The Rombauer Vineyards’ tasting room is situated overlooking the Napa Valley in St. Helena on the top level of the winemaking facility that is built into the hillside. The area is wooded and beautifully landscaped. It is the perfect place to taste and enjoy the wines of Rombauer Vineyards.
I love tasting wine like this: unhurried and in a beautiful setting. It is an enjoyable way to taste and learn. Tasting room staff are generally knowledgeable about how each wine is made and, depending on how curious a wine drinker you are, you can dive into the details of winemaking.
Occasionally we are invited to visit a winery as part of a media event. These events always offer a detailed look behind the scenes and usually an opportunity to talk with winemakers and owners. Wine tasting is always a part of the experience, and often food accompanies the wine.
We were recently guests of Rombauer Vineyards at a media event that provided an opportunity to tour the cellar with Koerner “KR” Rombauer III, owner, and Richie Allen, Director of Viticulture & Marketing. We started with introductions and a taste of the 2017 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which is tropical and bursting with bright acidity, before moving on to a cave tour and the 2014 Napa Valley Merlot. A collection of reserve and single vineyard wines followed.
After all of this we sat down to a delicious lunch on the crush pad prepared by Executive Chef Nicolas Montanez from the Calistoga Inn. Inspiration for the delightful lunch came from “Joy of Cooking”, the iconic cookbook written by Irma Rombauer who is the great-aunt of KR’s father, Koerner.
Rombauer’s Embrace of Science and Technology
There are as many approaches to winemaking as there are winemakers. Many come from farming backgrounds or were home winemakers before making wine commercially. Others are graduates of university-level enology programs. Some come to winemaking from the arts or other professions.
Richie Allen took the university route to winemaking (University of Adelaide), spent five years working two harvests a year around the world and eventually landed at Rombauer Vineyards. 2018 will be his 15th harvest at Rombauer. He came and went during his early years with the winery, and this is his 10th vintage as winemaker.
Some winemakers give the impression that the wine growing and winemaking process are pretty basic: learn the vineyards through observation, make this measurement and that, shepherd the wine through fermentation and aging. They keep it simple for those of us who are not winemakers. I appreciate that.
Then there are winemakers like Richie Allen who cannot contain his obvious love of science. If you are willing to listen, he is willing to share his joy of science, and winemaking, with you. His enthusiasm is contagious. He will explain how canopy density is measured by NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) and how he uses it to manage vineyards.
He will explain how his use of NDVI has changed over the years, evolving from post-verasion use to use throughout the season enabling him to better manage cover crops and soil amendments to even out growth within vineyard blocks.
Our first introduction to Rombauer Vineyards’ extensive use of technology in winemaking came during a prior media event a couple of years ago. It was our first introduction to NDVI. During this visit it became clear very quickly that the use of technology continues and is evolving.
For the past five years Richie has been tracking color extraction and tannin accumulation rates in the winery. Beginning last year he started tracking the rate of sugar accumulation in grapes and color accumulation in the grape skins prior to harvest.
He has learned that faster rates of accumulation result in faster extraction in the winery. When color accumulates in grape skins slowly, it requires more work in the winery to extract color and flavor in the wine. Color and quality are directly related, according to Richie, and he applies this technique across all red grape varieties. The only variety for which this relationship does not hold is Pinot Noir.
Every bit of data that Richie and his team collect is analyzed and informs their decisions going forward. The thought of collecting data without analyzing and using it completely unacceptable to him.
Rombauer Vineyards appears to be a perfect fit for Richie and he acknowledges how fortunate he is as a winemaker to be able to make the best wine possible without cost as a primary consideration. Quality is number one for KR and the Rombauer team and KR has been willing to invest in the technology Richie’s scientific mind requires.
But it’s not all science. KR tastes a good many wines made by other wineries and shares many of them the winemaking team. These tastings become learning opportunities. KR noted they celebrate the great bottles and think about how they might improve their own winemaking while remaining true to the style of wine their customers like. The team is always learning on many levels.
A Bit About Merlot
By the time we reached the wine caves most of us had drained the Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc from our glasses and were ready for a taste of Merlot. Along with a glass of the 2014 Napa Valley Merlot (lush fruit with nice acidity for balance and smooth tannins) came a discussion of soil, viticulture, winemaking and of course the Sideways effect.
- Cooler locations within Napa Valley with clay soils are the best sites for Merlot to produce ripe, balanced fruit. The relatively cool Carneros AVA is the source of Merlot for Rombauer Merlot.
- In order to produce ripe, soft Merlot that tastes like Merlot (which is Rombauer’s goal), the canopy must be meticulously managed and yield restricted.
- Coombsville AVA has great potential for Merlot according to Richie. The AVA has cooler weather, appropriate soil types and the highest color accumulation and extraction rates in Napa Valley. There’s that science thing again.
- Rombauer ferments 1/3 of the Merlot for this wine in oak barrels and 2/3 in stainless steel. Fermentation in barrel is labor-intensive, requiring either barrels with doors on them (who knew such a thing existed?) or for the hoops and barrel heads to be removed to fill and empty them. Instead of punch downs, individual barrels are rolled – on a set schedule.
- A benefit of the Sideways effect is that Merlot is decreasingly planted in Napa Valley locations that are too warm for it. Marginal vineyards have been removed leaving Merlot planted in the best locations.
A Taste of Rombauer Wines
We tasted a collection of reserve and single-vineyard wines along with the top Rombauer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Most are available only in the tasting room (a great reason to visit) and to wine club members. Production of these special wines is relatively small.
The grapes for all of Rombauer’s wine are sourced from a combination of estate vineyards and growers with whom long-term relationships have been established. Many are family-to-family relationships that began with a handshake.
2016 Proprietor Selection Chardonnay — intense fruit flavor, nice acidity, round in the mouth and a bit toasty, long finish. This wine is the result of three vineyard sites (all in the cool Carneros AVA), meticulous barrel selection and blending. Only perfect barrels are included in this selection and it is not made every vintage. 600 – 1000 case production.
2014 Diamond Selection Cabernet Sauvignon — dark, rich and dense with complex aromatics and grippy tannins. 2014 is a “high-octane vintage,” according to Richie. His challenge was to manage alcohol, acid, fruit and tannins. This wine was fermented and aged in oak. Once again, this wine is a result of meticulous barrel selection and blending. 1500 – 2000 case production.
2014 Stice Lane Cabernet Sauvignon — lythe and muscular at the same time with red and dark fruit along with ample tannins that linger on the finish. This is one of two vineyard-designate Cabernets made by Rombauer. The Stice Lane Vineyard was planted in 1995 and 1996 in gravely, well-drained soil on the south side of St. Helena.
Two blocks of the original plantings remain and produce pure cassis-flavored fruit with intense color. This wine is sourced from the 1996 planting and it is clearly a favorite of both KR and Richie who plan to farm this vineyard as long as possible. “It takes more time and more money,” as KR noted, but the result is worth it. This lovely wine is 100% barrel fermented.
2012 Le Meilleur Du Chai — complex, dense fruit flavors, earth, cedar with plenty of tannins to balance the fruit flavors. This is the top Cabernet Sauvignon made by Rombauer. It is not made every year and is a selection of the best barrels from the reserve Cabernet wines. It’s aged before release and will be delicious upon release and well into the future.
The 2012 vintage resulted in, according to Richie, Cabernet that was round and soft with pure fruit character.
2015 El Dorado Zinfandel — red fruit, earth, alfalfa, smooth tannins. This wine is big, sweet and a bit hot. The folks at Rombauer know that. It’s the style of Zinfandel they want. This is a wine to pair with barbecue.
Rombauer began buying Zinfandel from this El Dorado vineyard in the early 1990s and bought the vineyard in 2011. Zinfandel is a challenge in the wine cellar, according to Richie. It is thin-skinned and requires a gentle hand. He prefers whole berries and uses open-top fermenters. When done right Zinfandel is, as Richie put it, “Quintessentially California.” Unlike Zinfandel from anywhere else.
The great secret to Rombauer wines, according to Richie is quality fruit. Great quality is produced using meticulous vineyard practices including restricting yield to produce concentrated fruit. As KR observed, “The longer you’re in winemaking the more you dive into viticulture.”
The winemaking team makes and blends wine by taste and then they look at the chemical analysis. They recognize that there is no holy grail in the numbers, however. Wine truly is a matter of taste.
Many thanks to KR and Richie for the peek into the winemaking process at Rombauer Vineyards. I feel that I understand your wines a bit better now.
We send our condolences to KR, and the rest of the Rombauer family, after the recent passing of his father, Koerner.