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

  1. Becky Ellis says:

    Beautiful story…love your photos!

  2. stuartswinelife says:

    great story. I’ve never done Trefethen myself so the photos are a great resource (never saw how bad it was with the photo of the bent house). Do you have a favorite winery to go to in the Napa Valley?

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