Posted on 08.11.18 #63

It’s a family affair: my Napa and Sonoma road trip, part two

This is the second piece in my series, exclusively for this site: my road trip begins at one of Napa’s most historic vineyards, Trefethen.

Like the roots of the vines, family ties run deep in the Napa Valley, sometimes intermeshing, producing idiosyncratic wines that speak of passion and commitment, rather than the pursuit of profit. Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, Trefethen Family Vineyards is the perfect example.

… what happened in Paris …

To celebrate its anniversary, back in April, I was invited to a London tasting that resembled a ‘who’s who’ of British wine writing, with Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Stephen Brook, Sarah-Jane Evans MW, Tim Atkin MW and Steven Spurrier among the great names in attendance. 

Spurrier will forever be celebrated for the ‘Judgement of Paris’ in 1976, which pitted twelve wines – six Chardonnay and six Cabernet Sauvignon – from California against their rivals from Burgundy and Bordeaux respectively. The panel of judges, representing the crème de la crème of French oenology, tasted blind. They made some withering comments about a few of the wines, assuming them to be the interlopers. Ironically, the criticisms were actually directed at some of the French wines, California taking the honours for both Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, leaving Burgundy and Bordeaux as runners up. Nowadays, that might seem fair enough. At the time, it was unthinkable. Spurrier had his place in history and California was on the map. What happened in Paris fundamentally changed  perceptions of New World wine.

Although Trefethen won its first award in 1976, for its Chardonnay, it was then a new kid on the block, so didn’t feature in Spurrier’s ‘Judgement’ selection. Subsequently, he has developed a great affection for the wines, apparent as he introduced the London tasting with warm words about the pivotal role family ownership plays in successful winemaking.

The vineyard at Oak Knoll was established in 1968, when Eugene and Catherine Trefethen moved to the Napa Valley, purchasing a ramshackle 19th-century winery and a series of neighbouring smallholdings. They intended to sell their grapes, but their son John and his wife Janet had other ideas, as he developed the winemaking and she took on the marketing, becoming one of the wine industry’s first female executives.

… the family commitment is most obvious amidst the vines …

Now it’s the turn of the next generation to take the reins, with Lorenzo and Hailey working alongside their parents to develop the estate as it enters its next half century.

I’m fortunate to be staying as a guest in a small cottage at the centre of the vineyard. Life here looks blissful, but is not without its challenges. The last time I visited Trefethen, in 2016, it had just been struck by an earthquake which devastated the ancient winery building, leaving it listing heavily. Since then, terrifying wildfires have wrought destruction just a few miles from the property.

The winery has been lavishly restored, but the family commitment is most obvious amidst the vines: Trefethen does things that a purely commercially-minded winery simply wouldn’t do. With 63 distinct vineyard blocks, encompassing nine different grape varieties, 10 different types of rootstock, and 49 different clones.

Cabernet may be king in Napa, but this winery believes the minor royals should also be feted. That’s apparent at our tasting session in ‘Katie’s Acre’, a small circular clearing in the middle of the vines, in the shadows of an ancient walnut tree that co-founder Catherine Trefethen demanded be preserved.

Hailey is my host, along with winemaker Bryan Kays, who feels like an ‘honorary Trefethen’, having worked with the family for more than a decade, being given “time to learn from the property”.

We start with a 2017 Riesling, juicy and vibrant with citrus blossom, zingy grapefruit and ripe peach and a delicious minerality. I love Riesling, and hadn’t expected to find much of it here, so this is one hell of a start. 

A very good estate 2016 Chardonnay follows, buttery and fresh with green apple and a baked macaron note, from nine months ageing in mostly older oak. 

Next, we taste the aptly-named 2015 Harmony Chardonnay, produced from the vines surrounding our idyllic spot, the majority a clone that produces ‘hen and chick’ grapes, a mix of small and large berries in the same bunch, much loved by winemakers for aromatic and textural variety. With a deep tropical nose of pineapple and passionfruit, this is a beautiful, rich-textured wine, balanced with crisp citrus acidity, leading to a long, slightly nutty and, err, harmonious finish.

A distinctly Bordeaux-influenced 2015 Merlot follows: Bryan tells me he “likes to taste the dirt from the soil in the wine” and this manages to be both earthy and elegant in the same breath, with bright red fruit and silky smooth tannins. Merlot has had a bad press of late, but this suggests it could be ripe for a comeback.

… a vote of confidence …

California is celebrated for Cabernet Sauvignon that is approachable early, without the need for too much ageing. It was very obvious at this year’s en primeur tastings that Bordeaux is now evolving its own style, to make wines that are less immediately austere, more accessible and fruit forward –  clearly a vote of confidence in that new world approach.

Of Trefethen’s 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bryan tells me “we’re trying to get the wine to the front edge of approachability. You can drink it now, but you’ll be happier if you wait”. The grapes were picked in 11 different sweeps, to ensure those selected were at the optimum ripeness. And it shows. A fragrant berry nose is followed by notes of cherry chocolate and coffee grounds, black fruit dominates the palate, which is spicy and seductively smooth. The wine will reward those who heed Bryan’s advice to be patient.

Finally, a nod to the Trefethen’s Welsh heritage, Dragon’s Tooth 2016 is another idiosyncratic family-inspired creation, turning the Bordeaux blend upside down with Malbec and Petit Verdot dominanting. Cabernet and Merlot are reduced to supporting roles in a wine that has a deep, dark, brooding character, with spices that hint of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and a rich tannic structure that cries out for Chateaubriand.

As an introduction to the region, Trefethen offers the complexity you’d hope to find in a fine wine, vividly demonstrating the power of family ownership, whilst also offering a counter-intuitive twist with its clear commitment to a diversity of varieties. As I’m about to find out, Napa loves to surprise.

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