Trefethen Vineyards

By Sunny Brown on January 1, 2006

Category: Winery of the Month

Location, location, location. The old axiom is as true today as it ever was. What is it that makes one site different from another? What is it that makes the grapes reared on one little hill different from the next hill over? There are many answers to my sorta rhetorical question: Soil composition, proximity to water, degree of slope. Perhaps the amount of sunlight that warms the gravel or the stand of trees that provides shelter from the prevailing winds? All excellent answers, but there are other factors involved. Maybe ones that cannot be measured in terms a smart guy with "-ist" attached to his title can explain.

How about the factor of “This is our land.” Or “This land was passed to me and my wife by my father and his wife.” Or my personal favorite, the old “I have worked this land continuously since 1968,” factor. That’s a biggie.

Trefethen Vineyards has been producing quality wines from estate grown fruit since 1973 (a great vintage for hack wine writers as well). Not a single purchased grape has been used in the production of Trefethen wines since its inception in 1968. Fame has followed the wines, winemakers and winery found in the southern end of Napa valley, but when you get down to it, it is still a family operation.

In 1968, Eugene Trefethen had the foresight to purchase 600 acres of land in the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. The land was littered with walnut, pear and plum trees, as well as old vineyards and the rundown relic of 19th century wine-production that was the Eschol winery. Though the land did not look very promising, the Trefethen family knew with a little hard work that this land that had once made famous wines could do so again. Eugene and his wife Katie, along with their son John and daughter Carla, and John’s wife Janet, began the arduous task of replanting the overgrown vineyards.

After a few years of selling their grapes to some of Napa’s finest, John and Janet decided it was time to show the world the excellent wines that could be made directly from the Trefethens and their vineyards. All they have done since is win a boatload of awards all the while retaining complete control over the winery and all aspects of the grape growing process, a Herculean feat in the ever-changing landscape of Napa Valley.

John and Janet have built a successful winery built on the premise of showcasing their homegrown fruit. John and his father Eugene scouted every inch of their land in order to determine the proper clonal selection for every nook and cranny of the vineyards. At Trefethen they “grow wine,” with all winemaking practices leading to the emphasis on the grape, not the winemaking style. Practices such as harvesting at night to retain more of the fruit character, sustainable viticulture to protect the nutrient balance in the soil, and gentle gravity-flow transfer of the grapes and juice once in the winery. This method is now common but nearly unheard of when the original Eschol winery implemented the wooden system still used today way back in the 19th century.

But back to the location. The Oak Knoll district is famous for the cool winds and maritime influences that roll through the vineyards each evening. Were Trefethen to only make Cabernet Sauvignon these influences would not be the most welcome of nighttime visitors, but when growing a wide range of varietals, from the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that require the cooler climes to retain balanced acidity, to the brooding and powerful Cabernets and Merlots that enjoy a more Mediterranean lifestyle, this is a perfect location. Warm enough for the masculine wines, but cool enough for the feminine styles, the area is blessed with a perfect balance of Yin and Yang.

This is a weighted analogy, as again we fall back upon the two sides of life when discussing the slow onslaught of Phylloxera that wreaked havoc upon the vines of Trefethen. During the 1990s, the root louse brought death and destruction to Trefethen, forcing John and Janet to replant all 600 acres, some 300,000 vines. In this immensely slow and hard work an opportunity for new life was found. The death of older vines brought the birth of new ones, complete with better selected clones and rootstocks. The Trefethens had taken their vast amount of knowledge and expertise and put it to work in the vineyard, so that now each and every vine is perfect for that soil type, exposure and location.

But it should hardly be surprising that John and Janet improved upon their earlier work. Trefethen as a whole has been at the forefront of research and development of their vineyards, working closely with U.C. Davis on several projects that have helped many a winery, not just their own. Innovation and experimentation are key, always with the philosophy of healthier and happier grapes paramount to the results. This certainly is an important factor in the philosophy of wine at Trefethen, something that Janet describes as such: “We believe in letting the grapes speak for themselves, and using only the gentlest of hands in the cellar.”

I can go on forever about the philosophies of this and the research in that, but it is in the wines that the truth of this effort speaks. Such a wide range of wines at such a high level of quality, all Estate grown and made. Quite impressive considering the different styles involved, each representing their own category of fine wine.

Each wine retains not only its own identity, but also a feel that speaks of the wine’s soul. You will not find the Chardonnay treading into the large and fat areas that Cabernets often inhabit, nor will you find the Cabernet Franc or Merlot leaning towards a lighter style that is out of character for a wine created in Napa.

The wines are always in balance. Just enough of this, not too much of that. The world of wine in California is much like the rest of the state: Some glitz, some glamour, some downright excess and hedonism. But also some good old-fashioned balanced wine. That may sound like a trip through yesteryear to a lover of all things above 15% alcohol, but to the rest of us who enjoy a little alcohol in our wine instead of the other way around, the wines of Trefthen are a welcome indulgence.

Can it really be terroir if all the wines are grown in one patch of vineyards just north of the town of Napa? With many microclimates and soil types strewn though the stands of walnut and oak trees that dot the vineyards, the Trefethens can effectively say so. Either way, rest assured that John and Janet will continue to present wines of character and distinction, and that there won’t be any fruit without the Trefethen stamp of approval.