If someone says Rombauer Vineyards to you, what is the first thought that comes to mind? I’d be willing to bet it’s Chardonnay. Even Rombauer Vineyards’ winemaker, Richie Allen, jokes that some people think Chardonnay is all that Rombauer produces.
There are any number of reasons Rombauer Vineyards is so closely associated with Chardonnay. It could be because the winery produces over 100,000 cases of the varietal wine annually. Maybe it’s because Rombauer’s Carneros Chardonnay has made Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines four times over the years and is consistently very highly rated by Wine & Spirits Magazine. Possibly it’s the generously-oaked style of Rombauer’s Chardonnay, one you either love or hate.
I admit my answer to the above word-association game would also have been Chardonnay — up until just a few weeks ago that is. We recently visited Rombauer Vineyards’ St. Helena winery as part of a group invited to attend a Media Lunch. Following the winery tour, wine tasting and lunch, my response to the above question is not just Chardonnay.
The first wines released by Rombauer Vineyards in 1984 were their 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1982 Chardonnay. By that time the Rombauers had built their own winery in St. Helena and while their production was still small it also operated as a custom-crush facility to several now well-known Napa Valley vintners.
In The Winery
Rombauer winemaker, Richie Allen, is very proud of this Sauvignon Blanc, which was bottled just before Christmas. The style is tropical and citrusy, not at all grassy, thanks to the cool locations and alluvial soils that comprise the four vineyard sites.
He told us he had to lobby Koerner Rombauer, Sr. long and hard to produce the variety. 2014 was the first vintage and those 1,000 cases flew off the shelves. Production for the 2015 vintage was increased to 6,000 cases and skepticism on the part of the Rombauer family has turned to cries for increased production.
As we sipped the Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc, Koerner “KR” Rombauer III joined our group and along with Richie guided us on a tour of the winery beginning on the crush pad and then moving to the barrel room. It would soon become apparent that investment in technology and technique has been ongoing and significant.
- NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) – this aerial infrared photo technology is used to identify specific sections within blocks that are ready to be picked. Multiple picking passes are made which insures no grapes are picked before optimal ripeness. This technology has been used for 10 years by Rombauer across all varieties.
According to Richie, the picking decision is the most critical decision in the winemaking process. From his point of view, he cannot make better wine than the fruit allows.
After picking grapes only at optimal ripeness, rigorous hand sorting takes place in the vineyard with unsuitable fruit returned to the vineyard to compost naturally.
- A high-frequency berry separator is used to gently de-stem grape bunches to produce single, intact berries. All red varieties are de-stemmed in this manner.
- Optical sorting follows to select the exact size, shape and color berry desired. Damaged berries, stems and MOG (material other than grapes) are removed. Selection criteria can be adjusted by grape variety.
- Barrel fermentation: all Rombauer Cabernet (as well a increasing amounts of Merlot) goes through both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in oak barrels. Richie has trained winery staff to remove and replace the barrel heads from each 60-gallon barrel. From the sorter, 400 pounds of grapes go into each barrel before being moved to the fermentation room where the barrels rest on their sides in racks with rollers that allow the barrels to be rotated. The rotation method replaces the more usual in-barrel punch-down method.
This technique has evolved since 2005 when the experimentation with in-barrel alcoholic fermentation began. Time, temperature and movement must be managed to optimize extraction, according to Richie. The barrel room is temperature controlled as is the number of rotations per barrel daily. Too high a temperature and too many rotations will result in too much tannin extraction.
To say this fermentation process is a labor of love is an understatement. As fermentation proceeds to dryness, each barrel is tasted and when extraction and tannin levels are optimal barrels are emptied and the skins pressed in a barrel press. This pressing is kept separate. Each barrel is then pressure washed before the wine that came from that barrel is replaced in the same barrel. Of course barrel heads must be removed and replaced to accomplish this transfer.
- Malolactic fermentation is completed in the wine caves, which were built in 1995. The unique roller-barrel racks and a custom attachment on their forklift allows Rombauer cellar workers to remove barrels with minimal physical exertion.
- Wild fermentation…it is part of Richie’s repertoire!
Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are whole-cluster fermented after being hand-picked and meticulously sorted. Richie believes strongly that the finest flavors come from free-run juice only. He doesn’t want any hint of bitterness he believes can come from skin contact. The juice is allowed to settle for about 24 hours before moving to stainless steel (for the Sauvignon Blanc) or to barrel for the Chardonnay.
As KR put it to the group, “We are willing to spend money on machinery and technology to make better wine.” With every vintage the goal is to make wine that is better than the previous vintage.
Once we reached the wine caves Richie and KR poured each of us a taste of the 2012 Rombauer Carneros Merlot which showed spice, cedar, dark fruit, great acidity and nice tannin structure. Merlot for this wine is grown in cool vineyard sites, where the variety thrives.
Going back to Richie’s statement about the quality of the grapes being a limited factor in making top quality wine, Rombauer has made significant investments in vineyard acreage as well over the years. Estate vineyards now total 350 acres and are located in Carneros, Atlas Peak and St. Helena in Napa Valley as well as El Dorado in the Sierra Foothills. Purchased fruit comes from select vineyard sites farmed by families well known to the Rombauer winemaking team.
Wine and Lunch
After touring the wine caves our group sat down to a beautifully set table in the tank room. Before us was an arc of ten Rombauer wines — five Chardonnays and five Cabernet Sauvignons. Richie and KR told us about the vineyards and production of each wine before we moved on to lunch.
Soil type, vineyard location, clone type, block location, oak aging regimen and meticulous tasting and barrel selection define the individual Rombauer Chardonnay bottlings. All Chardonnay is aged in oak, either a combination of American and French, or all French. Each is distinct and tasting them together was so interesting. We tasted: 2014 Carneros ($36), 2014 Buchli Station Vineyard ($70), 2014 Home Ranch Vineyard ($70) and 2014 Proprietor Selection ($65). My favorite of the group: 2014 Buchli Station Vineyard Chardonnay, it’s lean and fleshy at the same time.
Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings include a Napa Valley (a blend of Napa Valley appellations), Diamond Selection (a Reserve), two single-vineyard designates (Atlas Peak and Stice Lane) and the best-of-the-best blend of the best barrels of Cabernet. Varying amounts of new French oak is used in fermentation and aging. We tasted: 2013 Napa Valley ($55), 2012 Diamond Selection ($80), 2012 Atlas Peak Vineyard ($90), 2012 Stice Lane Vineyard ($90), 2012 Le Meilleur du Chai “Best of the Cellar” Blend ($100) Each Cabernet is distinctive, we loved the tannin structure and flavors of the 2012 Rombauer Vineyards Atlas Peak Vineyard best. Total production for these Cabernets is just over 14,ooo cases.
Vineyard sites in Amador, El Dorado, Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties are the sources for Rombauer Zinfandel. Two single-vineyard designates are included in the group and all Zinfandels are aged in a combination of French and American oak. We tasted: 2013 Rombauer ($30), 2013 El Dorado ($34), 2013 Middletown ($43).
Lunch was prepared by the Calistoga Inn and to accompany the delicious food we enjoyed the three Zinfandels produced by Rombauer Vineyards. Our favorite of the group: 2013 Rombauer Vineyards El Dorado Zinfandel, it paired beautifully with the duck leg confit and roasted baby carrots.
Our wining and dining experience wasn’t complete until dessert had been served. Tiramisu and Rombauer Vineyards 2011 “Vintage Port”. A sweet ending to a delightful afternoon.
We sampled an amazing 15 wines produced by Rombauer Vineyards. Only one of those was the Carneros Chardonnay, the wine Rombauer Vineyards is so well known for. Clearly, there is a lot more to explore from Rombauer Vineyards than Carneros Chardonnay. The best way to get a feel for the wines produced by Rombauer Vineyards is by paying them a visit. There is no substitute for a guided tasting of a range of wines to gain an understanding of them.
Rombauer’s “pokey” tasting room (that’s Richie’s Australian description of the small tasting room that is now being renovated) is open for tasting by appointment. Check the Rombauer Vineyards’ website for details and consider booking a tasting. I’m certain you will come away with a new and expanded impression of Rombauer Vineyards, just as we did.
Thank you to Julie Ann Kodmur for the invitation to attend the event and to Richie Allen and KR Rombauer III for the detailed tour and description of the winemaking process at Rombauer Vineyards. Thanks, also to Brandye Alexander, director of marketing and consumer relations, for keeping us on schedule. Everyone’s enthusiasm for winemaking and dedication to quality came through very clearly.