The story that the Trefethens, of Trefethen Winery, tell about themselves is distinctly American. When the Trefethen family decided to buy land in the Napa Valley in the 70s, they say, it was an “agricultural backwater” and they were thought crazy for their dreams of a winery. They make the point by saying that there were “fewer than 20 operational wineries” in the area when they came in. Not such a small number; they weren’t quite the inventors of the idea of wine in Napa that they might like us to believe. Still, it was early, we can grant them that.
Next they would have us believe that John, eldest son of the founder, developed a passion for fermentation that led to his blowing up a friend’s college dorm room attempting a batch of cider, but that a mere three years later this same plucky youth was the mastermind behind a Chardonnay that was named best in the world at the wine Olympics in Paris. That’s right, in three short years, this mere boy outdid centuries of French winemaking tradition. I wonder if he had any help? Still, the award is real and both winery and boy were very young.
Now that boy is the winery’s head and his children work below him. One family, one estate, one passion is their motto. It’s the Trefethens against the world. I, personally, don’t understand why we Americans must declare that we’ve invented everything that we do, totally ignoring all the learning that we’ve leaned on along the way. Still, it’s a good wine and you, our guests, can come drink it for free in our bar every night that you spend with us.
This will be a bit more about Rombauer, if you all will indulge this month’s love affair.
Normally there are two kinds of stories that get told in this space. One is a story of history, tradition and practice, passed down over the centuries. French history, tradition and practice, that is. The other is a story of modern innovation, American entrepreneurialism and Californian style. Rombauer offers us something different. The Rombauer family comes from a German winemaking tradition. And, what’s more, the family’s love of wine, almost a century ago, led into a love of all things gastronomical in Irma Rombauer, grand aunt to the founder of the Rombauer Winery, and inspired her to write The Joy of Cooking, which has been published continuously since 1936, has been one of the most popular cookbooks in this country ever since, and has probably sat on many of your kitchen shelves over the years. So when this modern generation of Rombauers started making wine, their work came not only from a different geographical region than California is used to, but also from a different kind of family lineage.
You can see it immediately on their labels. Those strong block letters and practical, unromantic color choices are neither romantic, nor are they coolly contemporary. That, friends, is German practicality. But I don’t mean to sound dismissive, there’s a reason “German engineering” is a phrase we all know. This is a powerful, correct set of wines. And if you’re wondering what that could possibly mean, stop by our bar on your next visit. Any wine you want is, as always, complimentary for you, our guests.
Recently, on a trip to Oregon, I said something very bratty. It’s nice, I said, when I was there, to be away from the cult of California wine. Forgive me, but it was so exciting, at first, to see wines from so many other states on menus. Tons from Oregon, but also Washington, Maine and I can’t remember where else. Other places, anyway, not California. How cool, I thought, to be away from the dominant mainstream, because my own thoughtless ideology says that the unknown underdog must be superior. My exuberance lasted a couple of days, and then, let me tell you, I realized that I was not getting anything all that good. So, I hoped that my little outburst would be remembered only by me and quietly switched over to what the Oregonians really do have a lock on: Beer.
Back home sweet home I am grateful not only to be a member of the cult of California wine, but to have my membership fees waved every time I decide to sit in our own little bar with a glass. This month, to truly celebrate superiority, I’m going with Ridge wines. After all, in the 2006 re-enactment of the infamous Judgment of Paris, where French and California wines, originally pitted against one another in 1976, were revisited to test how they had aged, the Ridge Winery’s Monte Bello cabernet not only won, but was 18 points ahead of the second place wine. That’s pretty convincing, when you think about it. Lesson of the month: Not all dominant paradigms must be subverted.
Those of you who’ve been reading this newsletter over the years, which, I’m not sure there’s anyone who’s been reading this newsletter at all, but if anyone out there has been reading this newsletter over the years, you’ll maybe remember that I have already told you about Chandon’s sparkling wines. But having, this same month, declared my love for the Chandon winery, it seemed a little phony to then switch over and write to you about some other wine that you can sit in our bar and drink. I thought, instead, to offer a couple of little tidbits that have sharpened my enthusiasm for our friendly neighborhood bubbly maker.
First, as we all know, even though we’ll all say that we’re going out to buy a bottle of champagne and happily come home with a beautiful bottle of California bubbles, technically, legally, the French have a lock on that name. Champagne can only come from Champagne! Which has left me, at least, wondering what’s missing from my local selection. What secret subtleties am I not sipping? Well, perhaps the folks at Chandon had that same question because they’ve charmed a young French woman, raised in a winemaking family in, yes, Champagne, to join their winemaking team. What, then, does the Chandon team not know about the secrets of French sparkle? Nothing, now.
The second little thing that I like about Chandon is that on their website you can find several pages of cocktail recipes that their bubbly wines make the centerpieces of. I have no idea if any of them are any good as I, personally, hate champagne cocktails. I love that they’re there, though. It shows such levity on the part of this winery, such a lack of the pious severity that is, well, not unknown in their counterparts. It reminds me of what I liked so much about visiting their winery. I was in one of the more beautiful, elegant places I’ve been in my life, and yet I felt relaxed and unselfconscious.
It’s all about Chandon this month. Sit in our bar and sip their wine after work all week, and then take off on the weekend and visit the mother ship. It’ll be a great week.
The Freemark Abbey Winery has such an austere name. It feels ancient. It conjures ideas of monks brewing beer in the Middle Ages. It makes us think of the grand simplicity of the old world. Why hadn’t I heard of monks who were making wine, I wondered. And I had never known about anything of the sort happening in California’s wine country. These are the things that I expected to be learning about when I went to look into the Freemark Abbey Winery.
Instead I discovered that when this winery was re-opened after prohibition, its owners were Charles Freeman, Markquand Foster and Abbey Ahem, who put their names together and found that it sounded good. In answer to this they say, today, that, “many consider (their) library wines a religious experience.” I love this. This is the spirit of the new world, American upstart-ism at its finest. Less than 40 years later the Freemark Abbey Winery was the only California winery selected to send both a red and a white wine to compete in the infamous Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976. In which, of course, there was not a single French victor.
My patriotism now in a rare state of arousal, I think I’ll celebrate with a glass of their famous Cabernet Sauvignon. Will you join me?
For all the wineries that I’ve written to you about, I’m kind of shocked that the Beaulieu Vineyards are the first I’ve found of their kind. Normally, each month I learn about another American family that moved to the Napa Valley and began, in some way or another, to try and duplicate French winemaking techniques. Some pay homage to their European predecessors, while others assert the superiority of modern techniques, but they’re all students of another culture. Never before, though, have I come across a real Frenchman. That is, until now, with the story of Georges de Latour.
De Latour came from France in 1900, needing not to study or learn, but only to continue his practice on this land that he found beautiful. And, later, when he wanted a winemaker, he could only have “someone who understood European standards”, so he brought a research enologist from Paris over to join him. At the Beaulieu Vineyards they assert that this move benefitted the “entire nascent California wine industry”. Which maybe it did, but don’t you just love this French attitude? This winery is dripping with a languid superiority that wants everyone who’s reading this story in English to understand how lucky we are that someone showed up who knew how to make a bottle of wine.
Of course, in France, where everyone knows how to make wine from birth, everyone does, so you can get a pretty nice bottle for 2 euros. I wish these boys would try to hold up that part of French culture here in California. But, who cares. All the wine you want is free at our bar every night from 5-7!
I’ve found an opportunity, for those of us who think we may need it, to learn a little bit about wine, and I’d like to share it with you. Because, here’s the thing, there are different ways to ferment wine. Some of you probably know this already; even I maybe already knew it, though it’s always been a very abstract idea to me. There’s the traditional way: oak barrels, the way the Californians learned from the French and the French learned from God. And now there is the modern way, stainless steel and cement tanks, surely more efficient, more scientifically quantifiable. But as far as the actual glass of wine in your hand, what is gained and what is lost with these modern innovations?
Well, Mer Soleil can help us to figure that out for ourselves. You see, Mer Soleil makes two wines and two wines only, both Chardonnay, both from the same grapes. The only difference is that one is aged in traditional oak barrels, the other in the modern steel and concrete contraptions. I just learned this and I, for one, am kind of excited to try the two side by side and see what each tastes like. And our bar is the perfect place to conduct this little experiment, seeing as how all the wine is complimentary for our guests between 5 and 7 every night. There aren’t maybe so many places in your life where you can as easily sit with a glass of wine in each hand, just trying them out. At least, there aren’t many in mine.
The last time I was down in our little bar at cocktail hour, our general manager was raving about a sauvignon blanc from a winery called Flora Springs. She was so excited she gave me a bottle before I had even sipped from the glass in front of me, which, when I pointed that out to her, made no impression on the enthusiastic certainty of her gift. Thankfully I did like it because, clearly, there was no way it was not going to be the wine I wrote about this month.
The first thing to know is that the Flora in Flora Springs is a brand new centarian and the matriarch of this family vineyard. The second thing that stands out to me is that the next generation has just taken over. Two of Flora’s grandsons have recently inherited the family business and seem to be taking all the prescribed steps to bring themselves into the modern age. They’ve made, for example, a series of biographical “webisodes” on their grandmother that feature such things as her talking about her daily domino games. They’ve posted their Twitter feed on a page called “socialize”, and so you can see that someone tweeted that “the ’98 @FloraSprings merlot is bad ass”. Which, to their credit, is for sure the first wine I’ve ever recommended to you that came with that review.
It’s all so endearing. This is a now third generation winery that’s holding its own and making some really very nice wines. How to sell those wines is always the question. I love the earnestness of the Flora Springs’ use of all these tools that all of us are being told to use these days. The simple transparency of it reminds me of, well, the honest enthusiasm our general manager felt about their sauvignon blanc, actually.
As you may have noticed, a part of what I do every month is visit winery websites. I’ve seen quite a few by now and they are almost entirely lovely. They tell stories of family and architecture, of tradition and sustainable agriculture. The owners and winemakers are pictured, alongside tales of the wonderfully successful careers of the former that allowed them to afford their own personal wineries, and a list of the degrees and world travels of the latter that qualify them for these idyllic jobs. This is all great, in my opinion. I love wine and, what’s more, I love this culture of boutique wineries that I am so privileged to live in the neighborhood of, so I’m happy for the success of the people who make it happen.
Today, though, I found something on a winery website that I’ve never seen before and, because I’ve now seen it, suddenly I’m aware of its absence on any other winery’s self-profile. The St. Clement winery has, among photos of all its crops and facilities and staff, two photos of the farmworkers who pick their grapes. The transparency and candor of that inclusion, simple though it is, are kind of moving to me. Silly me, maybe, but I feel like if those men are being highlighted as the important part of the winemaking process that they are, perhaps they’re being respected in other ways too. Of course, I know nothing about the farmworkers at any other winery and very little about the ones at St. Clement. Still, I feel like I know a bit now, and a bit more than I know about any other winery, and that bit seems good.
All of the wineries that I write to you about are local. The exalted Napa Valley is, relatively speaking, in our neighborhood and nothing would be easier on a day off than renting a car and driving up for a day of wine tasting. Well, almost nothing. It turns out we’ve got a winery not just nearby relative to, say, Chicago, but actually in our real neighborhood. It’s called the Ridge Winery and it’s right here in Cupertino. You could stop in after work for a taste of the wine that won the Judgment of Paris, the event that was meant to put California wine in its place, and failed.
It’s an interesting place, too, the Ridge Winery. A physician built it in the 1880s. Its next owner was a theologian. Now a man who holds a degree in philosophy is in charge of day-to-day operations. And, to top it off, a Japanese pharmaceutical company owns it now. What can this all mean? What kind of experiment is this winery running? Spiritual? Pharmacological? How, really, did they convince a panel of French judges to rank it at the top? What manner of intoxication does a bottle of Ridge wine provide? Well, if you’d prefer to know the answer to these questions before venturing to its source, we’re pouring Ridge wines every night in our bar.