Philip Togni Vineyard is one of the older producers in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District in the hills above the town of St. Helena. This was one of the last Spring Mountain wineries we visited for The Napa Wine Project – and it was well worth the wait. It is always a treat in the summer driving up and out of the fog that often blankets both neighboring Napa Valley and the Santa Rosa plain to the west – to bright blue sunshine with much warmer temperatures found at the upper elevations on Spring Mountain (like at Togni Vineyards).
Despite receiving detailed driving instructions – during our first visit we thought there must have been some mistake with the directions – no sign, a chain link fence blocking a dirt road leading into the woods. Looking back, many years later after additional visits, based on the pedigree of the property, history in the valley and winemaking knowledge we realize that this is one of the Napa Valley’s coolest winery driveways.
Philip Togni is a very small family run operation. Philip (well into his 90’s), his wife Birgitta and their daughter Lisa are all actively involved. Philip, born in England, earned a degree (the Dipome National d’Oenologie) at the University of Bordeaux where he was a student of the famed Emile Peynaud, one of the pioneers in modern winemaking. Only 5 students including himself were in the graduating class of 1957 and earned the first ever enology degrees awarded by that university. The famed blending maestro Michel Rolland also trained under Emile.
Philip’s first winemaking job was in 1956 at Château Lascombes in Bordeaux. His first winemaking job in the Napa Valley was for Jack & Mary Taylor at Mayacamas Vineyard in 1959. As of 2020, perhaps Philip is the only Napa winemaker who can say he made wine in the 1950s in the Napa Valley who is still involved in making wine in 2020. He was the first winemaker at Chalone Vineyard (in Monterey County), had a brief stint with Gallo, worked the 1966 harvest at Inglenook, was winemaker at Cuvaison in the early 1970s and later worked at Chappellet on Pritchard Hill crafting their highly regarded 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon merely 2 years after their first ever vintage. Today Lisa is also the winemaker; she has international winemaking experience having worked several harvests in France and also Australia.
University of Bordeaux Today
Attention to detail and quality are two of their most important priorities. Understandably their philosophy is that winemaking starts in the vineyards and as a result they spend much of their time effectively managing the various hillside blocks. Their winemaking style is minimal manipulation preferring to let their work in the vineyard show. There is a saying that Syrah likes a hillside view – well Cabernet Sauvignon does quite well with hillside views and the Togni wines are proof of this.
The Togni’s first purchased the property in 1975 and the first vines were planted in 1981, having since been replanted several times as needed. Their first vintage was from 1983. All their vineyard blocks are located around 2000 feet. Often a bit of snow falls in the winter. Almost half of the property is planted to vine leaving the vineyards surrounded by much of the natural forested land. There is a nice natural balance to the property; they farm sustainable, as much as possible. Solar panels help power the winery operations. Along with select nearby Spring Mountain land their property was originally planted to vineyards in the 1880’s. In fact, they found one of these original vines (identified as Cinsault) still living and have nurtured it back to health; it grows in the corner of one of the vineyards.
Philip Togni is entirely a self contained winery and that is somewhat rare to find in Napa. By this we mean they handle all the vineyard management, wine making, bottling (no mobile bottling trucks here) and shipping and handling. All wine in bottle is even stored on site and then for the most part shipped directly from the winery. In addition, they don’t buy grapes and they don’t sell grapes. All wine is from the estate.
The winery and cellar storage is built into the hill mere steps from the edge of the vineyard; this embedded location helps keep things naturally cool even in the heat of the day. The winery was designed to be gravity flow with the crush pad located on the highest level, the fermentation room on the second level and the barrel storage on the lowest level.
Consistency is key here – with decades of harvests under their belts, they know what works and what does not. They also know the prime parts of their vineyard. Premium yeast is used for the fermentation – the free run and the pressed juice are kept separate from each other until their final blending and bottling. Only French oak is used from a variety of select coopers.
The wines are released soon after bottling with the caveat to the consumer: “age for best results”. Togni’s wines age extremely well and only become better after being in the bottle for a number of years. They don’t encourage drinking the wines upon purchase – lay them down…10, 15, 20 years if you have the patience to wait. Their flagship wine is Cabernet Sauvignon blended in approximate proportion to the other varieties planted on the property. The majority of this wine is Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot and small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Togni also produces a second label called Tanbark Hill. This is named after a prominent hill near their property that one can even recognize from much further south on the valley floor. This wine is not made every year and when it is, is only produced in maybe several hundred cases. In addition, a tiny amount of an obscure variety (for Napa), Black Hamburgh bottled under the Ca’ Togni label is produced as a dessert wine. More about this shortly.
We tried a number of wines from barrel including both free run and pressed juice from their 2006 and 2007 vintages. The older vintages were of course already more polished with a better integrated tannin structure. As expected, the free run wines were more polished than the more robust “pressed wines”. The free run vintages we tried had pleasing earthy aromas on the elegant bouquet with rich concentrated fruit flavors. With such young wines one get hints of how well these will age along with the quality that is intrinsically part of Togni’s terroir and wine.
To the best of our knowledge Philip Togni is the only commercial Napa winery to produce wine from Black Hamburg. Out of 1,000+ Napa Valley based wineries or producers we have visited with, this is only the second time we’ve seen this grape being grown in the Napa Valley. It is a fairly large grape, almost table grape sized that is planted to merely 1/4 of an acre on site. As a result there is just not much of this wine available. A normal yield fills only one small barrel of wine. The these grapes are harvested late in the year so that the brix (sugar level) shows what is perhaps a shocking measurement on their refractometer’s meter (extremely high sugar content).
Harvesting this particular grape requires significant manual labor, especially when some of the fruit gets to this late stage and is wrinkled and shriveled. Manual removal of the fruit has to occur even after it has gone through their de-stemmer. Then individual grapes are removed; those that are bird pecked or have served as food sources to wasps. This wine is then aged for 5 years before it is even released. We tried the 2007 vintage from barrel. Wow! It has brilliant floral characteristics with great viscosity on the palate. Wonderful layered aromas and flavors of red ripe litchi. While young, this wine is very fruit forward – give it time to age and it takes on more of a tawny characteristic.
The 2006 Philip Togni Ca’ Togni (tasted 14 years after vintage). Shows plenty of dessert spices on the bouquet including cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. As it opens additional nuances of tea leaf and a very subtle minty note. Displays a wonderful tension across the palate – a suppleness with some texture if you will. Remarkably sweet. Very clean on the finish – the primary finish is filled with brown sugar, and flavors of prune and boysenberry with a secondary finish that comes later – showing vanilla, chocolate brownie, caramel and cardamom. Decadent and rich. Did we also say sweet? Lingers. Like drinking dessert. Only those who enjoy very sweet dessert wines should attempt to consume this wine – but those who do will be rewarded by its generous pleasure and will find it absolutely addicting to drink.
Philip Togni is one of the few California wineries represented in Robert Parker’s book, The World’s Greatest Wine Estates. This book features 175 of the world’s most accomplished and spectacular vineyard estates – only 23 from the USA are represented and of these only 17 are from Napa. It is a great honor for Togni to be included along with names like Colgin, Dalla Valle and other prominent Napa producers.
Also of note, is a blind tasting that occurred in Brussels, where some of Belgium’s best professional wine tasters rated California and Bordeaux wines. Togni took top honors over all the other wineries represented and the tasters even thought they were a French producer. You can find information about how to join their mailing list via their website. Current releases are always released to the mailing list first. Also every year, they release a 10 year old wine in limited quantity to their mailing list. Besides the mailing list some of their wine is exported to Europe and Asia, most notably Japan. Total production varies but is usually around 2000 cases each year.
For more information or to join their mailing list, visit: www.philiptognivineyard.com