California vineyard: a star that still shines


Trefethen thrives after 35 years


May 05, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Wineries come and go in the Napa Valley, and so do the families that run them.

Of the proud names that were at the forefront of the California wine revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, only a few remain at the top of their game and free of corporate control.

One of that proud band is Trefethen Vineyards, and its chief ambassador came to Baltimore recently to boast about what makes her winery unique even in that select group.

"Trefethen is the only Napa Valley winery that's been in business over 35 years that has never bought an outside grape for its brand," said Janet Trefethen, the dynamic co-owner of the operation.

Trefethen said that producing all the grapes the winery uses for its main brand - there is also a highly regarded second label called Eshcol Ranch - is a "tremendous advantage." After 35 years of farming the same ground, she said, you get to know the soil and what kind of wine it will produce.

"It should sing to you about where it comes from," she said.

Trefethen came to Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art to co-sponsor the International Association of Culinary Professionals Foundation benefit dinner for its effort to preserve historic cookbooks.

The event gave Trefethen, who married winery co-founder John Trefethen in 1973, the opportunity to pour some tremendously impressive wines - some for the dinner and some on the side to educate a local wine writer.

Trefethen said all of the winery's grapes come from a tiny section of the lower Napa Valley that recently was recognized by the federal government as a distinct region: the Oak Knoll District. She calls it "the sweet spot" of Napa, where white and red grapes can flourish alongside each other.

The winery is releasing its first wine with that designation, a 1999 reserve cabernet sauvignon, this month.

The 600-acre parcel just north of the city of Napa that produces Trefethen's wines was acquired by the late Eugene Trefethen in 1968 - at a time when there were only about 25 active wineries in the valley.

"We were extremely lucky to buy the property when we did," Janet Trefethen said. Land values, she said, were reasonable - a word nobody applies to Napa Valley acreage today.

It took several more years before Eugene Trefethen's son John could get the historic 19th-century winery on the property ready for production. The winery produced its first wine in 1973, and soon after received worldwide renown for its chardonnays.

Over the years Janet Trefethen has taken on the role of public spokeswoman and chief marketer of the family business. It's a role the petite, youthful woman has embraced with feisty enthusiasm.

"Anyone who says California chardonnays won't age, give them a taste of this," she told the culinary professionals as they sipped the 1997 Trefethen "Library Selection" Napa Valley Chardonnay, brought in from the winery for the occasion.

Indeed, the wine showed why Trefethen has established a reputation as one of California's best producers of long-aging, complex chardonnays. Still fresh and youthful, the golden 1997 displayed intense flavors of pear, apple, honey, vanilla and nuts. The oak was perfectly integrated, and the acidity - unusually lively for a California chardonnay - gave it a lingering finish.

One of Trefethen's current chardonnay releases, the 2001, shows promise of developing into something equally complex. A bottle purchased after the dinner for $27 at a local store showed impressive structure, complexity and layers of fruit flavor. Much more than most California chardonnays, it was true to the style of a fine white Burgundy.

To some extent, Trefethen's reputation as a chardonnay specialist has cast a shadow over its other wines - unfairly, according to my tasting notes.

Trefethen has held out against fashion to remain one of the Napa Valley's few producers of home-grown riesling. And it has done so in an individualistic way, eschewing the semisweet style that prevails in California and making its riesling either bone-dry or lushly sweet.

Trefethen's Napa Valley Dry Riesling has long been one of this writer's favorites and has been recommended many times in these pages. The crisp and gripping 2002, with its hints of lime and oranges, is no exception. Selling at about $14, it is the bargain of the Trefethen line and a terrific wine to sip with hors d'oeuvres.

At the other end of the spectrum is Trefethen's Late Harvest Riesling, a dessert wine produced in small quantities from grapes shriveled by "the noble rot," botrytis.

The 2001 vintage (about $35 for a half-bottle) shows exceptional sweetness and clarity, set off by blazing acidity. It concentrates flavors of apricot, peach, melon, tropical fruit and honey. It's an exceptional end to a meal - even if served, to Janet Trefethen's horror - with chocolate cake.

Trefethen's red wines have encountered mixed reviews over the years, but recent efforts have been on the mark.

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