I was recently invited to an exclusive industry event at Rombauer Vineyards on Silverado Trail in Napa Valley. Among wine experts and casual wine drinkers alike, Rombauer is considered to be the quintessential producer of “California-style” Chardonnay. While “French-style” Chard is typically crisp, citrus-flavored, lighter colored, and more acidic, California Chardonnay has deeper golden color, aromas of vanilla, cinnamon and coconut, and flavors that are less citrus and more vanilla, mango, banana, butter, and cream. As I pulled into Rombauer’s parking lot last week for the in-depth tour and tasting, I admit that Rombauer’s buttery, oaky California Chardonnay was framing my expectation for the day. After spending nearly 3 hours with the Rombauer team – including owner KR Rombauer III and winemaker Richie Allen – I came away not only extremely impressed with the Rombauer team but with a new appreciation for their vision and commitment to developing a broad and deep wine portfolio.
In total, we tasted about a dozen wines which were poured along with a sumptuous lunch prepared by the Executive Chef of the Calistoga Inn, Nicolas Montanez.
Our lunch and tasting was quite an intimate affair, with only 12 or so wine writers in attendance which afforded us quite a bit of interaction with KR Rombauer III and winemaker Richie Allen. They both spent quite a bit of time with us sharing their plans for the winery, their approach to sustainable viticulture, and their winemaking philosophy. As we tasted the wines, KR and Richie described what they were trying to achieve with each wine.
There were several “aha” moments during the tasting, the first of which was learning the extent of Rombauer’s vineyard holdings. Having visited the winery several years ago, we were familiar with their estate property in Saint Helena on Silverado Trail, high up on a tree-lined knoll with amazing views of the surrounding mountains. What we did not know is how many vineyard locations Rombauer owns or manages across not only Napa Valley but other Northern California wine regions as well. Within Napa Valley, Rombauer has the following estate vineyards:
- 20.5 acres in the Atlas Peak A.V.A., sitting 1,600 feet above the valley floor on volcanic soil.
- 65 Acres in Calistoga (Bennett Lane vineyard), one of the warmer vineyard locations in the Valley.
- 68 Acres on the Napa side of the Los Carneros A.V.A. (Buchli StationVineyard), one of Napa’s more moderate regions.
- 37 acres in Saint Helena, including “Joan’s Vineyard” which is Rombauer’s home vineyard adjacent to the winery and tasting room.
Outside of Napa, Rombauer sources grapes from several vineyards selected because of their unique soil and terroir:
- 180 acres on the Sonoma side of Carneros.
- 28 acres in Lake County (Red Hills A.V.A.) at an elevation of 1,700 feet.
- 14 acres in Amador County (Shenandoah Valley A.V.A.) of head-trained, dry-farmed vines.
- 60 additional acres in Amador county that includes vines planted in 1904.
- An additional 22 acres in Amador with vines at 1,600-1,800 feet, head-trained and dry-farmed, and well over 100 years old.
- 150 estate acres in the El Dorado region, with vineyards at over 1,600 feet of altitude.
If our first “aha” was the breadth of vineyard locations from which Rombauer sources its wines, our second “aha” was the breadth of Rombauer’s portfolio of wines, especially their red wines. No, they are not abandoning their white wines, including their signature California chardonnay; fans can and should still visit the winery to enjoy that wine. What we learned, though, is that there is so much more to enjoy.
The first wine was poured while we were walking around the property – the 2017 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp and refreshing example of this varietal. Admittedly I was expecting a sweeter wine, but this was a more European-style wine: crisp, refreshing, nice acidity, mostly lemon and lime on the palate. This flavor profile results from fermentation in 90% stainless steel and only 10% oak (neutral).
We enjoyed another white wine, Rombauer’s 2016 Proprietary Selection Chardonnay. Any expectations of butter were eliminated on the first sip. While this Proprietary Selection Chardonnay is lush and full-bodied, it was much more to our preferred style for this varietal. With only 2 grams of residual sugar per liter, this wine certainly classifies as “dry.” Likely because of the winemaking – including stirring of the lees every two weeks – the texture is creamy and the flavors deep and balanced. This wine blended the best of the French and California winemaker approaches to deliver a final product that has elegance and sophistication and can be consumed with or without food.
Okay, enough about the white wines right? We told you that we tasted a number of red wines, so let’s get to them. How about we start with the 2014 Diamond Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that our hosts referred to as “high-octane.” While the label shows 14.8% alcohol, the winemaker guessed it might be 15.1% or higher. A blend of 94% Cab and 6% Petit Verdot, this wine is indeed high octane with strong tannins and ripe cherry on the palate. We were intrigued to hear that the grapes were optically sorted to ensure that only perfect fruit made it into this wine. This Diamond Selection Cab was aged for 16 months in new French oak. In our opinion this wine can stand up to the best Napa Cabs and hold its own. This wine would be perfect with a juicy red meat dish (Rombauer recommends prime rib).
Our second Cabernet Sauvignon was the 2014 Stice Lane Vineyard, another wine whose grapes were hand-picked and optically sorted. This wine, fermented 17 months in 100% new French oak, is lush but, like the Diamond Selection, not over-done in terms of either fruit or oak. Despite the use of 100% new oak, the wine does not feel over-oaked and there is a nice balance to the fruit – acidity and minerality. This wine had a delightfully long finish.
Are you starting to get the picture that Rombauer is not just a Chardonnay house? Let’s move on to another of their reds, the 2012 Le Meilleur Du Chai – in French, this means “Best of the Cellar. ” The winemaker hand-selects only the best barrels to include in this red blend: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot and 8% Petit Verdot. Our impression of this wine was that it was very smooth, elegant, lush and full-bodied. While the Diamond Selection and Stice Lane Cabs were more red fruit – cranberry, red cherry, raspberry – the Le Meilleur du Chai was bolder and darker – black cherry, blackberry, with dark chocolate and tobacco.
More red wine? Why not. How about another Cabernet – the 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, another full-bodied Cab. With this wine, grapes were cold-soaked prior to fermentation to extract color and flavor. Rombauer also makes two different Zinfandel wines: 2015 El Dorado Vineyard Zinfandel and 2016 Rombauer Zinfandel. The first of these two wines is made from grapes sourced from the El Dorado vineyards we mentioned above. The second Zin’s grapes come from El Dorado, Sierra Foothills, Lake County and Napa. Both wines are 94% Zin and 6% Petite Sirah. Cold-soaking was used on both wines and gentle basket-pressing used prior to racking into oak barrels. These wines are classic examples of California Zinfandel and pack a punch at nearly 16% alcohol.
I’m almost done describing the wines and you might be wondering how I drove home. Suffice it to say I’ve gotten better at spitting out the wine in the four years we’ve lived in Napa. Okay, our last red wine: the 2014 Napa Valley Merlot. Many of our fellow wine geeks consider the Merlot to be Rombauer’s best wine, and we have to agree. This is a structured, balanced, elegant wine that would be more than okay to drink today, but could also be cellared for a long time and enjoyed 10+ years from now.
If you’re wondering if we got cheated on dessert – we didn’t! We enjoyed a delicious Apricot Frangipane Tart paired with the 2015 Joy Late Harvest Chardonnay. Honey on the plate, and honey in the glass.
I drank a lot of wine. I ate a lot of food. I met some really cool people. Above all, I came away impressed with what KR Rombauer III and his team are trying to accomplish. KR told us that he are Richie are constantly thinking about new practices – both in the vineyard and the cellar – and learning from other wineries and winemakers. Cold-soaking, basket pressing, optical sorting, hand-picking, sustainable farming – these are the types of practices that we believe produce the highest quality wines that extract the essence of the varietal and the terroir of the vineyards.
Rombauer Vineyards was launched in 1980 as a family company, and it remains one to this day with second and third generation Rombauer’s actively involved in the business. But the family has not remained stagnant and strives to make wines worthy of their appellation.
May 17, 2018