I chuckle to myself whenever I receive notice of a California winery celebrating its fifth or 10th anniversary with a big party. Just as the term “old vine” should have some minimum standard to meet before it can be used on a wine label (I’m thinking 50 years, though I wouldn’t fight over 35), wineries should also be of a certain age before they make a big deal of birthdays. After all, the traditional anniversary gift for a couple married 10 years is tin. Tin! The stuff of which wine capsules are made. Hold out for 25 years, when the gift is silver and is truly worth something.
However, when I receive an invitation from a winery to an event marking its 125th anniversary, that’s something to get excited about. There isn’t even an anniversary gift assigned to 125 years, it’s that very long a time.
The birthday was Freemark Abbey’s, the celebration on July 15, to mark not only the Napa Valley producer’s 125 years of winemaking, but also its resiliency and just-like-family bonding of its people during times difficult and delightful. Under a big white tent pitched on Freemark Abbey’s magnolia-perfumed grounds in St. Helena, owners, winemakers and grape growers, past and present, enjoyed dinner, drank wines from the cellar and reminisced, sometimes tearfully, about their Freemark Abbey experiences. With very little self-promotion during the celebration, and a respectful presence by representatives of Jackson Family Wines, Freemark Abbey’s owner, the “party” was actually a warm and heartfelt family meal served with a side of history. And what a side dish.
The small-plates version of Freemark Abbey’s history is that in 1886, Josephine Tychson became likely the first female vintner in California. She and her husband, farmer John C. Tychson, came to Napa Valley, purchased 147 acres of land, and began to establish a vineyard. He contracted tuberculosis and later committed suicide, leaving Josephine alone with the vineyard and two children.
Still, she forged ahead in designing and planting the 10-acre vineyard, and building a wine cellar. For eight years, Josephine farmed the land, but by 1893, phylloxera had ravaged it, and she sold the property to her foreman, Nils Larsen, in 1894. At that time Tychson Cellars had grown to 55 acres and produced Zinfandel, Riesling and “Burgundy.”
After four years, Larsen sold it to Antonio Forni, who renamed it Lombarda Cellars after his Italian birthplace. He focused on Italian-style wines and built the now iconic stone winery. Prohibition stalled his effort, yet in 1939, three Southern California businessmen -- Albert "Abbey" Ahern, Charles Freeman and Markquand Foster -- purchased Lombarda and renamed it Freemark Abbey, a combination of their names.
The winery went through several hands before being purchased by a group of seven Napa grape growers in1967: Chuck Carpy, Laurie Wood, Brad Webb, Bill Jaeger, John Bryan, Jim Warren and Richard Heggie. Soon Freemark Abbey was producing exceptional Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays, and was in the lineup for Steven Spurrier’s 1976 “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting of California wines against French. California “won” both the Chardonnay (Chateau Montelena) and Cabernet (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) categories, shocking the French and the world; Freemark Abbey’s wines were in the same quality class.
As often happens in the wine business, older partners and family members of deceased partners want to cash out at some point. When the Freemark Abbey group decided to do so in 2005, the Legacy Estate Group bought it, but unfortunately it went bankrupt eight months later. Jess Jackson and his Jackson Family Wines company snapped up the assets at auction, also acquiring Arrowood Vineyards & Winery and Byron Winery in the deal.
Here’s where the warm-fuzzy comes in at the 125th anniversary dinner. Many of those who owned and/or worked at Freemark Abbey were in attendance, some of them taking the microphone to express their love for the place and its people, despite all the ownerships changes.
Jerry Luper, Freemark Abbey’s winemaker in the 1970s, flew in from France to attend the fete. He praised previous winemaker Brad Webb, who died in 1999, for his innovations, which included being one of the first to use lined stainless steel tanks, employing small French oak barrels for Chardonnay fermentation, and controlling malolactic fermentations -- tricks he brought to Freemark Abbey from Hanzell. Luper said partners Carpy and Wood taught him the importance of the vineyard in winemaking.
Carpy’s widow, Ann, tearfully told the attendees how Chuck considered everyone who worked at the winery to be family. “You were dedicated. You were so kind to him, and he was so blessed to have you,” she said.
Larry Langbein, who followed Luper as winemaker, talked about the 1980s as “marvelous years” at the winery, and how everyone “has a huge emotional attachment to Freemark Abbey.” In 1980, Langbein hired Ted Edwards to work in the cellar. In 1985, he became winemaker and later, the director of winemaking. Remarkably, especially for California, Edwards is still there, tough with a few battle scars, no doubt.
George Taber, the only journalist to cover the Judgment of Paris tasting, praised Webb for his winemaking and added that French judge Raymond Oliver, after tasting the Freemark Abbey Chardonnay, proclaimed, “Ah, back to France!”, mistaking the wine for white Burgundy. “The world of wine changed that day,” Taber said.
Alas, the wines are no longer produced at Freemark Abbey, but rather at Jackson Family Wines’ Cardinale facility in Oakville, as the recession prompted many wines companies to consolidate in order to trim personnel costs and find greater production efficiencies. The tasting room and the history remain at the St. Helena property.
Still, Edwards continues to produce delicious, elegant, cellar-worthy wines with the energy of a recent college grad. His role as co-emcee of the birthday dinner didn’t allow for much talk about Edwards’ own contributions, but his wines speak on his behalf.
Freemark Abbey’s recent vintages of Cabernet Sauyvignon -- a Napa Valley blend and vineyard-designates from the fabled Bosche and Sycamore vineyards in Rutherford -- are typically rich and supple, yet with classic Cab character of cedar, cigar box and cassis. They have a keen balance of ripeness, firm tannins and refreshing acidity.
Edwards’ Napa Valley Chardonnays are medium-weight and crisp, with a gentle kiss of vanillin oak to add complexity to the golden apple and pear aromas and flavors. High marks also go to Freemark Abbey’s recent Viognier bottlings. The grape can easily become too ripe and the resulting wines alcoholic and flabby; Edwards obviously harvests at just the right time, producing a wine with the honeysuckle perfume and depth one expects from Viognier, yet a flash of acidity keeps the wine clean and refreshing on the finish.
Josephine Tychson would likely approve.