land planted with rows of chardonnay grapevines. There, a pristine showroom houses just a fraction of the items he manufactures or has acquired, including products by Farberware, KitchenAid, and SilverStone, to name a few. He also owns Fujimaru in Japan and Prestige in Europe.

Naturally, there are large displays for Anolon and Circulon, as well as areas for his Paula Deen and Rachael Ray lines. Cheng notes that Deen’s cookware and other kitchen items generated more than $100 million a year before a 2013 lawsuit alleging racial discrimination and sexual harassment was filed against her and her brother. Sales plummeted to about $20 million and then dwindled further, and now hover around $10 million annually.

He has recently worked with Ayesha Curry to create a line of dishes, glasses, and cookware. “I thrive on new things,” he says. “I thrive on innovation, because I understand that if I don’t have creative products that solve problems for consumers and something that’s unique, then it’s not exciting and it’s difficult to make money.”

Outside of the kitchenware industry, he started building assisted-living and memory-care communities in Central and Northern California. Two are already open in Vacaville and Fairfield, each with more than 100 units. Three others are in the works in Vallejo, Bakersfield, and Milpitas.

BETTER WITH AGE

With myriad wide-ranging projects underway, Cheng admits that wine is the endeavor on which he spends a small percentage of time—even though he lives among his vines. Still, he’s been more successful than he could have imagined. In addition to Wine Spectator accolades for the 2014 Meyer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, wine critic Robert Parker awarded another of Cheng’s wines, the 2014 Hestan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 96 points.

Helen Cheng strikes a pose in the Chengs estate's wine tasting room.PENNI GLADSTONE
Helen Cheng strikes a pose in the Chengs’ 10,000-bottle wine cellar, which she oversees. It is as meticulously ordered and laid out as the rooms of their home.

Cheng says he didn’t come to Napa to start a winery. When he planted his first vines in 1998, he knew little about wine, but he hired some of the industry’s best winemakers and consultants. Over the years, he’s bought various parcels surrounding his home. Today, 110 acres are planted, and his wineries produce around 6,000 cases annually under the guidance of winemakers Thomas Rivers Brown and Jeff Gaffner.

“We really just wanted a nice place in Napa Valley,” Cheng says of their home in wine country. It’s a haven for him to relax, play, and follow his passions.

Stanley Cheng looks over his vineyard in Napa Valley.PENNI GLADSTONE
Cheng’s wines have been far more successful than he ever imagined and at 75, he shows little signs of slowing down.

Walking by the lake, with his vineyards and hillsides rising behind him, Cheng contemplates yet another pursuit. He’d like to build a winery on a nearby piece of land that he bought. He imagines carving out a giant cave and installing outdoor fermentation tanks. His voice becomes young again as he talks about the winemaking process with the same degree of expertise he marshaled to describe working with cookware’s anodized aluminum and stainless steel. But then he pauses.

“It’s a fun thing to do, but I’m wondering if I should build it now,” he says. “It would take at least three years, maybe four. I’ll be 75, and it might not make sense unless the kids have interest.”

Behind him, the yellowing leaves of his vineyards flutter in the breeze, revealing a few clusters of grapes missed during the recent harvest.

“I really should think about retiring,” he admits. “When the body ages, both the mind and body get tired. I’m just getting realistic about that: people have to slow down.”

But then, with a twinkle in his eye, he picks up his pace and starts musing aloud about getting permits and drawing up the plans. “I believe it is gratifying and downright fun to keep going. If one was to retire fully, that’s actually dangerous.”

Michael Bauer has written about food for nearly four decades at the Kansas City Star, Dallas Times Herald, and for more than 30 years as a restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He reviewed Angler in Alta, Spring 2019.