Trefethen Family Vineyards is a very photogenic and historic winery located at the end of what is possibly the longest winery driveway on the Napa Valley floor. Their location is about half way between the towns of Napa & Yountville just east of Highway 29. This is the largest winery in the small vineyard grower dominated Oak Knoll district. This district is cooler than up valley due to more marine influences and also slightly more humid than other northerly growing regions. As a result of its location, you can grow both cool weather and warmer weather varietals here. Cabernet Sauvignon grows near Pinot noir in some instances. They have produced Riesling for 35+ years – Riesling used to be common in Napa but today almost all of it has been replaced with other varietals. Trefethen is certainly one of the larger Riesling growers in the Napa Valley.
The vineyard and winemaking history of this property is deeply rooted to some of the Napa Valley’s earliest wine heritage. In 1851 former sea captain from Massachusetts, Joseph Warren Osborne (often referred to as J.W Osborne) purchased a sizable piece of land in this part of the Napa Valley (nearly 2,000 acres) and called it Oak Knoll. He originally came to California because of the gold rush of 1849.
Records indicated he planted grapes in a nursery here in 1852 and within 8 years had the largest vineyard in all of the Napa Valley (50 acres of vines). Records also show that Zinfandel cuttings from vines growing on the property were taken to Buena Vista Winery in 1859 in neighboring Sonoma County. Joseph also grew a diversity of fruits – having been awarded in 1859 ‘first premium’ at the Horticultural Fair held in San Francisco for having the best variety of fruits on display. And he also founded the Napa-Sonoma Horticultural Society with Agoston Haraszthy (of Buena Vista Winery).
He was being considered for candidacy for governor of California in 1861 but ultimately he did not run for office. Tragically he was murdered two years later by gunshots in April 1863 by a former employee over an unpaid debt dispute (this employee was later hung) and the sad story is well detailed in Author Todd Shulman’s book, Murder and Mayhem in the Napa Valley.
The name of their long driveway off of Oak Knoll Ave is called Eschcol in tribute to the winery that was built here in 1886 by banker brothers James and George Goodman (which incidentally used to be accessible directly from a driveway off of Highway 29). The name Eschcol is a term from the Hebrew Bible referencing a valley where grapes were harvested (see Numbers 13:23–24). Noted architect, Hamden McIntyre was hired to oversee the design of the winery – perhaps the Howard Backen of the times (Howard is a well-respected contemporary architect responsible for some of Napa’s most creative and innovative wineries). Hamden designed a number of prominent wineries in the Napa Valley including Far Niente, Inglenook and the Greystone building housing what is now the Culinary Institute of America. The winery building is the only surviving example in Napa Valley still being used from the 1800s of a wooden gravity flow winery.
More Goodman contributions to the Napa Valley include Goodman Library in downtown Napa – the land upon which it sits was donated by George Goodman. And there are historic family and business connections between the Churchills (the family name that is carried on today in Churchill Manor, a bed and breakfast near downtown Napa) located across the street from the George Goodman Mansion.
James Goodman first came to California in 1852 and settled in San Francisco where he was in the wholesale grocery and mercantile business until 1855 at which point he moved to the Napa Valley. Along with his brother George in 1858, they established James H. Goodman & Co., Napa County’s first bank. Their bank was later sold to the Bank of Italy which eventually became Bank of America. In 1861 James became County Treasurer, serving through the early 1870s. The property remained planted to a diversity of both wine grapes (an article in the Napa Register from 1885 refers to 160 acres of vines in production) as well as other crops during the Goodman’s ownership including numerous pear trees, cherries and seasonally grown, wheat.
And like select other wineries in the valley, Eschcol was connected to the railroad by a pipe (where wine could be piped out to awaiting rail cars for transport). Eschol was purchased by Napa banker James Fawver in 1904 (whose father Thomas was an early Napa Valley pioneer, having settled in the valley in 1863 coming from Missouri on a wagon train). James produced wine legally until Prohibition and continued to produce for several years after but was not able to sell it. Eventually he sold grapes and after Prohibition ended in 1933, for a short while he began making wine again – he died in 1940. For a time in the 1940s his widow Della leased part of the property to Beringer Vineyards; they used the space on site as a storage facility and were leasing the surrounding vineyards. Della died in 1957.
The Trefethen family (Eugene and Katie) purchased this winery in 1968 and restored the old Eschol Winery building; today it houses the Trefethen winery and tasting areas. The Trefethen’s own not only 500 acres surrounding the winery but also another 150 mostly hillside acres about 3 miles from the winery in the foothills of the Mayacamas mountains (the Hill Spring Vineyard). As a result, they own one of the larger private wine land holdings in Napa Valley. Founder Eugene (Gene) Trefethen was CEO of Kaiser Companies (a formidable project focused company – Hoover Dam, Shasta Dam, Oakland-SF Bay Bridge, etc). He was a man who wielded the kind of influence to be able to call up President Roosevelt during World War II and secure a contract for building Liberty ships.
The early history of two now notable Napa Valley based wineries were at Trefethen. Cakebread Winery, (up the road in Oakville) actually purchased some grapes for their first vintage from Trefethen and made some of their initial wine here. And for a while, Trefethen was home to thousands of bottles of sparkling wine – Domain Chandon (Moet-Hennessy) began their wine making efforts here by taking over the second floor of the winery for their own operations (before Domain Chandon was yet built).
Trefethen has been generationally passed on to family; John & Janet Trefethen and their two children, Lorenzo and Hailey now run the operations. John first made home wine for a few vintages in the early 1970’s -their first commercial release was in 1973 (2,000 cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). John used to land his Piper Cub airplane along the long driveway until the “powers that be” found out about this and forced him to use the county airport. At least one other Napa vintner we personally know (Dick Peterson) also used to land his plane on this driveway. The spindly trees that line this road today, are certainly not conducive for landing a plane anymore.
In 1979, French judges at a competition in Beaune France awarded the 1973 Trefethen Chardonnay the highest score (in a competition that pitted California Chardonnays against Burgundian Chardonnays).
John was also one of the co-founders of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association in 1975.
Their dry Riesling is a very popular food wine. The 2009 Trefethen Riesling shows aromas of lime and other steely mineralities on the bouquet, a clean palate and nice lingering citrus notes on the finish. With decent acidity and flavor profile, and the inherent qualities of this varietal, this wine will pair with a number of foods.
Trefethen produces two distinctive styles of Chardonnay. Their estate Chardonnay is their largest produced wine.
The 2008 Trefethen Chardonnay saw no malolactic fermentation. The bouquet shows nuances of red apple; the palate is rounded but not creamy – this wine has good acidity. Contrast that with the 2008 Trefethen Harmony Chardonnay which is a richer wine. It has nice color in the glass (golden) with a pleasing nose including notes of baked apple, vanilla and other baking spices. The palate is rich and concentrated with a concentrated lingering finish.
In 1976 their Chardonnay was voted as being the “best chardonnay in the world” at the World Wine Olympics in Paris.
Trefethen produces a wide array of red varietal specific wines. This is an ideal part of Napa to grow a diversity of grapes including Cabernet Franc. The 2007 Trefethen Cabernet Franc is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon – this wine shows a bouquet that is decidedly dusty, earthy and slightly smoky in nature. As the bouquet opens aromas of fruit begin to show. Notes of red fruit as well as blueberry show on the palate – this wine has good acidity and the right “tartness” profile to pair well with food.
Another red wine worth noting is their Dragon’s Tooth – aptly named for two reasons: dragon for Janet’s welsh heritage and “tooth” for the very rocky terroir from part of the vineyard that produces this wine. This is a unique Malbec based blend (first vintage 2007).
Trefethen releases some of their wines fairly young – it is recommended to hold these for several years as these wines will develop additional complexities and nuances that you just don’t see in a young wine. With good acidity and concentrated fruit, some of their old Cabernet Sauvignons have aged very nicely.
Trefethen has farmed their vineyards sustainably since their beginning…and what is rare today, their vineyards are all managed internally without outsourcing the work to a vineyard management company. A number of solar arrays are on the property with solar providing the majority of the power for the winery and production facilities. Composting is a big part of their “green” program – both cuttings and pomace from the vines are returned to the vineyards.
Even if you don’t taste the wines (which would be a shame), its worth coming here just to walk the grounds and see this historic building, both inside and outside. They have tours, typically one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Certain tour guides focus more on specific aspects (history, winemaking etc) but are open to any interests and questions you have about the winery. Advance reservations are necessary for these tours.
The inside of the winery is very elegantly decorated with several tasting counters available should it get busy. During the holidays this is certainly one of the more “homey” tasting rooms in Napa. A wine library on one side gives wine enthusiasts the opportunity to taste rare and older wines. There are many things that set this winery apart from other larger Napa Valley wineries, but one is they have never purchased grapes from anyone since their inception. With the amount of planted vineyard acreage on site and their annual production hovering around 40,000 cases, they continue to still sell a decent amount of grapes to other area producers.
Several tasting options are offered including an Estate tasting, a Reserve Tasting (opportunity to sometimes try older vintages) and the “Twilight at Trefethen” a private 2-hour sit down tasting of library wines held every Friday, early evening (max, 10 people).
They maintain two wine clubs – pick up a brochure in their main tasting room for more information and also their free winery newsletter called “Off the Vine”. Trefethen was once the site for the filming of the TV Show, Easy Entertaining with celebrity chef (and Napa local), Michael Chiarello.
Napa Earthquake, August 2014
The Napa earthquake of 2014 displaced their main hospitality center and winery building by 4 feet – the entire building was straightened and significant renovation and retrofitting occurred over a 2+ year period. A significant portion of the building pre-earthquake was salvaged. Significantly sized metal support beams (20 tons of steel overall) were added for additional strength.
This hospitality center reopened on May 6, 2017. Visitor’s are greeted by a host or hostess on the ground floor upon entering (located next to their working barrel rooms). All tastings are held upstairs – note the very long table here, it was created from an oak tree that used to stand near the main entrance to this building.
Villa Trefethen” opened by appointment for the first time in late June 2016. Tastings by appointment are held in this former residence of vineyard founders Katie and Gene Trefethen. The walk from the parking lot to the entrance is very peaceful – through bucolic gardens and in the shade of large redwood and oak trees. Please inquire with the winery as to availability of tastings held at Villa Trefethen.
This historic home was built in 1922 and visits are are like walking into someone’s home – both indoor and outdoor tastings are available. Visits here are by appointment and are a more private experience compared to the walk-in tastings at their main hospitality center. And La Huerta is the name for their sizable nearby vegetable garden – with ingredients used for pairings and as food for employees.
They maintain an electric vehicle charging station on site. For more information, to schedule a reservation and or to join their wine club, visit: www.trefethen.com
Only 50 Years Old Once!
50 year Anniversary Party, May 2018