Freemark Abbey Napa Valley

In 1980, Ted Edwards took the helm as winemaker. Most fields suffer a musical chair game of aspirational people climbing ladders. Yet Ted has stayed at Freemark ever since.

When Jess Jackson bought Freemark in 2006, they wisely kept Ted in control. KJ also saw that Freemark needed restoration. The original 1890s Lombarda cellar looked in rough shape. The tasting room seemed dark and small. So, with 40 million dollars, work is underway to expand and overhaul the stone cellar into a premier tasting palace and restaurant with two Michelin-starred Japanese cuisine chefs.

imageEnough history and architecture. Today, we come to taste.

image2014 Viognier Napa Valley.

Yay! A Viognier! Famed floral grape of Southern France. Few in Napa produce a Viognier, but it was one of the few additions Ted brought in. The fruit comes from Oak Knoll AVA: Napa’s cool spot thanks to its proximity to San Pablo Bay. This means acidity!

It looks a light lemon color with silver highlights and medium legs. Plump  aromas of honeysuckle, chamomile, golden delicious apple, and a light coconut pith and vanilla cream waft from the first swirl. Luckily, it is dry, with medium plus acidity countered by medium plus, warm alcohol and a medium body. Flavors reflect more citrus and mineral even a touch of diesel-like viscosity of medium plus length. 2014 is far snappier than the tropical 2013. This Viognier has enough complexity and food-friendly dryness to make it very good (4 of 5) with a lifespan into 2020.

Next, 2014 Chardonnay from Howell Mountain. Another light but golden hued color shines. Pronounced aromas include toasted almond (100% French oak), acacia flower, and white pear. The abscence of butter comes courtesy of Ted halting malolactic fermentation. The palate is dry, with medium acid, alcohol, and body. Flavors taste jumpy, punchy and complex with nutmeg, light pineapple, spiced caramelized pear, finishing fairling lengthy,flinty, apple cored, with pencil shavings dominating. 2014’s Chardonnay is outstanding (5 of 5) but all too young and prickly. Give it five years.

Onto reds!

2013’s Merlot is a rich ruby with powerful aromas of cocoa powder, beets, dark plums, brightened by a twangy raspberry core, and finished with light tobacco and dried mint leaf. The balance tends toward richness but strong, fleshy tannins dominate and demand food. Flavors taste similarly of dried plum skin, red apple skin, and dried tobacco leaf. It is very good (4 of 5) but those tannins need a few years, decanting, or a burger to mellow them out.

Next, Freemark’s meat and potatoes 2012 Napa Cabernet. This leads production at 45,000 cases (of 60,000). A ruby core and clear lip lead to moderate, comparably quiet aromas of raspberry, cocoa, vanilla, and blackberry. 2012’s cab is so even-keeled it slips by easily. Tannins are dusty but pleasant. Flavors taste of cranberry, red apple skin, chalk dust with a medium plus length. It is very good (4 of 5) and understandably popular if a bit safe.

We jump above the fog line to Mount Veeder (1,500 feet above sea level):

image100% Cabernet this 2011 ignored the vagueries of the rest of the valley and created a massive, beet-like, concentrated cab with meaty aromas of light bacon (is there such a thing?) deep blackberry jam, vanilla dust. Swirl it once and a cassis syrup takes over. It is fat, with rich tannins and alcohol, with a dense velvet texture. Outstanding wine (5 of 5) that could handle a few decades.

We focus in on single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

2011 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet adds 15% Cab Franc. The soil there is sandy and drains well. The cool, challenging vintage made for lighter brighter cabs. The color looks an intense ruby with a short, clear rim. Intense aromas of potpourri, aniseed, dry mint lead, but the first swirl draws out oodles of purple fruit, black raspberry, cassis, and light French oak. Acidity rules the dry, medium bodied, fairly tannic palate. Flavors taste of delicate but dark fruits, orange peel, toasted tobacco leaf, and eucalyptus that last an extra long length. It is very good (4 of 5) but tart and taut asking for lean meats, even chicken or salmon.

Next, famed Bosché vineyard in Rutherford, nabbed from BV, comprising of mostly Martha’s Vineyard clone cab with clay-rich soils, makes up 1,000 cases.

Also 2011, also cab, and also by Ted, Bosché looks a deeper purple with ruby tinges. Clay kicks through into the aroma with paper machée, slight grilled meat, olive tapenade, and orange peel. Where’s the fruit? Again acidity is high, but big dusty, particulate tannin is king. Flavors match in minerality, mint, a wee bit of bell pepper, and blackberry leather. Bosché 2011 is a dusty, grippy, edgy wine that would benefit from a savory, salty pairing, very good (4 of 5) but serious stuff.

2012’s Bosché again shows of minerality, but the vintage creates pronounced, exuberant aromas of raspberry, eucalyptus, and light caramel. It feels dry but oh so soft, lush, and moderately tightened by adequate acidity and fine grained tannin. Flavors include a bright, tight raspberry, mint, toasted wood of medium plus length. Its complexity and potential for long ageability make for an outstanding red (5 of 5) meant for lean cuts of steak with no sauce.

image2004’s Bosché shows a slight brick edge and fading ruby core. Aromas tend to dry tobacco leaf, graham cracker, red apple skin, potpourri, candied orange and finally raspberry. Decent acidity, medium tannins, hold this medium body together. Flavors have developed fascinating oolong tea, ash, cranberry, and much of the aromas above. It is also outstanding (5 of 5) but in a half hour fades in the glass. Do not decant just drink it!


As if already not ridiculous enough, our guide breaks out 2002 Bosché. This has more deep fruit extract than 2004, looking a bit purple still, smelling and tasting of aniseed, black fig, ripe blackberry, fruit leather, and a whiff of salinity. The body is medium, balanced and mellow. Outstanding stuff (5 of 5) present and with time ahead of it.


Even with spitting we feel wiped out. We eagerly tear through pack lunches provided by Oakville Grocery.

Revived, we return to the tasting bar. However, switching to their Bosché vineyard rosé is like jumping from amount Olympus. It’s bright, strawberry, fun and fine (3 of 5). Their Cab Franc is ripe raspberry and floral but somewhat muddled (3 of 5). The Petite Verdot is alcoholic ink (3 of 5). These wines do cost far less than the magic a half hour ago.

In summation, Freemark Abbey makes clean, ageable wines that show finesse, minimal oak, and a focus on fruit. Even in rough years like 2011 Bosché and Sycamore show individuating characters. Aside from Mt Veeder, these are not huge, overpowering wines. I hope their expanded restaurant with a Japanese focus highlights the layered complexity of Ted’s wines.


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