Ted Edwards On Crafting Nearly 35 Vintages at Freemark Abbey

Freemark Abbey, one of Napa Valley's original 13 wineries in St Helena, was founded in 1886 by a pioneering young woman named Josephine Tychson. The winery is located in the Rutherford AVA, a three by two mile area where the characteristic gravelly and alluvial soils are referred to as "Rutherford dust." The term was coined by the late André Tchelistcheff, one of the forefathers of Napa winemaking, when he said, "It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet Sauvignon."

Today, Freemark Abbey is owned by Jackson Family Wines and, under the guidance of winemaker Ted Edwards, is best known for crafting classically structured Cabernet Sauvignon from top sites, including the iconic Bosché vineyard. The winery is also home to one of the region's most extensive wine libraries with vintages going back several decades.

Grape Collective caught up with Ted to talk about changes in Napa winemaking since he started nearly 40 years ago and how the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting changed the course of Freemark Abbey's history.

Lisa Denning: Tell me how you got into wine making.

Ted Edwards: I'm from the Sebastopol area, Russian River District, and I was raised in agriculture, my dad was into apples. We had 20 acres of red delicious apples. We also had 17 acres of alfalfa. But I'm a biologist, chemist kind of guy so I went to Davis and I got a degree in biochemistry. I was working there doing research with alfalfa, but there was a grad student who was doing work with grape vines and I really started to get interested in grape vines, and I thought "Well shoot, I need a vocation" and since I'm from the wine country, and I love wine, I decided to get my masters in food science and engineering and winemaking.

That was in 1980. I've been doing it a long time and I think it's worked out. When I was at Davis, I fell in love with Cabernet, which pretty much meant I wasn't going to go back to Sebastopol since it's great for the Burgundy varieties. So I landed in the Napa Valley and took a job for Freemark Abbey as assistant winemaker in 1980. Then I left for a couple of years. I worked at Rutherford Hill, kind of cut my teeth on a bit of a larger winery. And then in '85, the partners at Freemark invited me to come back and take over the wine making. So, I've been the winemaker since 1985.

Congratulations! Can you tell me the history of Freemark Abbey?

Sure I'd love to. Winemaking at Freemark goes back to 1886. It's a pioneer winery started by a woman, Josephine Tychson, arguably the first woman vintner in California history. She worked until phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in the 1890s and then sold it to Antonio Forni. He's the one that built the stone cellar, started in 1888, and it took him eight years to do it. He worked until Prohibition and then closed its doors. It was called Lombarda Cellars, he was from Lombarda, Italy. It was Tychson Cellars, Lombarda Cellars, and then where it's at now is called Tychson Hill, kind of a little elevated, as you drive north from Saint Helena.

(Photo below of Josephine Tychson)

It was in 1939 that three business partners, Charles Freeman, Mark Foster, and Abbey Ahern so they put their names together, Freeman, Mark, Abbey and started the winery again. So it's kind of funny, you know I've gone out to do tastings, public pourings, and people have thought it was an actual abbey and that I'm one of the monks! I hate to disappoint them.

So, the three men worked at the winery until 1955, but it was hard for the wine industry to make a comeback after Prohibition. The Napa Valley is like a Garden of Eden, anything can grow there and there were already a lot of stone fruits, agronomic crops, a lot of livestock, and they had dairy — they had everything in that valley. So why would people start trying to put grape vines back in? It took a long time.

And then there was also a recession in the mid-50s and I think Abbey died in 1955. So, a culmination of all those things closed their doors. You know the "Welcome to Napa Valley" sign? We have a picture of that from 1950 with some patriarch winery owners standing there and a big oval on it that listed the wineries, like twelve wineries, and Freemark Abbey was one of them.

So it wasn't until 1967 that a couple of families from Rutherford, the Carpy family, the Wood family, and some other partners bought it and started it up again. It was a ghost winery and in 1967 there were only twelve, maybe fourteen wineries in the whole valley. So, these were the people that were actually pulling out walnuts and stuff in Rutherford and planting vineyards. They wanted to get into the wine business — they were already in the grape growing business, selling most of their fruit to other wineries.

It was in 1976 that a fortunate thing happened for them, the Judgment of Paris, where Steven Spurrier and his assistant were collecting wines and the partners didn't know this was happening. Spurrier was really impressed with Freemark Wines and he had actually taken, unbeknownst to them, a Freemark Abbey Chardonnay and a Cabernet and put them into the Judgement of Paris tasting. Montelena won first place, and Freemark came in third on the Chardonnay and the red came in tenth I think. There was some question that it was corked unfortunately and I don't think they had backups. So, it was written up in Time Magazine. So, for this little winery to start up in the 70s, this really put it on the world stage. I mean, it was phenomenal for them. I was a student at Davis and one of the reasons why, in the late 70s, I wanted to work at Freemark, was because I knew I would learn a lot.

A little footnote on the Judgment of Paris, there was, over in Tokyo this last summer, a collector — obviously very wealthy — and he had collected all the original wines and he reenacted the Judgment of Paris for just the reds and Freemark came in first.

That's amazing!

What was interesting was that it was during harvest and I was walking the vineyards, I'm out in the middle of the Sauvignon Blanc (gnarly old Sauvignon Blanc vine, photo at right) and I get a phone call, I didn't recognize the number. But during harvest I take all phone calls because you never know who is going to be needing to talk to you. It was Warren Winiarski. He was calling me to congratulate us about winning in Tokyo. He was actually there and I didn't know anything about it! We heard about it afterwards which was pretty cool and it was cool that Warren was calling me and then he said, "Did you make that wine?" It was a '69 Cab and I kiddingly said, "Of course I did." Then I added, "Warren, I was in high school in '69." But anyways, it was kind of cool to have — I call him the professor — the old professor, call me.

(A gnarly old Sauvignon Blanc vine at Yount Mill Vineyard, right)

That's really great and it shows the ageability of your wines.What changes have you seen in Napa winemaking since you started out?

That could be a whole thesis! When I first started in 1980, all of our vineyards were on AXR rootstock, and it started succumbing to a new biotype of phylloxera, so we had to replant everything in the 80s. But that was a blessing, because we were able to make improvements: in our trellising system, our clones. We basically took out varieties that shouldn't have been there, put in what we want, that kind of thing, specific clones and specific rootstocks. Another change has been the shoot positioning, where you're training your shoots. When I first started in 1980, everything was a bad hair day. I mean, it was just flopped over. So then we started doing shoot positioning: these wide trellis systems, or vertical shoot positioning to try to get sunlight into the fruit zone, filtered sunlight, so you can develop the color and flavor and you get better acidity. That was key.

That was in the 1980s and were the first renaissance changes, big changes. And then changes started occurring on the winemaking side. We started doing less processing, less filtration, maybe picking a little bit riper, although I have the tendency to be less ripe compared to a lot of my associates in today's world. But definitely trying to get more of the black fruit. There's another thing (like I said it's going to be a thesis): more time with the skins. So, doing extended maceration, a cold soak, I never used to do cold soak.

I really expanded on that when the Jackson family bought us in 2006, because Jess Jackson gave me all the fermenters that I wanted. I do like four or five day cold soak and that provides an opportunity for the enzymes, so you go through your sorting. That's the other thing that we do now, too. We didn't use to sort. See, one thing leads to the next. So now we have sorting tables. In the 80s the fruit was picked, put into four ton gondolas where there were trailers, and then brought into the winery, hoisted up one side of the trailer and dumped the four tons into a hopper, then the screw conveyor would move it into the crusher to the stemmer and to the fermentor. Today we pick in half-ton boxes, and we take the box, and we lift it up and put it onto this piece of equipment that gently dumps it into some sorting tables and goes through a selective head to stemmer, that really sorts it all out into nice, clean berries.

And the sorting is all done mechanically?

Pretty much, but we can put some people on it too to help out if we need it. Help pull out jacks, jacks are the little pieces of stem. So, what we're trying to do is get down to clean berries. And then, they go through, I put them through a little roller that just breaks them but doesn't smash them. Then it goes into the fermentor, the juice and the broken berries and there's some whole berries in there, too. Then I hold it for 4 to 5 days, so that's what I call a cold soak and that provides the opportunity for the enzymes, natural degradation enzymes, to start working. They start breaking apart the skins and the cells and color starts developing. The flavor starts developing too and then in about 4 to 5 days you add the yeast and you start your fermentation. Well, you start, but I like to pitch in my own selective cultures, as well, to finish the job.

I'm on my third set of owners. Actually, I was hired by 'Salt of the Earth' type of people and then the interim ownership didn't understand the business. When Jess Jackson bought it in '06, I was back to the 'Salt of the Earth' kind of family that really understands that it's all about the land, the vineyard, the people. So it's great. We're back to focusing on the grape growing and winemaking. 

Throughout the 90s, the ripe, high alcohol, big style of wine was in favor. A lot of wineries still make them like that, but there seems to be a trend towards lower alcohol, more food-friendly types of wine. What's your style of winemaking?

My own personal philosophy now is that I would not bottle a wine above 14% alcohol. To me, I think you're still getting a nice balance of dark fruit flavor, without getting that hot after-burn alcoholic finish. I've tasted a lot of wines that are being made in the Napa Valley today, and they're 15 to 16-plus Cabernets and to me, that's way out of balance.

Can you tell us a bit about your flagship wine, the Cabernet Bosché?
Yes, Cabernet Bosché, that's another one of the questions I get out there, cause, I'll be in a public tasting and people will come up to me and say, “I’ve never had that variety before. Cabernet Bosché! Wow! Where's that from?” And, so I love the question, because it gives me the opportunity to tell them that it’s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bosché family vineyard on the Rutherford Ranch.

We started doing it in 1970. Before that John Bosché, who was the owner, took it to Beaulieu Vineyards but he wanted his name on the label and he was too small potatoes — just 22 acres — for BV to do that so he approached the new start up, Freemark Abbey, and this was around 1967. They actually did it, they made three barrels, and the partners fell in love with it. They got into a handshake agreement, starting in 1970, that we would take all of John Bosché’s grapes.

What's your production of Bosché?

It's typically about 1,500 to 2,000 cases, in that ballpark.

And what is it about this vineyard that so special?

It's the soil. It's the location. I love it, there are very deep gravelly soils. I've had a backhoe out there, in April, right after bud break so I could dig down and look at the soil structure. And the backhoe, itself, could go down 6 feet but I had water coming in at 3 feet. I couldn't even get down there.

There's also a seasonal creek that runs through the vineyard, and I thought, “Ah, there's water in the seasonal creek.” The water table's high in the springtime and provides water and nutrients for the new shoot growth. It was just happening, naturally. When you get into summer and you want that shoot growth to stop, what happens is, the water table drops, the vines stress, the green tissue stops growing. The photosynthetic energy that it's getting goes into developing the color and flavor. So, it's just a great area for growing Cabernet. Very deep, gravelly soils, that classic "Rutherford dust."

Freemark Abbey is definitely known for its great Cabernets, but you also make a delicious Chardonnay. Tell me about that.

So, Freemark Abbey, turning back to 1967, has always made Chardonnay and it's always been a non-malolactic style. I’ve changed it over the years, tweaked it, but it's always been non-malolactic. So, when people ask me, “Well, why?” it’s because they're used to big, buttery California Chardonnays that have gone through malolactic fermentation. I say, “Well, the Napa Valley, to me, is more Mediterranean. It’s warm and I don't need the malolactic to soften the acidity.” I get more of the character and natural acidity of Chardonnay without the malolactic.

So your style is the more toned down, a more food friendly type of Chardonnay?

Yes and also people always ask me, “How long can Chardonnay age?” And I say, “Anywhere from four to ten years.”

Do you age it in new oak?

Yes. So that's the other part of the story,. When you start aging in oak, you're looking at three different reactions taking place.

You're extracting out new oak flavor, which to me, is adding spice. Secondly, you're having contact with yeast, if you barrel ferment. The yeasts start breaking apart after about three or four months and you get fatty acid, I call it yeast guts, that dissolves into the wine. It gives the wine some depth of flavor, some viscosity, and also helps fine the wine, taking some tannin out and you also have a little reaction with oxygen that helps mature the wine.

The other reaction that happens in barrels is a concentration. Barrels have semipermeable membranes so we have the water evaporating out. Every few weeks, at least once a month, we go in and top off the barrels. We take one barrel and go through and top off all the other barrels to make sure they're full. What you're doing is, you're concentrating the flavor components in the barrel. So, it's making a reduction. That's what I tell people, making a reduction, except for when you're making a reduction on the stove, you do it for a few hours. For us, it's months. So, I love it, because it has all the texture you get from the aging in the barrels, but it's not oaky. It's fruit flavor.

I use, typically, about 15 to 20 percent new oak, and that's just to add spice, but I don't want it to dominate. I do about 60 percent barrel fermentation and then I usually keep about 10 to 15 percent in stainless steel. And then at the end, I have all these components that I can play with and put the blend together.

What do you find the most challenging part of being a winemaker?

The most challenging is dealing with Mother Nature. The dance. Although being in California, we have it a lot easier than a lot of other areas. I can't complain. I've had a lot of French winemakers come to visit, they say, “Oh, I wish that we had your growing season.” And actually, sometimes when we have a tough vintage like 2011, where we had a lot of rain, you have to change up your methodology and it's challenging. I've had a few vintages in my 40 year career that have been challenging like that. And, I've seen the successes and what to do, what not to do. And so now, looking back on it, I feel fairly confident that we can make some good decisions going forward.

What about the 2017 vintage when the wildfires ripped through Napa and Sonoma. Were your vineyards affected?

2017 was actually a good vintage. The fires happened on October 8th and I was mostly done. I had all my grapes pretty much in by September because that summer was so warm. I had three little vineyards still out there, and I didn’t use them.

When the fires happened, I think during the month or two afterwards, there was just a lot of conversations in the media around how much was affected by the fires. Napa Valley Vineyards did a poll of all their wineries and vineyards to find out and I think it ended up that about 92 percent of the grapes had already been harvested.

I know the perception in the public is that it was devastating for the wineries, but really it was just the average people, who lost their homes, who were devastated.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a winemaker for you?

Walking the vineyards. A lot of vineyards.


Read more from Lisa Denning on Grape Collective and The Wine Chef.