Rombauer Winery (family owned), is a real nice find; the winery is located about 1/4 mile off Silverado Trail on the east side of Napa Valley in the small pine covered hills that are found in this area. Look for the large American flag flying along the Silverado Trail which marks the entrance. An expansive view of Napa Valley can be seen from the deck of the tasting room looking west.
Despite changing to an appointment only policy after years of welcoming walk-ins, a small parking lot coupled with a tiny tasting room and numerous visitors can still produce a busy experience, especially on the weekends. The hospitality center is relatively small and looks and feels like a tasting room from an earlier era; unlike numerous areas tasting rooms that try to stay contemporary, Rombauer has opted to keep an ‘old school’ feel to the space. Its this kind of consistency and similarities that their customers have come to know and expect during visits, and to some extent parallels the same consistency in their wines. Rombauer’s Chardonnay and to a lesser extent, its Zinfandels have a remarkable almost cult like following from fans around the U.S.
Rombauer founders, Koerner and Joan Rombauer (Joan died in 2002 and Koerner in 2018) were originally from Escondido in Southern California. They moved to Napa Valley in 1972 and purchased a home on the property where the winery is now located (Koerner lived on the property until his death). Joan worked at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for 12 years, ultimately becoming National Sales Director there. Koerner was a former airline pilot for Braniff International Airways (the company declared bankruptcy in the 1980s and laid off some 2,7000 employees). Koerner is the grandnephew of Irma Rombauer, the well-known author of Joy of Cooking.
The Rombauers’ first venture into the world of wine was as partners in Conn Creek Winery in Rutherford in 1976. The couple sold their interest in 1980 – the same year they produced the first vintage of Rombauer wine (a 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District). Several historical items are of interest from that vintage – this first Rombauer wine was produced at Shafer Vineyards (but bottled at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1982) but also produced at the Rombauer home (their four-car garage was bonded as a commercial winery). In fact there are actually two wineries on the Rombauer property – the original garage winery and the current modern day production facility. The winery’s first release was in 1984, the aforementioned 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1982 Chardonnay.
Bob Levy, later known for his work at Harlan Estate and BOND was Rombauer’s first winemaker. He oversaw the construction of the winery in 1982. Construction began in June of that year with plans to handle the harvest later that year; today that would be impossible given the slower permitting process. Remarkably, even though the winery did not yet have power, Rombauer was able to process the first harvest at the winery although they did not yet have power and literally had to drag a large generator onto the property.
From 1982 until 2008, Rombauer was well known in the Napa Valley wine industry as a premium custom crush facility, with a number of now prominent brands producing wine there. Encouraged by Koerner, the spirit of wine making here was one of camaraderie with numerous winemakers working together. Well known Napa wineries that made their wines here at some point include: Dominus, Neyers Cellars, Spottswoode, Duckhorn, Merryvale, Corison, and Etude among others.
Another interesting historical footnote involves Koerner and Rich Frank, the former Disney executive who now owns Frank Family Winery. In 1993 Koerner partnered with Rich to purchase the old Kornell Champagne Cellars on Larkmead Lane, home of the original Larkmead Winery. They named the new venture Frank-Rombauer, and made several vintages with this name, but it soon became clear, that the name was causing confusion among consumers with the already well-established Rombauer Winery. The name was changed to Frank Family Winery and by 2007 Koerner sold all of his shares in the business.
Today, the 2nd and 3rd generations of the Rombauer family are actively involved in various aspects of the winery including Koerner and Joan’s children KR Rombauer and Sheana Rombauer. Sheana’s daughter, Reagan Rombauer Blackwood, serves as Associate Brand Manager for the winery. Vice President, Viticulture and Winemaking Richie Allen has been with the winery since 2004.
The first Rombauer owned vineyard was Joan’s Vineyard, seven acres of Zinfandel situated on the hillside that leads to the winery and tasting room. Over the next forty years, Rombauer purchased numerous other vineyards in Napa Valley, Lake County and the Sierra Foothills. Today the winery owns over 700 acres of vineyard land. These acres are farmed sustainably by the winery’s own in-house management (rather than hiring an outside vineyard management company).
And while Rombauer’s vineyard holdings are significant, they are still not enough to satisfy the demand for its wines. As a result, the winery also purchases fruit from a select list of grower-partners.
St. Helena Winery experiences/tastings
For the most personalized tasting experience, we recommend making Rombauer your first stop when the tasting room is quiet. Most current releases are available for tasting, and bottles of more limited production Proprietor and other wines may also be available.
For an even more intimate experience, reserve the Joy of Wine Experience. This approximately 90 minute experience makes you feel like a VIP. Groups, limited to a maximum of 8 people are led through the 26,000 square foot caves (one of the larger wine caves in Napa) by a wine host who explains Rombauer’s winemaking process including information about how they barrel ferment their most premium wines. This is followed by a visit to the production facility followed by a tasting in the intimate VIP room located on the second floor of the main tasting room.
Your host will take you through a number of very limited production wines sold only at the winery and through Rombauer’s clubs. This is a unique opportunity to discuss these rare wines with your host and other guests. During our latest experience of this particular tour, we found the host extremely knowledgeable and engaging with the guests.
Another highlight of a visit to Rombauer, especially in April and May, are the gardens. Several stone paths near the entrance to the hospitality center lead down the side of the nearby hillside where (especially in Springtime) beautiful flowers are in bloom. An added bonus: guests may bring a picnic lunch to enjoy at one of a number of picnic tables on site.
Although its first wine was a Cabernet Sauvignon, Rombauer is most associated with the Chardonnay and Zinfandel varieties. When it comes to Chardonnay, Rombauer is one of the most talked about wineries in the Napa Valley. The style they have historically produced from this variety is beloved by many, often described as fruit-forward, buttery and creamy with noticeable influences of toasty oak. Rombauer also helped popularize the jammy, ripe, (and during our tastings, a perceptible slightly sweet fruit) fruit-forward style of Zinfandel.
Rombauer’s Carneros Chardonnay is sourced from estate and grower vineyards in the Carneros AVA. The wine is barrel fermented and aged in both new and seasoned French and American oak barrels. The generous mouth feel associated with this wine arises from regular stirring of the lees (battonage) as it ages. The Chardonnay is also put through full secondary (malolactic) fermentation. A tiny bit of residual sugar is left in the wine.
Rombauer’s wines are approachable in their youth yet also are age-worthy and are available at reasonable price points.
Rombauer’s Proprietor Selection Chardonnay is only made during excellent vintages, historically about once every four years on average. The 2016 Rombauer Proprietor Chardonnay is quite golden in color, showing notes of pineapple, toasted oak, a wood spice nuance and some tropical floral notes including honeysuckle and jasmine. Rich, creamy and well-layered, the wine also reveals a slight sweetness across the palate along with subtle hints of vanilla on the finish.
Rombauer’s Le Meilleur du Chai – translated from French means “the best of the cellar”. It is a proprietary Bordeaux-style red blend created from approximately 8 barrels each year, selected by the wine making team through blind tasting of numerous barrel samples. The 2012 Rombauer Le Meilleur du Chai Shows a sweetness of fruit on the bouquet, a perceptible smoky quality, hints of brown chocolate and an herbal note including nuances of sage. The wine offers darker fruit aromatics rather than red fruit as well as flavors of black cherry and a spiciness on the finish including white pepper. It has a very nice feel and texture with well-integrated tannins.
The 2014 Rombauer Stice Lane Cabernet Sauvignon initially shows nuances of dust on the bouquet, with chocolate and wood spice. As the wine breathes it becomes more open in its fruit aromatics showing aromas of blackberry and blueberry. It is quite balanced for a young wine at the time of our tasting, showing a hint of cedar box notes on the finish. Nicely integrated tannins.
The 2015 Rombauer Proprietor Selection Zinfandel offers an intriguing bouquet of rhubarb, cranberry and cracked black pepper, reveling bright fruit aromatics and lively fruit flavors. A thread of berry fruit forms the core of this wine with hints of blackberry jam and dessert spices. Balanced with a sweetness of fruit, this is Rombauer’s signature Zinfandel, a crowd-pleaser among those who enjoy a fruit forward wine of this variety.
Dessert wine lovers should take note of Rombauer’s Joy Late Harvest Chardonnay made from Chardonnay grapes grown in the Carneros AVA in the cool southern cooler part of Napa Valley. Produced only in certain years when the conditions are right, Joy is made from grapes that hang on the vines much longer then a normal Chardonnay. During this time they develop botrytis due to moisture, a beneficial (ugly looking to some) mold otherwise known as “noble rot,” which gives this late harvest wine its signature profile of honeyed citrus, ripe apricot and toasted nuts.
The 2015 Rombauer Joy, Late Harvest Chardonnay is golden amber in the glass, revealing sweet aromatics including honeysuckle, apricot, honey and baking spice. Rich and sweet on the palate the wine feels silky and somewhat creamy showing flavors of apricot and nuances of vanilla. Joy is barrel fermented in American oak barrels toasted the morning the wine is put into them, then aged in barrel for six months until bottling.
During select visits we have noticed that sometimes Rombauer pours their bigger red wines before their Chardonnay and or Zinfandel. You know when you have tried one of Rombauer’s classic Zinfandel wines – with ripe fruit and jam-like characteristics including often flavors of strawberry, raspberry and blackberry jam all rolled up into one wine. During our visits to Rombauer, some of the Zinfandel wines have been so concentrated and fruit-forward that one’s palate may be tricked into thinking it is sweet but in actuality the residual sugar is minimal.
Rombauer offers a variety of wine clubs ranging from varietal specific clubs to to their Classic Club which includes current release wines and more limited production releases.
Rombauer Winery, Sierra Foothills
In early 2019 Rombauer purchased Renwood Winery in Plymouth (Amador County). Prior owner, an Argentina investment group led by ‘vintner’ Alejandro Bulgheroni purchased the property in 2009 (one of Alejandro’s numerous wine ventures is Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate in the Napa Valley. Rombauer tried to purchase this property in 2011 from Bulgheroni. Included with the sale was 20 acres of vineyards, the winery and the tasting room. The sale did not include the Renwood Winery brand. Rombauer needed more winery space at their production facility in St. Helena and with a growing demand for their Zinfandel wines, this was a timely purchase.
This is not Rombauer’s first entry into the Sierra foothills. The winery has sourced grapes from this part of California since the mid 1990s and in 2011 the company purchased the 148 acre El Dorado Vineyard mostly planted to Zinfandel.
Rombauer’s Sierra Foothills tasting room is only about a 10 minute drive from the tiny sleepy town of Plymouth. Numerous other wineries are within a very short distance of Rombauer. The tasting room was closed for several months during the transition in ownership and reopened in early April 2019 – with a new look. Visits from Friday through Sunday are by appointment and by walk-in the rest of the week. Visitors are welcome to picnic at one of the tables on the grounds – with a purchase of wine – served outside by either the bottle or glass.
Charcuterie items are also available for purchase on site. Unlike select Napa Valley based wineries that operate tasting rooms outside of Napa and focus on that particular non Napa Valley site’s wines, the full line up of Rombauer wines are available for tasting here (the same lineup as at the St. Helena winery). And a feature we rarely see built into tasting room counters: Rombauer’s tasting bar features several back lit bright lights installed underneath the counter – this is really nice for examining the color of the wines.
The winery is in a business park which houses a number of other wineries and wine related businesses. A significant amount of their production is done here.
For more information about Rombauer, to make an appointment at either the Napa Valley or Sierra Foothills tasting rooms, or to join the mailing list, visit: www.rombauervineyards.com
Rombauer Vineyards, Sierra Foothills