Iconic Chardonnay Wine Producer Finally Makes A Pinot Noir Wine
A relationship established several decades ago helps an iconic California Chardonnay wine producer finally make a stellar Pinot Noir that can live up to its white wine counterpart.
As the desire for premium wine started to seep into the American culture in the 1980s, two men, a former airline pilot and the only adopted child of older Southern Baptist Texans, would end up shaping the U.S. wine landscape in ways that brought inspiration and delight to many and irrational criticism from others. Both men followed their own path in the wine world yet their relationship, which blossomed early in their journeys, kept them deeply connected, helping one to continue a legacy even after the other’s death.
Koerner Rombauer and his wife grew up in a tiny agricultural town called Escondido, in the foothills of San Diego. During their childhoods, it had a population of around 4,500 people. Although an adventurous life of being an airline pilot relocated him and his family to Texas, eventually, his airline company would bring him back to California – flying in and out of San Francisco. Yet living in “The Golden City” had very little appeal to Koerner and his wife as they were still raising their children and they wanted to give them the same rural, small-town experiences that they had cherished, so in 1972, they moved their two kids, two horses and five dogs to Napa Valley; the idea that they loved food and wine made living in such a place an added benefit.
It never entered their minds to become a wine producer but the camaraderie that they constantly witnessed among the wine community in Napa made them want to take the leap, and so, in 1980, they established Rombauer Vineyards, releasing their first vintage of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in 1984.
Pinot Noir Would Unknowingly Enter His Life
Since Koerner Rombauer had connections in Texas, as he was always a wine lover seeking out the best restaurants and retail stores for top-quality wines when he lived there, Texas became one of Rombauer’s first major markets. During that time, he built a relationship with Adam Lee, a wine buyer at Austin Wine & Spirits, where Adam eventually became president of the three-store chain.
In the early 1990s, Adam decided to come to California to live his wine dream. He initially stayed with the Rombauers and learned all he could from small family-owned wineries until he founded his own in Sonoma County, called Siduri Wines. Adam decided to focus on a fierce passion: cool-climate Pinot Noir from various top West Coast regions, making single vineyard wines as well as bottlings that blended a handful of vineyards to represent the region as a whole. He received instant success with highly-critical acclaim for his first release of a Pinot Noir that was barely over 100 cases in total.
And so, when Rombauer Vineyards announced that it would finally release a Pinot Noir after four decades, it made perfect sense that they partnered with Adam Lee to help them source the best vineyards for this project. Not because anyone knew the history of Adam and Koerner Rombauer but because few other people know the wide range of Pinot Noir vineyards across the West Coast as intimately as Adam.
A Blessing And A Curse
Rombauer certainly made a strong name with its Chardonnay which is really made in the vineyards of Carneros more than in the cellar, as Richie Allen, VP of viticulture & winemaking at Rombauer, explains. And it is the key to how they make their extremely popular Chardonnay consistent year in and year out. Richie is looking for vineyards with “really concentrated fruit flavors,” such as peach and tropical notes, to blend with other plots that bring bright “stone fruit and citrus” notes. The foundation of this legendary Chardonnay is rooted in blocks planted in the 1980s that are owned by the Sangiacomo family, who have been in Carneros for almost a century. Yet, Richie, who started with Rombauer in 2008, has had his eye on Sangiacomo’s heritage block planted in 1964 (some of the oldest Chardonnay in the U.S.) for many years. It has been on a long-term contract with another producer but Richie still asks about it every year and is simply told, “Ask next year.” For now, they are fortunate to have a lock on many of their other precious Chardonnay vines.
Managing the various vineyards they work with is the hardest part of making their Chardonnay but the winemaking is easy by comparison. “The simplest wine to make is the Chardonnay,” said Richie, as it is only a handful of steps that include going from press to tank, tank to barrel, back to tank, then finally tank to bottle. There are no fining agents since the wine gets the time to settle naturally in barrel and tank, and a low amount of sulfur is added; most importantly, there is “no secret sauce”.
His Chardonnay is a point of pride as it is what many producers in the past saw as a benchmark when trying to make a rich barrel-fermented Chardonnay that was fresh and balanced. Yet, so many of those past producers trying to make a Rombauer-like Chardonnay have failed as they either didn’t have the resources and knowledge to find that balance or they employed “sloppy winemaking,” as Richie calls it. Unfortunately, all of those bad rich Chardonnay wines that have hit the market over several decades have damaged the category as a whole. And because Rombauer has one of the most successful premium barrel-fermented Chardonnay wines, they have been part of that backlash, with some falsely reporting that their Chardonnay is “one of the most manipulated wines,” as Richie notes with frustration. The complete opposite is true, as Richie states that one of their wineries is designed to ensure their Chardonnay moves efficiently, which means it barely moves, allowing them not to mess with the wine, keeping sulfur levels low and the fruit expression pure.
But Rombauer’s loyal customer base is grateful that they never got scared by the rich California Chardonnay backlash, avoiding the move to thin Chardonnay wines that can’t stand up to oak and today, they are one of the few producers left that offer such a stellar example that is under $100 and doesn’t require being on a waiting list.
It Was Time
One might wonder why it took Rombauer all this time to finally make a Pinot Noir; their customers have been asking for one for years. But Koerner Rombauer was never one to jump on a trend – he made the wines that he believed in, that were rooted in the vineyards of the community he loved. Also, Koerner was loyal to his customer base as they helped to make this small-town pilot’s dream come true and he didn’t want the only Pinot Noir they would have in their portfolio to be available to only a few. So it seemed impossible to make a significant amount of great Pinot Noir since all the best plots were already spoken for. Yet after Koerner, a great titan of the wine world, passed away in 2018, Adam Lee came to the Rombauer family and said, “It was time.” It was time for Rombauer Vineyards to make a Pinot Noir.
Adam sold Siduri Wines to Jackson Family Winery in 2015, staying on as a consultant, so he was ready for such a momentous challenge. Logically, Adam’s first thought was to go to Carneros for Rombauer’s Pinot Noir but it seemed impossible to guarantee the decent quantities needed since there were very few vineyards that weren’t already committed. And hence, the hunt kicked off, going all the way down to Santa Barbara and all the way up to Oregon, stopping at several well-known Pinot Noir places in between that Adam knew so well. He had Richie taste “hundreds and hundreds” of wines from a multitude of wine areas on the West Coast but nothing seemed to click, until a lineup of wines blew Richie away; they had power, structure, freshness, enticing aromatics, sense of place and plenty of fruit to tie up all those components into a delicious experience: they were Pinot Noirs from Santa Lucia Highlandslocated in Central Coast, California.
Adam was thrilled that Richie was so impressed with the Santa Lucia Highlands lineup as he thought it was the “finest wine region in California… that no one knows about.” After he sold Siduri, Adam started a new winery called Clarice Wine Company in Santa Lucia Highlands as he loved the great multi-generational family-run vineyards in the area, but it was not an iconic wine region, and hence, seemingly wouldn’t match with an iconic name such as Rombauer. But Richie was already taken by the fruit and he thought back to all those great single vineyard bottlings of Pinot Noir by Russian River Valley producers, vineyards such as Soberanes, Garys’, Sierra Mar or Rosella’s… those were all Santa Lucia Highland single vineyards being bottled by producers in one of the most famous Pinot Noir wine areas in the world. And since Adam had very strong relationships in the area, he could get some of those top vineyards and scale up to a decent quantity if there was demand from the loyal Rombauer base.
Santa Lucia Highlands is where many fine wine drinkers will know the vineyards but not so much the place as it is an area dominated by long-time vineyard owners who are farmers at heart, with very few marketing-savvy wine producers in the region. But, perhaps, Rombauer Vineyards could be a part of bringing the name Santa Lucia Highlands to a wider audience.
Sometimes a founder of an iconic winery needs at least two lifetimes to complete a dream, as it can take just one lifetime to truly understand that dream’s potential. If Koerner Rombauer had been given another lifetime, maybe, just maybe, he would have found a way to bring an iconic Pinot Noir to his beloved customers as he had with his Chardonnay. That wasn’t possible… but a relationship he made all those years ago with Adam, when each man was only at the beginning of his dream, has helped bring the potential of Rombauer to another level.
Because no one should ever feel that he ran out of time when there was still so much more to accomplish, so, even though Koerner has passed away, he is still far from gone. Everything this man inspired still thrives, such as the young wine buyer from all those years ago in Austin, Texas, who today is a Pinot Noir legend; and Adam knew “it was time” – it was finally time to make a companion that was an equal partner to the Rombauer Chardonnay.
2021 Rombauer Chardonnay, Carneros: 100% Chardonnay. Enchanting from the first sip with hints of hazelnuts and peach pie with refreshing mango sorbet and a touch of creaminess on the palate with flavors of zingy lemon curd and a long, lifted finish with spicy notes.
2021 Rombauer Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH): 100% Pinot Noir taken from some of the best vineyards in SLH; Garys’, Sierra Mar, Lemoravo, Rosella’s and Soberanes. A beautiful nose with hints of violets, cinnamon stick and cherry aromas that draws one in with richer boysenberry flavors and complex layers of smoky black tea and sweet tobacco that is laced with an intense minerality along with supple tannins. The finish is out of this world – juicy fruit and mouthwatering acidity that goes on and on. Really showcases the high pedigree of these stellar vineyards!