Tasting and talking with Janet Trefethen, who along with her husband, John, and their family, owns Trefethen Vineyards, illustrates how California wine can still wow you with subtlety. Despite the current vogue for overdone powerhouse wines, Trefethen continues to produce Cabernet Sauvignon that, while intense, is most notable for its finesse, complexity and ability to develop. Similar to a great sauce, Trefethen Cabernets have a glossy texture and a plethora of flavors, none of which dominate. Trefethen's white wines are stylish and precise. Their wines make you smile from first taste to last drop.
Although all winemakers recite the mantra that wine is made in the vineyards, few adhere to that philosophy like the Trefethens. Since 1968, when they founded the winery and vineyards, the Trefethens have never purchased grapes for their wines. They've always relied on their vineyards to supply fruit. (They have purchased grapes for wines destined for their Eschol label, a secondary bottling they abandoned a few years ago). Janet is unaware of any other California winery that has made Estate Bottled wines exclusively for nearly four decades.
Trefethen's origins date to 1968, when John's parents purchased 600 acres -- at the then 'outrageous' price of $3,000 an acre -- of contiguous farms, one of which contained an abandoned, dilapidated winery in southern Napa Valley between the town of Yountville and the city of Napa. They also purchased what has turned out to be their most prized parcel, the 40-acre Hillspring Vineyard, a few miles from their main vineyards. At that time there were only about 30 wineries in Napa Valley and none were thriving economically. But timing is everything and the California wine boom was just about to start.
John and Janet restored and renovated the existing winery, which the U.S. Department of the Interior placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 as the only 19th-century, wooden, gravity-flow winery surviving in Napa County. Their winery and vineyards are located in the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, an American Viticultural Area (AVA) created in 2002 because wineries in the district convinced regulators that the area has unique climate and soil.
Janet Trefethen is obsessed with the land. She proudly displayed aerial maps of their vineyards, reflecting what's planted where, soil composition, exposure and terrain. 'We started with a 500-acre vineyard, but now it feels like we have 500 1-acre vineyards,' she said. 'We've gone from farming to horticulture, we've studied the vineyards in such detail.'
Amazingly, grapes for two of their consistently most notable wines, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, are planted in adjacent plots of the vineyard. It seems paradoxical that Riesling, a grape that expresses itself best in cool climate, should thrive next to Cabernet Sauvignon, which needs more heat to ripen. But as Trefethen explains, 'we are in the sweet spot of the Napa Valley' where there are cooling influences from Carneros and 'a touch of heat' from Calistoga further north. (Their location sounds analogous to the village of Barolo in Piedmont, which lies at the center of the two major subdivisions of the eponymous region).
It's cool enough that they rarely need to acidify their Riesling, according to Trefethen. 'In fact,' she said, 'Sometimes it's a little cool to ripen Cabernet.' That explains why they are so meticulous about the farming. She believes the key to success, especially for Cabernet, is to expect a difficult year every year and work the vineyard to produce low yields, since the higher the yield the more difficult it is to ripen the crop.
Their primary vineyard is located near Dry Creek (not the Dry Creek that runs through Sonoma) that runs into the Napa River. Their aerial photos show evidence of the river's ebb and flow over the millennia, with a demarcation of sorts between their Riesling and Cabernet plots. Nature provided them with an opportunity to change the location of varietals when the phylloxera epidemic in the 1990s destroyed the vineyards and forced them to replant. Armed with topographic data and their decades of experience, they opted to replant Riesling and Cabernet where they had been.
Halo, a wine Trefethen describes as 'the best of the best,' is named for their two children, Hailey and Lauren. First produced in 1997, this 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon comes entirely from their Hillspring Vineyard. They make only about 300 to 400 cases a year compared to about 1,000 cases of their Reserve Cabernet and 10,000 to 15,000 cases of the regular Cabernet Sauvignon. Trefethen's 2002 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which also comes mostly from Hillspring and sometimes has some Merlot in the blend, received high praise in London this year. It was selected by Decanter Magazine as North America's best red Bordeaux varietal in the over $20 category.
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E-mail Michael at mapstein@WineReviewOnline.com.