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Trefethen Vineyards
By Katie Kreifels

One of the most striking features of the Napa Valley wine community is the community itself. Since the first prize vines were planted and the first grapes harvested, crushed, and fermented, the Napa Valley has been a home to a passionate community of winegrowers and winemakers, all working to produce world class wines and gain international recognition for their efforts-as individual estates and as a region.

It's surprising how few years the Napa Valley has been best known for its wine. Now, casual American wine drinkers look to Napa Valley as a wine Mecca, a United States region that looks, feels, acts, and works like many European winemaking regions. Napa Valley has made wine, the pride of Europe, widely accessible and accepted by Americans, whose beverage alcohol predilections have long leaned toward spirits and beer.

Before Prohibition, Napa Valley was a wine region, but during prohibition, Americans developed a fondness for the easily bootlegged distilled spirits.

After prohibition ended, Americans did not turn quickly to wine as a beverage of choice, and the Napa Valley did not instantly begin again as a winemaking region. Napa Valley has spent only the past 40 years rebuilding what it had and embarking on a new road to excellence

When Gene Trefethen bought 600 acres of land in Napa Valley in 1968, people thought he was crazy: the Napa Valley only housed a few wineries at that time. Gene's new land was planted with peaches, hay, and a few scraggly grape vines-literal reminders of the land's pre-prohibition vineyards and winery. Gene wasn't just buying farmland, however. He was also buying history, and the promise of a legacy to be reborn.

The land contained an old winery, the 1886 Eschol winery, which was named for the Biblical passage in which Moses sent spies to scout the Promised Land, from which journey they returned with tales of milk and honey-and an unwieldy cluster of grapes. The old Eschol winery was indeed built on land with great promise: in 1888, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Eschol Winery won first prize at the San Francisco Viticultural Fair.

Gene Trefethen had a lot to live up to, and he and his son John immediately began researching which grapes would grow best where, growing grapes, and selling them to some of Napa Valley's best wineries. 5 years later, John and his wife, Janet, started making their own wine in the renovated Eschol winery.

The Trefethens found their own little part of the California winemakers' Promised Land, and continue to pay homage to this day. Their selectivity and reverence have produced quite an impressive result, as they've grown from a very small winery in 1973 whose crew had problems glueing labels on the bottles, to, only 6 years later, when their 1976 Chardonnay won Best Chardonnay in the world at the 1979 Gault Millau World Wine Olympics. They are the only winery in the Napa Valley who can claim the use of 100% estate grown grapes in their wines.

Today, at harvest time in 2002, 29 years after they have been making wine on the property, the Trefethen family eagerly awaits the pending designation of the Oak Knoll Appellation. The current Oak Knoll district is the only part of the Valley floor not designated with an AVA, and the designation will give due recognition to this slice of land whose distinguishable terrior imparts a unique flavor and quality to the grapes. Of course, recognition for the region means recognition for its growers and winemakers-who deserve it. Perhaps the Trefethen family deserves it most of all; without their efforts, not just as winemakers, but as lobbyists, Oak Knoll wouldn't be what it is. Napa Valley wouldn't, either.

Interview with Janet Trefethen

Katie Kreifels: How did you develop your interest, appreciation, and dedication to the production and promotion of fine wine?
Janet Trefethen: Let me paint a little picture for you. First, a lot of it has to do with things I had no control over, like time, place, and meeting a very special person, my husband. When I graduated from college with a degree in journalism, I wanted to spend some time in Europe and really dig in and expose myself to another culture and another people. I believe that the only way to do this is to live immersed in one place for a while. So, I went to France and studied French! I say that I "learned to eat" while I was there, but that certainly wasn't the reason I went.

KK: How did you learn to eat?
JT: Well, today Trefethen is a part of what began as a trend in California...appreciating the freshness and the natural goodness of food if you raise it right. We didn't have that experience much in America outside of California, and in France, the food was just so flavorful. I lived with a family and went to the market and made and ate fresh food with them…and it opened UP my palate.

KK: Did you learn to appreciate fine wine while in France, too?
JT: I have always enjoyed wine. I grew up in a farming community, and the opening day of duck season was always a very big deal. People came from San Francisco to hunt on our property, and brought wine for the celebration. As I got a little older and was going out on dates, it was as if you could tell how good the date really was by how and what they ordered for you to drink. And in college, the way I splurged was to buy Robert Mondavi Gamay, which they don't make anymore, incidentally. I have just always really enjoyed wine.

KK: How did you come to work at the Winegrower's Foundation when you returned from Europe?
JT: I had left my resume in a couple of places in the Napa Valley before I went to France. I chose Napa because I liked wine and my family had visited there, and I thought it was a beautiful area.

KK: Napa wasn't the U.S. wine Mecca that it is today, though.
JT: No, it wasn't at all. That was in the late 60s the early 70s, when the wine renaissance had not yet begun. Napa valley was certainly not a well-known wine producing region yet. In 1960, there were fewer than 25 wineries! What so many people don't know or remember is that in 1960, over one half of the Napa Valley was planted to something other than grapes.

KK: What was planted on the Trefethen land back then?
JT: Peaches, hay, and some old grape vines…they actually used to run cattle in Napa Valley. Back then, I would have felt totally comfortable walking into the corner store in my boots and spurs, but not today!

KK: How did you and John together decide that this was where you wanted your home, and that you wanted to spend your life making wine?
JT: This whole part of where I am today is due to that I was in the right place at the right time with the right guy. John and I were married in 1973 and couldn't have had better timing. As I said before, the wine renaissance hadn't begun yet…In l968, John's father, Gene, actually purchased 280 acres in the middle of the Napa Valley for a handshake and a dollar down. Everybody thought he was totally nuts.

KK: So you two saw this land and said, "we're going to make wine."
JT: Well, we were a young couple, and when you get married, you hope its going to work. You hope you are committing your lives to each other forever, and luckily for us, it worked. But with the wine, we weren't committing ourselves to vineyards and wineries forever; we just wanted to try it out.

KK: But the vineyard certainly worked as well as the marriage!
JT: Oh, certainly. John and I married and began making wine together in the right place, at the right time. John had a good business plan, and we produced 2000 cases in 1973. Now when people start a vineyard or winery in Napa Valley, people pump millions of dollars into buying the land, the facilities, the grapes…we were able to do it on a much smaller scale and build from the ground up. We had the opportunity to try it one step at a time at a very slow rate instead of trying to jump in unconditionally.

KK: How, in the development of your business and skills, do you think you benefited from taking a step-by-step approach instead of diving into it?
JT: We were able to experiment and make mistakes, and it wasn't that critical because no one really cared about winemaking in Napa Valley then. We were the new pioneers. It was a fun time to do it, when everybody was new to it and you learn from each other.

KK: Yes, I have heard that although Napa Valley is a competitive wine market, you really have a great sense of community among the winemakers out there.
JT: It is a terrific community to live in and there is true community spirit. I haven't lived in that many other places that have so many terrific people. I think a lot of it is because in that era, everyone that was coming into the business at that time was leaving their other businesses by choice and making a real serious commitment to come to Napa and make wine. That brought a number of interesting and diverse people, and everyone had a lot of things to contribute to make the whole very strong. This, remarkably, is still true today.

KK: What challenges did you encounter as beginning winemakers?
JT: Well, in the beginning we did have problems…I remember I was so excited to be going around peddling our very first wine. I would go visit my accounts-ACCOUNTS!-who had given me orders and ask them, excitedly, how it was, and they would politely tell me that the wine was wonderful but the labels were falling off in the cases! That's not so good for brand development! Well, one day I was in the grocery store, and I ran into a colleague and mentioned the problem and he told me how to solve it. That's the kind of community it was…you could solve your winemaking troubles solved in the grocery store.

KK: Now how do you interact with that community? What is your role?
JT: John and I try to split our roles. For example, for a while he was the president of the Napa Valley Vintner's Association, then he stopped and I moved in and was in charge of marketing and promotions, and now I have backed out and he is the NVVA's CFO. We share our community commitments. Now I am doing more with the Queen of the Valley Hospital. And, of course, I have been spearheading the Oak Knoll District petition since 1995.

KK: Where does the petition for the declaration of the Oak Knoll appellation stand now, 7 years later?
JT: We are finally making progress and I think that we will have an Oak Knoll AVA very soon. We submitted the petition to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in 1997, and, 30 days ago, it was finally moved to the Department of Treasury, where it is subject to a 60 day comment period. Depending on the comments they receive, we hope to have an AVA within 3-9 months.

KK: That probably doesn't feel like too long to wait in comparison with the 7 years you have already been working on it! Which other winemakers are in the Oak Knoll District?
JT: Monticello, Mario Andretti, Etude, the Laird family, Newlan, Luna…there are not a lot of wineries here, but there are a lot of growers who sell their grapes, so a lot of wine is sourced from here.

KK: How will things change for you after you get the Oak Knoll appellation?
JT: Well, this is a very good thing for Napa Valley. There is a master map that has each of the AVAs designated, and the area where we are is called the Oak Knoll District. The map is like a puzzle picturing the entire Napa Valley. There is a big hole in the southern end. The Oak Knoll AVA will fill that hole. It means the completion of the valley floor of the Napa Valley, and it is a good place for Napa to be. It means that the soil and weather differences in the different areas of Napa Valley will be recognized and defined.

KK: What kind of direct impact will this have on Trefethen?
JT: Well, at Trefethen, we are 100% estate grown. It gives more credence to what we have been saying for the last 25 years. It also helps this area garner the recognition it deserves.

KK: What, specifically, do you and John do at the winery?
JT: John and I are ownership partners in running the operation, which is a couple of different businesses within one business. We are growers as well as winemakers, and we sell our grapes, too. But, most specifically, John is more involved with the master business plan, and I am more involved in the marketing and sales side. We are good sounding boards for each other and work well together.

KK: What keeps you passionate? What is the Trefethen secret?
JT: The big difference between Trefethen and other brands is that we are 100% estate grown, produced, and bottled. No one else in the Napa Valley can say that since their inception more than 20 years ago they have never bought an outside grape for their product. It's similar to cooking…the big difference is the ingredients with which you start. For us, that is the difference that we can make. We assure ourselves that we are producing the best quality grapes that we can get our hands on, and that once we get them, we don't disrupt what Mother Nature has given us. For example, we are very judicious, especially with the Chardonnay, in the amount of malolactic and oak that we allow.

KK: Do you have any last notes?
JT: All I can say is to implore wine drinkers not to overlook the 1998 vintage. We have taken Trefethen through a renaissance: after phylloxera, we totally replanted. We made great efforts to replant it correctly, utilizing everything we have learned in our vineyard, and 1998 was finally the culmination with all new fruit and was really quite splendid for us. People should take a closer look at '98. There are some lovely wines out there.

Trefethen Vineyards Wines:

  • 2001 Estate Dry Riesling
  • 2000 Estate Chardonnay
  • 1999 Estate Cabernet Franc
  • 1999 Estate Merlot
  • 1998 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 1998 Young Vines 5 Chardonnay
  • 2000 Late Harvest Riesling
  • 2001 S.I.N. Summer in Napa Rose
  • 2000 Estate Pinot Noir
  • 1995 Library Selection Chardonnay
  • 1995 Library Selection Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 1999 Harmony Chardonnay
  • 1997 HaLo Cabernet Sauvignon

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