Beginning with the vintage 1980 Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon and later a 1982 Napa Valley Chardonnay, Rombauer Vineyards has built a reputation for fine wines and enjoyed a loyal following for nearly 40 years. The inspiration for the Rombauer brand, founder Koerner Rombauer, passed away on May 10 at the age of 83.
Born and raised in Escondido, Calif., Rombauer honed his flying skills in the California Air National Guard before becoming a commercial pilot for Braniff Airways in Texas The family relocated to the Napa Valley in 1972, where he developed a passion for wine that led to the establishment of the winery.
He remained active in philanthropic and community activities throughout his adult life, including the establishment of the $4 million Joan Rombauer UCSF Endowed Fellowship to honor his wife, who died in 2002. Koerner Rombauer will be missed in the wine community and remembered for much more than his famous chardonnay.
Days before his passing, we enjoyed lunch and a tasting hosted by winemaker Richie Allen, owner KR Rombauer and Duncan, his 4-year-old English chocolate lab. They are excited about the quality of their current releases and looking toward an exciting future with their remarkable property along the Silverado Trail.
After a welcoming glass of the round, fruit-forward 2017 Rombauer Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($24), we strolled into the cavernous caves in search of the 2014 Rombauer Napa Valley Merlot ($45), sourced from the cooler Carneros region. Added cabernet sauvignon (21 percent) and petit verdot (2 percent) make it a rich, flavorful “left bank” blend from California soil. With too much heat on the valley floor for merlot, KR explained that they are seeking vines in the cooler Coobsville district in southeast Napa to increase production.
Rombauer produces approximately 300,000 cases of wine per year — 200,000 in chardonnay alone. As they remain in a comfortable position, Rombauer fully grasps the concept that good is the enemy of great. They are active in the wine community, not afraid of being inspired by what their neighbors are producing. Allen quipped that it was not uncommon of KR to show up unannounced with competitors releases for an impromptu blind tasting.
While known for their chardonnay, merlot and zinfandel, Allen curated a tasting of special select or single-vineyard releases not well-known to those outside of the Rombauer membership family, included a best-of-the-best chardonnay. The 2016 Rombauer Proprietor Selection Chardonnay ($70) is actually a blend of the best juice from three Carneros vineyards, including Sangiacomo. With hints of banana on-the-nose, the rich stone fruit flavors add some sweetness, but the wine is dry, expressing a Burgundian minerality throughout.
Sourced from the best grapes and best vineyards in the St. Helena, Stag’s Leap and Calistoga American Viticultural Areas in Napa, the 2014 Rombauer Diamond Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) exudes big, concentrated but balanced flavors with an 15.1 percent alcohol content. Likewise, the elegant “right bank”-style 2012 Rombauer Le Meilleur Du Chai Napa Valley ($115) translates to “best of the cellar” and is aged 17 months in 100 percent new French oak.
After producing the first vintage, Rombauer was so impressed by the fruit that it purchased the Stice Lane Vineyard in St. Helena. The barrel-fermented, 100 percent 2014 Rombauer Stice Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($115) has dense flavors of cassis and dark berries with sleek tannins on the finish.
One takeaway from the tasting was the 2015 Rombauer El Dorado County Zinfandel ($35), dense, rich and affordable with a 15.9 percent alcohol content. The complexity in the aromas and on the palate is evident throughout this wine from great El Dorado County grapes, available at cheaper costs.
After a delicious lunch featuring recipes inspired by the “Joy of Cooking” cookbook, which was co-authored by Koerner’s great-aunt Irma Rombauer, KR and Allen unveiled the barrel-fermented 2015 Joy Late Harvest Chardonnay ($55), enhanced by botrytis, as the perfect accompaniment to the dessert recipes. From the scripted bottle, the color to the honey, soft fruit, nuts and spice flavors, they succeeded. Bring on the creme brûlée.
The Rombauer brand is as strong as ever and there is an excitement and attitude in the air that signals a compelling future. Koerner Rombauer would be proud.