Family Matters: Winery Tour of Trefethen Family Vineyards Oak Knoll Napa Valley California

Go to Napa or read the back of a wine label: most wineries will insist that a family owns them. This selling tactic attempts to ground all the Disney-land glamour onto something parochial and familiar.  But family ownership is not unique, roughly 80% of wineries in Napa are. Nor does family ownership ensure smallness or quality. Gallo is a family. So are mafias. Heck, corporations are people these days.

Thus, I visit Trefethen with trepidation. They too point to the Trefethen family’s ownership as a defining feature. But is it?

Like so many, the family left a successful business (Kaiser’s construction biz in this case), and bought Napa land in the 1960s (a hefty 600 valley acres in Oak Knoll). The Trefethens, oddly, wanted to farm, so they only sold grapes. But Eugene and Catherine’s son John started making wine in secret, then commercially, and then on the heels of 1976’s Judgment of Paris, saw his 1976 Chardonnay win 1979 Gault Millau’s World Wine Olympics in Paris.

Wait. Stop. See what happened there? We already fell down their rabbit hole. This narrative could be repeated for countless wineries and made into a Bottle Shock-esque film sequel. Does Trefethen’s family still care? Still make the wine? Or is it all faded glory for a bottle label?

Our tour begins in front of an 1886 barn that once housed Eschol Winery.
Trefethen Barn Front

It looks tidy and imposing now, but in 2014 a 6.0 magnitude earthquake tried to throw it to the ground.  Luckily barrels were only filled with water at the time. But the photos that line the second floor show two CAT diggers barely propping the barn up.

Trefethen Barn Fall

Any corporation would have bulldozed it and built something modern and better. But John and wife Janet worked and lived here. It was still the working winery.  It was built by Victorian Scottish architect of Napa icons Greystone (now the CIA), Far Niente, and Inglenook.  The winery had become a family member.  So they saved it.

Downstairs steel supports lattices of ancient beams.  Floor to ceiling windows protect barrels like a zoo. It retains a tired yet tidy charm.

Trefethen Barrel Room

The second story opens to a high ceiling.  The tasting arena overlooks a museum of century old winery equipment and more barrels.  The modern juxtaposes the old well here.

Second Story Tasting Room Trefethen

We head to the test vineyard.

Here things get interesting.  The Trefethen’s have never bought a grape.  Every wine comes from their 600 acres.  Even when phylloxera hit in the 1980s, they just replanted 10,000 new vines and scaled back.  Most wineries, bent on growth and profit, would buy fruit at least in bad years, or create second labels, brand extensions, or just push their wines into collectors’ realm prices.

Instead, the Trefethens seem to care. They practice sustainability on all fronts. In a country where vine-labor is seasonal, all their pickers work full-time, year-round with medical.  100% of power comes from solar. All water is reused. Owl and bat boxes and ponds aid biodiversity and control pests. Vine-wise, they plant a wide range of clonal types to avoid monoculture-led diseases.

Trefethen Vines Chardonnay

Prices stay shockingly affordable, especially for Estate Napa wine. Their main range starts around $20 for their Dry Riesling and stops around $55 with their Malbec-driven Dragon’s Tooth.

O.K.  I have drunk the Koolade and we have yet to taste anything. That or I am dehydrated. The half hour vine lecture in the sun definitely baked a few brain cells.

Regardless, we try the Trefethen’s wines with winemaker Jon Ruel. They taste clean, dry, minimally oaked, classic Napa, with enough acidity that balances them beyond reproach.  A course on Napa could use them as benchmarks.

I assume our tour has ended. Time for the next winery! But then they lead us through a hedge. We enter an herb garden that looks more like a forest:

Trefethen Garden

A villa emerges from the greenery and at the courtyard’s end sits a long table dressed for lunch.  We sit.  Then in floats Janet Trefethen and son Loren.  Janet woos us with her grace and snark.  She delves into their nitty gritty past, selling wine out of a van, and how she fought the 70’s male hegemony as one of the first female wine executives.

Janet Trefethen Lunch Napa

Son Loren lets mom range widely, but he quietly admits that he and his sister work full time at the winery, himself sliding into its marketing, while his sister, Hailey, into viticulture.

Meanwhile, a magnum of Trefethen’s 1990 Chardonnay fills my glass.

Trefethen 1990 Chardonnay Napa Valley

1990. I had just started hoping the Portland Blazer’s with Clyde Drexler could win the NBA Finals.  Meanwhile, in Napa, those twenty seven years ago, drought led to late season rains that saved the vintage. But does Trefethen’s wine have the quality to hold up?

The APPEARANCE looks a clear rich gold. AROMAS and FLAVORS still pop with verbena, lemon, wax, fennel, and hazelnut and hang a medium plus length. The PALATE remains dry, with ample acidity, and a medium body.  Somehow, 1990’s Chard is still outstanding (5 of 5). The salmon Tartar with kiwi, ginger, jalepino and greens works well with it.
While plates of beef filet, pomme anna, veg and chimchuri from their garden roll out, another magnum appears:
1996 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Trefethen 1996 Cabernet 1996. I had just started high school, meanwhile a wet winter and swings in temperature made for a challenging Napa vintage. American and French oak barrels tempered a Cabernet:
The APPEARANCE looked clear, medium ruby, framed by garnet and washing legs. AROMAS glow with crab apple, dried raspberry, cherry skin, still bright with a lovely dusky frame of licorice, old cigar box, and dried violet. THE PALATE felt lean and synced with medium plus acidity, backed by medium tannins, alcohol, and body.  FLAVORS were flush with mouthwatering, juicy cranberry, black raspberry, red cherry, turning to orange peel and salt that carried a medium plus length. Outstanding (5 of 5).
Janet takes a few of us through their villa, even into the bathrooms. I ask her if they have room for adoption.
OK, fine. Now I have drunk the Koolade.
So, does family ownership matter?  Yes, but it depends. The gap between generations can leave a winery a shell with a figurehead. But the Trefethens still hold their winery close to their heart. Their kids have decided to carry the mantel.
We went to many wineries in Napa and Sonoma. But visiting Trefethen felt like visiting a neighbor…a posh, fabulous, yet grounded, caring neighbor with a great cellar.
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Summer Wine Review: Lone Madrone The Dodd Paso Robles 2011 Tannat Red Blend

It is hot. But we have steak, broccoli, and purple potatoes. That, and my mother-in-law has arrived with wines from Paso Robles: that warm, central coast Cali region that grows a wild diversity of grape varieties.

Tonight’s offering, a red blend from Lone Madrone:

Lone Madrone The Dodd Paso Robles 2011

Grapes come from the Klau Mine Vineyard, tended by the Dodd family in old school fashion: dry farmed and head pruned in the cooler hills of western Paso’s Adelaide region. A rare borderlands grape from Basque country in the French Pyrenees called Tannat makes up the most of it with 61%. The grape snuck into Paso thanks to a French nurseryman who knew better than Tablas Creek.  15% Zinfandel, 14% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon follow. Wild yeast do their thing, then a mix of 90% used American oak barrels finish the wine in 18 months.

Lone Madrone, The Dodd, Red Blend, Paso Robles CA 2011

The APPEARANCE looks a deep ruby color that clears to a narrow rim, while washing vine-like legs. Wild AROMAS pounce with a feral musk, violet flowers, folding into figs, saddle leather, bourbon vanilla, white smoke (hi, American oak). The dry PALATE feels crisp and crunchy, with a worn knife edge of medium acidity, lean tannins, medium alcohol and body, Fruits dominate FLAVORS with extra berries, mulling spices, orange peel, and a range of spices finishing with leather and pine needles that last a medium plus length.

Lone Madrone’s The Dodd Red is sprightly and wild yet dark and complex. It is very good (4 of 5) and stands up to any grilled goods your summer will offer.

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Can a Bottle Fit in a Wine Glass?

Riedel designed a wine glass specifically for Oregon Pinot Noir (check it here). It looks like his regular Pinot glassware, but with a cute tulip flip at the rim.  Well, Mr. Riedel must think we here in the great Northwest are complete lushes. Rumor has it that this glass can fit an entire 750ml bottle of wine.

Time for some science:

Thanks goes out to Justin Bartels Photography (website) for the video.

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Drinking to Remember: Memory and Wine #MWWC34

Memory and wine make odd bedfellows.  We drink to forget, right?  Those hangovers from downing two buck chuck definitely did not build more gray matter.  That second (or third) bottle certainly wiped out a few evenings.

But good wine, hell, even just unique wine, can be a time machine.

Just today, while showing bottles to restaurants, begging them to buy anything, I opened a near-forgotten favorite: Aurélien Verdet’s, Le Prieuré, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits.  This 2014 Pinot Noir costs $33.  The appellation lacks prestige, coming from a soil-stripped, wind-swept, hill top in Burgundy, France.  The best fruit grows midslope.  But this little 10 acre Le Prieuré vineyard matters.  It went AB Organic in 1971. Ten years later, Aurélien was born. He grew up tending it, inherited it in 2005, has grown his holdings, and continues to make brilliant things.

Aurelian Verdet Hautes Cotes de Nuits Pinot 2014

But today, while I rattled off those facts to a wine buyer, my nose got stuck in the glass. A fire of white wood, black raspberry, clove, chalk, and stem burned through my nostrils.  My brain plunged three years back.  I forgot, but I had sold this buyer Verdet’s 2010 three years ago. Hell, I even wrote about it three years ago (read here).

Aurelian Verdet Hautes Cotes de Nuits 2010

My wife and I had just bought our first house then. And I felt fancy and had opened it to celebrate.

The account moved on to other wines. But my head kept trickling back. Like a sports’ bracket in reverse, it ambled to the first Hautes-Côtes anything Burgundy I had ever tried: Nuiton-Beaunoy’s, Le Mont Battois, Pinot Noir, Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, France, 2010 (read here).

Images flashed of my wife and I, exhausted, returning from vineyard hikes to that dingy little hotel in Beaune.  A 10 inch TV hung from the ceiling.  Everything was colored beige. It was 2012, winter, and we were midway into our seven month EU Austerity Drinking Tour.  €12.00 on a wine was a splurge.  But Nuiton-Beaunoy had a lot of words on the label. It must be good.

It wasn’t.  I had written, “very lean, sprightly, but needs a roast turkey or chicken. The extreme strains of growing high up Beaune’s slopes denies this wine premier cru status, let alone standard Beaune AOC status. It is good (3 of 5) and completely true to its place and price, but not compelling.”

Ouch! Who is this jerk?

Nevertheless, it taught me to remember what an Hautes-Côtes was.  Aurelian Verdet’s 2010 and 2014 share that hard-etched thread of edginess.  They brought me right back.

Who hasn’t had a smell, sound, color, or voice flood back related, if disjointed, memories?

Now bear with me, but my Master’s thesis was on memory.  Specifically, I tackled ancient Roman methods of remembering, known as the ars memoriae or Art of Memory.  Basically, pompous elite men like Cicero memorized their fancy speeches by training their brains. They set up spaces with items, associated each item with a quote, phrase, or topic, and then walked through using the order of the objects to recall the entire speech.

Cool huh? Teleprompter’s and scripts are for the weak!

Our brains associate things, smells, tastes, appearances with memories to survive. Evolution demands that our heads work efficiently, otherwise, we would keep eating that poisonous plant and all die.  But if we had every moment at our fingertips we could not function.  Instead, we compartmentalize memories into groups, prioritizing them, like putting colored tabs on important recipe pages in a cookbook.

Wine can work the same way.

Now, I am not suggesting building vertical, memory-association flights (although that would be cool).  But, right now, allow whatever wine you have to take you back.  It need not be a specific wine memory (because I have no life, “wine memories” are all I have left #sad).  Instead of thinking, “it tastes like raspberries”, wander a bit, and maybe, it tastes like that nervous first date, or that winter cabin retreat, or your one-eyed dog Scurvy.

We hold a library of memories.  Each wine can be an index card to our past (or at least a google search keyword for you youngins).


This is my Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC34) submission on the theme memory. Do not forget to vote for it once it goes live August 1st at https://mwwcblog.wordpress.com and thanks!

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