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Getting Really Good: A Half Century of Trefethen

By Karen MacNeil
October 5, 2018

It’s hard to argue with a track record. Especially if it spans half a century.

I couldn’t help coming to that conclusion after tasting through a score of exciting wines spanning Trefethen’s fifty years in the wine business (1968-2018).  Indeed, along with Chappellet, Schramsberg, and ZD, a number of Napa Valley wineries have recently had their 50th birthdays.

And tasting old wines from those blue chip pioneers makes two things clear. One: in the wine business, chasing the newest hip wine can mean missing out on exquisite classics from wineries who have spent decades getting really good at what they do. And two: Napa Valley was (and is) bestowed with remarkable natural attributes as a wine region.  The pioneers who arrived here in the 1960s were often business executives who hadn’t so much as grown a tomato, never mind planted a vineyard or made wine. Yet without a whit of experience, so many of them made remarkable wines despite themselves. John Trefethen, recalling his early vintages in the 1970s, calls them “amazing wines by accident.”

“We entered the wine industry when there were no wine magazines, no wine critics, no 100 point scale—all 23 of us vintners in the Napa Valley in the 1960s,” says Janet Trefethen. “What we learned, we learned from the vineyard itself.”

If you wanted to gauge whether or not a winery deserved its reputation, a good place to start might be to taste its 30-year-old dry riesling. The 1988 Trefethen dry riesling was nothing short of phenomenal with a sensual, vibrant, lit-from-within quality that old wines with lots of natural acidity can possess. When the Trefethens came to Napa Valley, there were more than a thousand acres of riesling. Today, there are 66, making one wonder about the Napa Valley rieslings that will never be.

Among the chardonnays that spanned the nearly forty years from 1977 to 2016, my favorite vintages were exactly those two. One could see in the daughter the still-beautiful grace of the mother.

I had not known that the early Trefethen cabernets were made in American oak, but in the 1970s, Kentucky’s bourbon country seemed like the logical place to go if you needed a barrel or two. Despite this, the 1979 Library Selection Cabernet Sauvignon was a stunner—all richness without concentration. It had beautiful freshness, and a structure formed by an exquisite balance of acid and tannin. Had I tasted it blind, I most certainly would have thought “Left Bank Bordeaux.”

In the end, I came away from the tasting thinking about what it means for a wine to be a classic. I’ve decided that a classic is something that’s been cherished over a long period for its integrity. You go, Trefethen.


This article was originally published in Somm Journal’s Oct/Nov issue 2018