During a trip to Napa and Sonoma Counties last month, one of my most enjoyable winery visits took place at Trefethen Family Vineyards, where members of the Trefethen family took time out of their very busy schedules to play host. This was in the midst of a very unusual April cold snap that had vineyard managers throughout the area scrambling in the wee hours of the night to protect their valuable grape buds from frost. Amid that freeze-induced panic, the graciousness of the Trefethens was all the more generous—but maybe that’s not really a surprise, since grace is a calling card of Trefethen wines.
Forty years ago, in 1968, Kaiser Industries CEO Gene Trefethen had the foresight to purchase a dilapidated “ghost winery” in Napa Valley—the Eshcol property—along with several surrounding farms, and set out to create a single-estate, model vineyard. According to Janet Trefethen, Gene’s daughter-in-law, “All of their friends and Napa neighbors thought they were nuts.”
I won’t dwell on all the details of the past four decades at Trefethen—I’d rather tell you about their wines—but today Trefethen is a rare single-family estate winemaker. What this means—and this must be some kind of a record—is that in 40 years of winemaking, Trefethen has never bought a single grape from an outside source, something no other American winery can say.
After a fascinating tour of the newly renovated 19th-century winery building with Janet Trefethen, we sat down in the Trefethen Wine Library with Winemaster David Whitehouse, Jr. to sip some wine. He’d been up since 2:30 that morning, after an alarm was triggered by sensors in the vineyards alerting the winemakers that temperatures were perilously close to freezing.
Kicking the morning off with Trefethen 2006 Dry Riesling ($21) is not at all a bad way to start the day. The well-drained alluvial soils of the Trefethen primary estate vineyard combined with long growing seasons add up to Riesling with crisp acidity and abundant natural fruit flavor. Trefethen Riesling doesn’t see any oak or malolactic fermentation, and as a result, this wine is wonderfully bright, with peach and green-apple aromas along with some mineral scents. Those pretty peach flavors show up again on the tongue, and I’d certainly sip this Riesling alongside spicy Asian cuisine.
Next up was a wine that I’ve been fond of for a long, long time: Trefethen Chardonnay (2006, in this case, $31). Simply put, I’ve never tasted an American Chardonnay that I liked better. It’s just so beautifully balanced, the antithesis of bombastic California Chard. Think Dorothy Hamill as opposed to Tonya Harding. Sipping Trefethen Chardonnay reminds me of liquid apple pie, with a hint of lemon. I asked Whitehouse if he’d just hook me up to an intravenous drip of the stuff so I could experience continuous Trefethen Chardonnay pleasure, but he wouldn’t go for it. Thankfully, I got to drink my share over lunch at Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa with the thoroughly charming third-generation Loren Trefethen.
Drink Trefethen 2004 Merlot ($33), and you’ll be transported to Pomerol, where France’s best Merlot is made. The Merlot/Cabernet/Malbec/Petit Verdot blend is Old World in style, and classic in structure and flavor. It will rock with a grilled steak, I promise. As for the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($47), well, the words “harmony” and “elegance” come to mind. Classic black-cherry and cassis flavors are concentrated, but ripe. And this is a wine that will gracefully evolve for years to come, just as Trefethen Family Vineyards has done for the past 40.