Trefethen Family Vineyards 50th
Jul 02, 2018
These six words have become the mantra at Trefethen Family Vineyards. The phrase hangs on the wall in the tasting room. It describes perfectly the approach to farming and winemaking at the family-owned Napa Valley estate. And, that approach has been the same for a long time.
The business began back in 1968, when an executive from Kaiser Industries and his wife purchased six small farms and the dilapidated Eshcol Winery.
For three generations, the Trefethens have tilled that same land, making wines that have become famous all over the world. The year 2018 marks the family’s 50th anniversary in the Napa Valley. In an era when many small and family-owned wineries are selling out to big conglomerates, the Trefethens’ longevity is exceptional.
“We certainly have had some serious staying power,” says John Trefethen, whose parents bought the land in the first place. “Over the years, we have developed some great perspective, a great vantage point from which to keep evolving.”
A COLORFUL HISTORY – since 1973
When Gene and Katie Trefethen took a risk on 400 acres in what is now officially the Oak Knoll District appellation of Napa Valley, they figured they’d grow grapes and sell them. Their son had other ideas. John had used some of the grapes to make his own wine in the basement of an old house on the property. His first fermentation tanks were metal garbage cans. In 1973, John and his new bride Janet together launched the winery, with a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir. The first vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling came the following year.
Everything changed for the Trefethens in 1979, when the winery’s 1976 Chardonnay earned “Best Chardonnay in the World” honors at Gault Millau magazine’s World Wine Olympics in Paris. That accomplishment, coupled with the determination of John and Janet to create a world-class wine estate, put Trefethen Family Vineyards on the proverbial fine wine map.
The winery took off from there, adding volume and other varieties as newly replanted acres came to fruition. Janet, working tirelessly to market the wines, also helped launch a cooking class that jump-started the careers of many Napa Valley chefs.
“So much of our history is about wine,” Janet said recently, looking back. “What people don’t recognize is that part of our history also ties into the birth of the culinary movement here in Wine Country.”
Fast-forward to 2014, when the trajectory of the winery’s history dramatically changed again. This time it was an earthquake that shook things up, nearly destroying the 128-year-old Eshcol winery building. The Trefethens embarked on a painstaking rebuilding process, one that took nearly three years and concluded with a fully restored building that is sturdier than ever before. The old winery now provides a safe home for prior vintages aging in barrel as well as a gorgeous tasting room for guests visiting the estate.
THE PASSION – 8 varietals
The family’s approach to winemaking has always been to craft wines that reflect their vineyard origin, using only grapes grown on Trefethen soil. Given the cooler climate of the Oak Knoll District, these are wines with acidity, wines that can age. The wines are bold but they are also bright. In fact, Lorenzo, part of the 3rd generation now actively involved at the winery, goes so far as to say that the brightness on the palate is Trefethen’s “calling card.”
The family still makes its first flagship wine, Chardonnay, and still sells more of that wine than any other. More recently, it also has become known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and a unique red blend called Dragon’s Tooth. With diverse soil types across the 400-acre main ranch, the Trefethens have found sweet spots for a range of other varieties as well, including Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Riesling.
The estate includes one other vineyard, a few miles away in the foothills of the Mayacamas, still within the Oak Knoll District. Hillspring Vineyard is the source for HaLo, a Cabernet Sauvignon named after the third generation, Hailey and Lorenzo. The 2013 vintage of this wine received 97 points and the distinction of “Red Wine of the Year” from Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine.
Looking forward, the Trefethens plan to continue making great wine, but expect to do so with a bit of a shift: John and Janet recently began stepping aside to make way for their children to lead.
According to Hailey, she and her brother share the passion for the estate and its wines and don’t want to make any big changes. “We won’t do anything radically different from what our parents have done,” she says. “We plan to keep doing what we are doing and do it better every year.”
In other words, the future for Trefethen looks a lot like their mantra – One Family. One Estate. One Passion. Perspective is a beautiful thing.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD – the next generation
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Trefethen Family Vineyards is going back to the future.
Exhibit A: The business essentially is operating in brand new (but at the same time very old) digs, after the family finished restoring the original winery building built in 1886, but damaged by an earthquake in 2014. Exhibit B: Second-generation leaders John and Janet have stepped aside to make room for their children, Lorenzo and Hailey, to assume more responsibility.
The Trefethens like to think of this move as a renewed commitment to being estate-grown; not only are all the grapes grown on-site, but the new leaders were grown there, too.
Technically, both of the younger Trefethens have the titles of executive vice president. To hear them explain it, however, Hailey focuses on the farming and the winemaking process, and Lorenzo devotes his energy to getting the family’s wines on tables around the country and the world. They both work closely with CEO Jon Ruel, who started working with the family (as viticulturist) back in 2004.
Their many long-term relationships with employees, consumers and partners in the trade also reflect the stability at Trefethen and add to the family’s positive outlook for the winery’s future. Their winemaker, Bryan Kays, has been part of the team since 2006. Joe Cusimano, Vice President of Sales, began working with the family in 2001. The family’s relationship with Wine Warehouse began just one year later and, sixteen years in, continues to thrive.
Looking forward, Lorenzo says cooperation will be critical—not only with his sister, but also between the present and the past.
“The really exciting part for Hailey and me, as we move forward, is that our history matters. It gives us confidence in our wines and the spirit in which we make them,” he says. “We’re not worried about the next score from a critic. We’re not worried about who’s going to like us. We know we have something special here and we can just focus on the vineyards and the wines. We’re less distracted than we have been at any point in our history and that has come from all the hard work of our parents and our employees (our extended family) over the past 50 years. That’s an exciting place to be.”
50th ANNIVERSARY LABEL WINES
TREFETHEN CHARDONNAY ESTATE 2016
“This is a lovely, well-made white, bursting in tones of vanilla and biscuits on the nose. It is lush and layered on the light-bodied frame, the oak integrated and subtle, with flavors of green apple and mango.” 94pts Wine Enthusiast; 90pts Wine & Spirits; 93pts Tasting Panel
TREFETHEN CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2015
“Smaller grapes than usual made this a very structured,concentrated wine, with plenty of tannin,savory and spicy flavors, alongside aromas of bayleaves. Marks a new level of quality.” 94pts Decanter; 92pts James Suckling
TREFETHEN MERLOT 2015
“This wine explodes with aromas of cinnamon stick and oak. The entry is thick and dense on impact, with powerful, polished tannins. Dark cherry, raspberry and dusty clove combine with ease around a palate of structure and grace.” 93pts Wine Enthusiast; 91pts Tasting Panel
TREFETHEN DRY RIESLING 2017
“Crisp and tangy with racy acidity and bright citrus; silky and fresh, long and balanced; this winery is one of the very few still making Riesling in Cabernet country.” 92pts Tasting Panel