Trefethen Family Vineyards, one of Napa’s most venerable labels, is marking its 50th anniversary this year. To celebrate, they’ve been throwing some swanky parties, and I was lucky enough to be invited to one earlier this month at the Pelican Grill.
The highlight of the four-course lunch was the wine, of course. Chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, Trefethen’s flagship varieties, some of them ancient enough to be pulled from the winery’s library. How did they taste, you ask? More on that later.
Trefethen is one of Napa’s modern-era pioneers. It began as a retirement project when Kaiser Industries executive Eugene Trefethen got his gold watch and moved to Napa Valley. In 1968 he purchased six small farms and a tumbledown 19th-century winery, Eshcol, creating a 600-acre wine estate. At the time, there were fewer than 20 wineries in Napa Valley.
Eugene’s plan was to sell all his grapes to winemakers, but his son John had other ideas. While studying at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, John started experimenting in the basement of his parents’ Napa home.
After several failures as a winemaker, John improved, and he and his wife Janet produced Trefethen Vineyards’ first commercial wine in 1973. Only a few years later, Trefethen’s 1976 Chardonnay earned the Best Chardonnay in the World honor at the 1979 Gault Millau World Wine Olympics in Paris. After that, Trefethen was part of the wine world’s upper echelons.
During the pre-meal mingle I chatted with John and his son Lorenzo, who has become an eloquent spokesman for Trefethen and did most of the public speaking that day. A graduate of Stanford University, Lorenzo joined the family business in 2007 and has spent several summers learning the trade, including a harvest at Bordeaux’s Chateau Petrus. Lorenzo works with the marketing and sales departments, focusing on direct and export sales.
Here are some excerpts from Lorenzo’s talk:
As an estate winery, how do you keep pace with consumers’ changing tastes?
There has been an expansion in the interests of the consumer. Certainly with my generation there’s more experimentation in terms of what they’re trying: other countries, orange wine.
While there are certain big trends, for example rosé at the moment, the wines that do really well over time are the ones that have that built-in street cred.
So your plan is to stick to what you know and avoid reinventing yourself in a big way.
That’s always been our approach. As an estate producer we can’t turn the vineyard over and chase any kind of trend. We’ve always made what was, by our judgment, the best wine of its kind in the area. Being an estate winery, for many years that may have hampered us. But it’s certainly one of our great traits right now.
We sort of bridged the gap from upstart, when Napa was new, to established name. Now we’re a classic: a brand that is getting more recognition for how true we’ve been to the principles that we laid down at the very beginning, which are the principles of great winemaking.
How do you communicate the wisdom of that logical if unsexy approach to today’s consumer? How do you explain, for example, the advantages of estate wine?
That’s something that I’m thinking about right now. The word “estate” … consumers often have no idea what that means. It sounds a little pretentious. There’s also an inherent dignity in the term. We just need to be better at communicating.
“Estate” is like a well-kept secret. Some consumers would love to know more about it. I think there’s a really strong story there that starts with, “Did you know most wineries buy fruit from other people?”
What’s your stand on organic farming and biodynamic farming?
We like the core tenets of both, which are really about creating a farm that sustains itself. And so we are, at our core, both organic and biodynamic; we like to actually say that we’re beyond organic and biodynamic. We’re a couple of months away from our organic certification, but we decided actually not to pursue it because we discovered some ironies in the system – we could do it greener if we worked outside the system.
Organic farming has been around now for 50 years. We did things 50 years ago that are considered groundbreaking now, such as the installation of reservoirs and a wastewater treatment facility.
How does the rest of the valley compare to Trefethen in that regard?
Napa in general is getting greener and greener. The growers historically have been the biggest advocates for organic farming and environmental protection.
The Napa Green program (a comprehensive environmental certification program for vineyards and wineries in the Napa Valley) is doing very well. Just over 90 percent of the county’s acreage is under some form of protection from development.
What makes your winery unique?
We are more sustainable than many of our neighbors because of who we are – a family-owned, multi-generational company. We’ve always worked to improve the land and pass something on to the next generation.
That has evolved slowly over time – our understanding of what is sustainable. The thinking that we have now has been developing from good practices we started 50 years ago.
The Trefethen wines we sampled:
1988 Chardonnay: Sherry-like, raisin-y and deeply honeyed, but still has that characteristic Trefethen chardonnay fruit taste.
1996 Chardonnay: Beautifully perfumed, balanced, light in viscosity. A wonderful, quite dry finish.
2001 Chardonnay: Large in the nose. Slightly over-ripe. A bit sweeter than the 1996, with lots of fruit.
2016 Chardonnay: Full-bodied, balanced, good acidity, not too much oak. Finish is quite long.
1991 Cabernet Sauvignon (8 percent merlot): Notes of cocoa and chocolate. Dry, slightly bitter finish.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon (10 percent merlot): Lots of fruit promised in the nose. Smooth, balanced, with definite spice box notes.
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (8 percent merlot, 1 percent cabernet franc, 1 percent petit verdot): Violets and floral perfume in the nose. Big, full mouth feel. Lightly oaked, hint of black olive. Finish isn’t huge.
2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (6 percent petit verdot, 5 percent merlot, 4 percent malbec): A bit closed and ascetic. Not ready yet.