Napa Pioneers: Trefethen

Eugene Trefethen, his wife Catherine and their family moved to Napa Valley in 1968. Eugene had traded in his job as President of Kaiser Industries for the life of a grape grower. They purchased six small farms and the run-down 19th-century Eschol Winery, creating a 600-acre wine estate. At the time, there were fewer than 20 operational wineries in Napa Valley. Their son, John, and his wife, Janet, were the driving force in turning the estate into a working winery. Their first commercial wine was released in 1973. At the 1979 Gault Millau World Wine Olympics in Paris, their 1976 Chardonnay earned “Best Chardonnay in the World” honors. We speak to Janet Trefethen about Napa's evolution.

1968, Napa was a very different place than it is today. Tell us a little bit about what Napa was like at that time when the family first came out here.

It was a wonderful, sleepy agricultural community. People hadn't found it yet, and you know, it did have a wonderful wine history. If you go back to 1888 — our winery was built in 1886 —do you know how many wineries were here then? One hundred and forty-three. So we had a very rich historical background. Their winery was called Eschol at the time, and it won first award at the San Francisco Viticultural Fair in 1889 for its Cabernet Sauvignon, and its late harvest dessert wine — gosh only knows what it was made out of.

Then we went through this whole era: we had Phylloxera at the turn of the century; we had Prohibition; we had World War I, World War II — all of which really, really killed the grape and wine industry. And so when you came here, there were a lot of walnuts, a lot of other ... up until 1974 the cattle market, the beef market in the Napa Valley was more valuable than the grape market.

So you had really a typical farming community: quite small; everybody knew everyone.

Tell us about that wonderful building that holds the winery.

The winery was built as a winery in 1886, and it's a piece of history unto itself in that it's a piece of American history in that it was built by Captain Hamden McIntyre, who was the leading winery architect of that time. And it's quite funny because he re-used the same blueprint, and the whole idea was to take advantage of gravity flow.

Trefethen old building

So they'd start up on the third floor, and they would crush the berries up there. And then they'd come to the second floor, using gravity feed, for fermentation. And then go down to the ground floor for storage and aging. And I said he used the same blueprint.

When we first came, Gil Nickel wasn't here yet, and Far Niente was sitting as a defunct little old rundown piece of property, and the vineyard manager and I snuck up there and we walked through it, and there was no electricity, nothing ... and it was dark inside, but we could still easily find our way around, because it was exactly our winery, but it's one foot shorter.

Tell us a little bit about how Napa has changed over the years.

When you think about going from 25 wineries to almost 400, I don't know... Today, there's a number of wineries that are just paper only, that don't have a physical facility or vineyard, so I truly don't know in the strict sense of the word how many wineries are here.

That certainly has changed. There's a lot more vineyard. Maybe all a little bit too much vineyard, in a way, in that if there is a disease, it just can go straight up the valley or straight down the valley. Though that's not all bad, to some degree, because there's always new people coming in, new producers that have really kept us all on our toes.

They come and they want to make a great wine, and we say, "Okay. Well, we've got to up our game and keep producing the very best we possibly can. We wake up every morning and say to ourselves, "How can we do our jobs just a little bit better? What's the next increment that we can make that's going to affect what goes into the bottle?"

What are some of the different types of wines that you make here?

The Oak Knoll District, which is the AVA in which we are located and which is celebrating its 10th anniversary today on the April the 24th. Because that was a long time coming... it is really known as Napa's sweet spot in that we're very unique here, because you can actually grow good Chardonnay, and if you farm correctly you can actually grow really good Cabernet as well, and that's pretty uncommon.

Trefethen vines

As you know, Chardonnay ripens earlier; Cabernet ripens later, needs a slightly different climate, but it's very unique because... mostly because of the fog influence, in that the fog rolls in off of San Francisco Bay and it then follows San Pablo Bay and the Napa River, and it comes into the mouth of the Napa Valley, and we are at the southern end, which is the cooler end, and we have like this little blanket of fog that we roll up, cover ourselves up at night, and it retains a little bit of the heat of the day, and then it cools down and about 10 o'clock in the morning, after we've had all our wonderful athletic events and our run and everything in the cool of the day, and the little blanket rolls down, and what that does is actually... that fog influence gives us a longer growing season.

So there are two camps, in terms of the critics. There's those who are championing these bigger, high-alcohol wines, and then some who are championing the more fruit-friendly, lower-alcohol wines. Where do you stand in this debate?

I think that both styles are to be appreciated, and I think it's fabulous for the consumer, because the consumer can pick and choose, and maybe they want one style one night and another one another night. I think that if I were going to go to the table and have some food, I would definitively go to the more food-friendly, the more elegant, the more that I will call a sophisticated wine, rather than a great big monster that hits you over the head and you get full after one glass.

I'm a food person. I had the honor of cooking Christmas dinner for Julia Child on Good Morning, America!

We've had 25 years of cooking classes right here in this room, and I think that food can be absolutely delicious, and wine can be really delicious, but when you put them together they can take each other to a height that neither of them can reach on their own, and I'm all for ... I much prefer a wine that I can sit down and I'm not full after one glass.

Tell us about the '79 Wine Olympics?

That is tasting that I remember the best, it really had such a dramatic effect on California wines, on Napa Valley wines and on Trefethen wines. The Gault Millau World Wine Olympics was held in Paris in 1979 and included wineries from all over the world came, and they had official judges. There were, I think, 50 some-odd different judges, a very official tasting.

We did not know our wine even was in the competition, which is crazy, but all of a sudden we start getting these telegrams — you know, that was no Internet yet — that our wine was just ranked number 1 in the world. Our Chardonnay.

Anyway, it was all filled in, and so the French were very upset, and so they challenged us to a rematch, and about six months later, they had a rematch of the top French Chardonnays and the top California Chardonnays and ours vanquished them again. We came out number 1, and I think that's the only wine in the world that's done it, not just once, but twice in official worldwide tastings.

What effect did that have? It had an enormous effect. I will tell you that I was out there trying to sell wine to fellow Americans that lived on the East coast and I had learned that if it wasn't from across the pond in France, particularly, it wasn't any good, and all of a sudden the Americans said, "Wow!" It was written up in Time magazine and we were on the cover of the International Herald Tribune. On and on, it got wonderful, tremendous press, and Americans started to say, "Oh, wine. I think I'll start drinking some wine."

Number one, because there weren't that many wine drinkers at the time, and number two, "You know what? I think the home brew can be acceptable now. Those California wines, those Napa Valley wines are doing really well. We can hold our heads up and be very proud."

So... huge effect. Really huge and then — God bless the French; they did us another favor — we were, John and I started the winery together in '73; my parents-in-law started the vineyard in '68. and it was right in 1973 Moet Chandon had been looking all over the world for two years, deciding where they were going to start a sparkling wine facility and they had picked the Napa Valley. '73. All of us thought, "Wow! Here is this tremendous, very highly regarded, respected Champagne house, they could have gone any place in the world, and they picked the Napa Valley."

All of that just gave all of we few people that were here at the time more confidence in what we were doing, and not only that, for Chandon, for example, you know, I have a degree in Journalism. My husband has a degree in Comparative Literature and an MBA from Stanford. We were highly qualified to be winemakers, don't you think?

We took some really intense weekend courses at University of California-Davis, tried to get up to speed, but what was speed at that time? There weren't that many people out there making wine; it was a fabulous time. So the other thing about Chandon is that they'd send their head wine makers over here, and so we get to pull their ear in terms of how it really was done and take advantage of the 5th generation wine maker.

So we learned from them, and they also learned from us. We had the very first night harvest here at Trefethen because they were getting too much color in the Pinot Noir grapes that we were harvesting for them, and they were using our winery. So we put our American ingenuity hat on and said, "You know, if we pick these grapes at night, we'll probably get less pigment," and it happened. We got less pigment, and the other thing we learned, we had much more in terms of aromatics, with the fruit was fuller, fresher, more wonderful.

It was a nice learning experience for both of us, I think, and not only do I want to comment about the French, but you know the Napa Valley was such a small community, at that time, and we all knew each other. For example, we had a tasting group; it was eight of us from different wineries right here, and we get together at night and share wines, and we learned a lot, and not only was it just a tasting, but we'd share techniques, and we really worked together to take the Napa Valley to the next height, I believe.

Who was in the group?

Well, so many of them have passed away now, it makes me want to cry, but there was Joe and Alice Heitz, there was Jack and Jamie Davies, Barney and Belle Rhodes. I mean, just... Lila and Bill Yeager, they're all gone now. John and I were the youngsters, and this is so fun ...

We were sitting around the table one night, because we'd have our tasting and then we'd have dinner, and we'd move from one house to the next house to the next house in terms of who would host the tasting, and after a few glasses of wine, they, the group, says, "We ought to go buy ground and we could build a retirement home, for us, and we could call it Noble Rot," which is so funny. That's the botrytis late harvest Riesling. "If we started now, we could start collecting for our cellar, so that in our older age we could be drinking really well," and my husband is John Trefethen, and they looked at John and they said, "And you could be the chauffeur," and they looked at me and said, "Janet, you could be the maid."

Pretty funny, but we had really a lot of fun, and we shared an awful lot at that time.

Tell us a little bit about the soils that you have here.

Our soils, which are reflective of the Oak Knoll District, and you can actually pick these up on our aerial map, but up in our northwestern quadrant thousands of years ago the dry creek alluvial fan used to float back and forth over that area, and as a result it's much, much rockier and much more gravel is concentrated up in that quadrant.

The rocks actually retain more heat, and so it's actually warmer part of our vineyard, and not only that, all that gravel — there is much less moisture, and we're very lucky in the Napa Valley in that we can control, generally speaking, the amount of moisture that our grapevines get, because it doesn't rain in the summer time.

Then if we were to go back to the soil aspect and think about the alluvial fan... so we had a river essentially that ran through part of the property.

Trefethen aerial

Then you would get over to the banks of the river, which are classified technically as pleasant and loam, and it's cooler there. There's more moisture in the soil, and so we grow the earlier ripening varietals, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in that area, and we focus the Bordeaux varietals in the gravelly area, because they need more heat. They need a little bit longer time and more heat to mature and produce fabulous grapes.

Is there something outside of wine that you like to do?

I ride cutting horses, and cutting horses are quarter horses; they're working cow horses, and you ride into a herd of cattle and you cut one cow out, and you drive it away, and, of course, it's not very happy and because cattle wants to get back to the herd and see all of his buddies.

So what you do is you go and you block him, and a very fast ballet takes place and it is a very exciting, total concentration. I can't think about wine when I'm doing that or I'll fall off, and it's just really a terrific sport.

Your husband's a race car driver.

Yes, yes, and not only my husband, but my son — they spend a lot of time on the track and really enjoy it, and through all those sports we get to meet some pretty fantastic people, and fortunately most of them really enjoy a good glass of wine.

Horses and wine. Could I have it any better?