Bremer Family Winery is a historic winery located on Deer Park Road just minutes from the Silverado Trail and Napa Valley on the slopes of Howell Mountain near the small town of Deer Park. This was the 200th Napa winery that we visited as part of our research for Napa Wine Project. The winery building dates from 1891 and is combined with the original stone cellar built into the sides of the mountain. The cellar was built into the side of the hill to keep the aging wines cool.
For such an “unassuming winery” this property has a rich and often confusing historical background due to names and ownership transitions. In regards to wine growing, the story begins with John and Jacob Sutter; by 1884 John Sutter (no relation to the namesake of Sutter’s Fort) owned 20 acres of land on what is now in the Howell Mountain sub appellation. Just like today’s contemporary wine scene, heirs often get into the wine business. Such was the case with his daughter Caroline (often referred to as Lina) and her husband Emile Leuenberger. In 1891 they purchased land near what is now the tiny community of Deer Park (and much later the site of today’s Bremer Family Winery).
The Leuenberger’s soon built a winery here and called it Sutter Home, named in honor of Caroline’s father. Five years after building this winery, they also founded Sutter Home Winery and Distillery in San Francisco and is where they blended and bottled wines made from grapes from their Napa Valley property.
The April 1906 San Francisco earthquake & subsequent fire destroyed their business. Moving their blending and bottling operations to Napa Valley later that same year, they purchased the old Thomann Winery and Distillery just south of St. Helena. Already well established with the name Sutter Home, they immediately renamed their St. Helena property to Sutter Home and prominently painted the name of the winery across the roof of the winery building. It was the Trinchero family who acquired their St. Helena property in the late 1940s and kept the name Sutter Home which they continue to operate today.
But the Leuenberger’s original winery in Deer Park was sold and went through several owners including John Ballentine (same family who operates Ballentine Vineyards) who purchased the site in 1922 and reopened operations after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. He made wines here under the name Deer Park Winery until the 1950s and the Ballentine family eventually sold the property in the late 1970s. Proprietor Bill Ballentine of William Cole Vineyards in St. Helena told us he remembers part of his childhood was spent roaming this property.
After several more owners, winemaking resumed in 1979 headed by winemaker David Clark who began using the property again. They owned this property until 2002.
Today Bremer Family Winery is owned by proprietors John and Laura Bremer (they purchased the site in 2002). John and Laura used to visit Napa Valley quite often over a span of about 25 years. One day, Laura remarked “I want to do whatever it takes to never leave this valley” which became the impetus for starting this winery. Besides being in the wholesale nursery business (John used to be President of Riverside based Growest) and earth moving business in Southern California, they were also founding partners in Fume Bistro restaurant, located just north of the town of Napa.
The cellar was originally built for smaller production levels in the late 1800’s; later the Bremer’s decided to drill a wine cave. The cave now encompasses 17,000 square feet – more then ample space for their extended aging programs and for the most part eliminates the need to stack barrels. Their current production is around 3,400 cases and growing. Note the various historical wine making machines that line the wall at the entrance to the cave. These devices were used at one point for filtering, bottling and other niche uses.
While situated below the minimum 1,400 foot elevation of nearby Howell Mountain this site is just as rocky as a number of Howell Mountain vineyards we have visited. An example of the type of rock can be seen in a side tunnel in the cave which is not covered in gunnite. Thick volcanic compressed ash called Tufa runs from the bottom of this section of the cave to the top.
This estate property is about 17 acres of which 9 acres are planted to vine (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel and Merlot). The Bremers also own two pieces of planted vineyard land on Howell Mountain (off of Las Posadas Road – a very historical part of Howell Mountain within the nearby La Jota Ranch).
On hot days stepping inside the cellar one will be amazed at how much colder it is inside, as the cellar backs up right against the hand carved out stone on the side of the mountain. Several tasting rooms adjoin the cellar or if weather permits, visitors can taste outside under one of their stately oak trees next to the small scenic creek area. This is a long ways from some of the noisy, crowded tasting rooms of “the wine strip” along Highway 29 south of St. Helena.
As of the time of our latest update to this review, a bocche ball court has been completed and the grounds have been beautifully landscaped. The upgrades to the property are the result of a number of years of effort and it certainly now shows well.
All their wine is very much hand crafted by winemaker, Bob Bolan. He has been Bremer’s winemaker since 2003 and is who we originally met with; while he makes one for at least one other small Howell Mountain producer, his primary focus is wine making for Bremer Family Winery.
Their wine making philosophy is one of patience. Their Chardonnay often sees close to 2 years in barrel. Red wines made here are often aged up to 30 months – with an additional 3 years in the bottle before being release; this is significantly longer than many wineries. One wine released to their wine club was 9 years old at the time of it’s release. Blending decisions often take several months. Bremer Family makes 8 to 12 different types of wines each year.
The 2012 Bremer Family Chardonnay shows intense aromas – tropical notes including honeysuckle as well as ripe melon and a graphite/minerality nuance. This is followed by a palate that is creamy with a noticeable velvety softness. The finish is clean, lively and rich. This wine has nice density and drinks beautifully by itself.
During our first visit, we sampled the 2005 Chardonnay and the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2004 Bremer Family Chardonnay offers characteristics of toasted nuts, caramel and crème Brule mixed with notes of fruit including pear and apricot.
Some of the older Cabernet Sauvignons were drinking very nicely after aging for a few years, with smooth velvet mouth feels; these are wines that are extremely well balanced. In addition, not many Napa wineries make port but Bremer makes a white port-style wine (Muscat grapes) and a red port-style wine (Cabernet Sauvignon grapes) in very low quantities.
The 2009 Bremer Family Merlot shows sweet aromatics in the glass with notes of baking spice including cinnamon, mocha and toffee. The sweetness of aromas continues onto the palate with a sweetness of fruit (no residual sugar) and flavors of ripe blackberry and plum. This is not a light Merlot – and delivers a complexity and richness of flavor. The finish shows moderate tannins.
Bremer Family also produces several different Zinfandels and Merlot, a Petit Sirah, their Claret which is a red blend, and Austintatious named after John and Laura’s son Austin (also a unique blend).
This small restaurant is located right off of Highway 29 just north of the city of Napa (previously home to a number of restaurants including the Flying Boar). Longtime chef in the valley and one of the partners Terry Letson joined initial partners John and Laura to open the restaurant. NOTE: John and Laura are no longer involved with Fume Bistro and have not been for years.
Finding restaurants with staying power in the competitive Napa Valley culinary scene is very difficult. We first ate here with friends back in 2009, but we are definitely due for a revisit soon.
For more information or to join their wine club, visit: www.bremerfamilywinery.com