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Celebrate with Trefethen! A Napa Valley Landmark Turns 125

Before the Golden State was golden, or a state, its residents cultivated wine grapes. In 1782, Jesuit missionaries made sacramental wine at Mission San Juan Capistrano. They gradually moved mission-centered winemaking both north and south. In the 1850’s, businessmen began planting large amounts of wine grapes, and making wine, in areas such as Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley and Mission San Jose. Among the most prominent were George Yount, Agoston Haraszthy and Joseph Osborne.

Joseph Osborne created Oak Knoll Estate, an 1,100 acre farm, in 1851. It’s wine grape plantings in southern Napa Valley quickly reached 6,000 vines. Osborne died in 1863. But, 150 years later, the area surrounding Osborne’s estate is still known as the Oak Knoll District.

In 1875, brothers James and George Goodman, bought 280 acres of the land that had belonged to Osborne. They planted more than two-thirds of it to wine grapes. A man named Hamden McIntyre was hired to design the building for their new Eschol Winery. McIntyre also designed and oversaw construction of Far Niente (1885), the Greystone Winery, now home to the Culinary Institute of America's St. Helena campus (1888) and Inglenook Winery, aka Rubicon, (1891).

The Eschol Winery in it's early days.

Construction for Eschol was completed in 1886. Today, it is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as the only surviving wooden, gravity-flow winery from the 19th century still standing in Napa Valley. It was painstakingly restored by the Trefethen family after they purchased the property in 1968. Now it holds Trefethen Family Vineyards’ estate tasting room and wine library. It’s also one of their red wine barrel-aging areas.

Enjoy a Country Fair

This Sunday, September 25, Trefethen Family Vineyards is putting on a community Country Fair to celebrate the 125th birthday of the historic building. The party runs from 11am to 2pm. The suggested admission fee is just $10 per vehicle and goes to support Napa Valley College’s wine studies programs.

One of the main features of the Country Fair is a parade. There will be a marching band, vintage tractors, horse-drawn wagons and carriages, plus historic cars and trucks. Other valley wineries, including Robert Biale Vineyards, Cakebread and Far Niente, will have vehicles in the parade too. Also in the parade will be a float carrying a large, scale model of the Statue of Liberty. ("Lady Liberty" celebrates her 125th birthday this year too.)

In addition to the parade, will be carnival games, including a dunk-tank in which the Trefethen family and winemakers take the plunge. Wine and gourmet food trucks will provide refreshment. Tickets for the games, food and wine will be sold at the event. A phone call RSVP is appreciated but not required, 800.556.4847.

Horse-drawn wagons such as those in the parade aren't new to the Eschol-Trefethen Winery.

The Trefethen estate vineyards

When Gene and Katie Trefethen bought what is now the Trefethen Family estate, both the vineyards and Eschol winery building were in bad shape. Replanting the vineyards began almost immediately. Unfortunately, it was done with AxR1 rootstock, as it was at virtually all Napa Valley wineries then. AxR1 was not as phylloxera-resistant as hoped. The Trefethens had to replant, along with so many other wineries, after the huge phylloxera outbreak of the late 1980’s.

Despite those troubles, the Trefethen family has always been dedicated to using estate fruit. Gene’s son, John Trefethen, made the company’s first commerical wine in 1973. He had made trial batches in each of the previous three years. His wife and co-CEO, Janet, told me she believes they are the only winery in the United States that has been in business for at least 40 years but never used a single non-estate grape.

Janet and John Trefethen

Trefethen has more than 500 acres of vines — and arguably the largest contiguous single-vineyard in Napa Valley. From the beginning, They have always sold fruit to other wineries too. That was the bulk of their business for many years. Among the early customers was Domaine Chandon, founded by Moet Hennessy in 1973. That company started with Trefethen fruit and even made their wine in the old Eschol winery building for the first three years. Now that Trefethen’s own wine sales are thriving, they only sell about one-third of their yield.

Restoration of the historic Eschol Winery building

Restoration of the winery building didn’t begin until 1973. It began at the prompting of Janet Trefethen. Initially, she was just looking for someplace to house her horses. The winery had been unused for decades and, during Prohibition, had been used to store ever increasing amounts of wine that was made but not sold. Thus, when Janet and John first saw the winery it was a dirt-floored home to bats and pigeons with ramshackle additions protruding from the exterior walls.

Trefethen-FrontDoorIt’s amazing that the winery had survived at all. In 1889, there were 143 wineries in the Napa Valley. By 1968, there were fewer than 25 still around. Fire, earthquakes, and general wear-and-tear took their toll on many. On top of that were disuse and general neglect resulting from the challenges wineries faced due to phylloxera in the late 1880’s, the long Prohibition era, the Great Depression and World War II.

One reason this winery survived was its construction: tongue-in-groove redwood. Perhaps the joining and material helped it flex with earthquakes rather than collapse. It’s certain that redwood’s natural properties lead to longevity. The heartwood is high in tannic acid and highly resistant to insects and rot. And redwood is so resistant to fire that, even untreated, it's suitable for unrestricted use in any fire hazard severity zone according to the State Fire Marshal’s “Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Areas Building Standards.”

When it came to restoration, the Trefethens carefully researched the original Eschol winery. They added concrete floors, electricity and have made it a very attractive and functional building, but stuck faithfully to the original structural design. When I asked Janet Trefethen what year restoration was completed, she exclaimed with good-natured exasperation, “I’m still working on it!” With a building that old, there’s always work to be done. However, she figures the final step in restoration of the original design came in the early 1980’s when architecturally-accurate cupolas were installed. Her horses still live elsewhere though.

About Trefethen Family Vineyards

Logo-Trefethen-FamilyVineyardsTrefethen Family Vineyards is located at 1160 Oak Knoll Avenue in Napa, less than five minutes drive from Highway 29. They are open for tastings daily, 10am - 4:30pm. Tours of the historic winery building are available daily at 10:30am by appointment.

Trefethen is best known for very good Chardonnay, made in a relatively restrained style. Their wines are very well-made across the board though and among them are Pinot Noir, Bordeaux-variety blends and one of the best dry Rieslings in Napa Valley. Trefethen Family Vineyards is also committed to being a sustainable producer.


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This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. Photos courtesy of Trefethen Family Vineyards. All rights reserved.