Honored to be included in this look at Napa Valley rieslings:
Napa Valley Riesling: Then And Now
Prior to Prohibition, Riesling was the most planted white grape variety in Napa Valley, taking a dip until the 1970s, where its prominence rose again. In 1972, Riesling was the first wine released by Chateau Montelena. “This was well before Cabernet and Chardonnay were anointed King and Queen of Napa Valley,” shares Matt Crafton, Winemaker at Chateau Montelena, “I’m sure it was an exciting time.”
Some may argue the excitement has faded for Napa Valley Riesling, but that depends on who you ask. According to Hailey Trefethen, Vintner at Trefethen Family Vineyards, there were 4,401 tons of the grape crushed in Napa Valley in 1979. By 2017, that number dwindled to 266.20 tons, according to the USDA 2017 Grape Crush Report, but it is a labor of love for those who still produce it.
“Early on, winery founder Jim Barret realized the future of the winery was tied to its estate vineyards,” explains Crafton. Needing quick cash for the fledgling brand, he turned to his winemaking team for guidance. “Riesling, easy to produce and quick to market, was planted because it made financial sense. Today, it is one of our favorite wines, and a rarity in Napa Valley.”
“Growing the right grape at the right place,” lead them to Potter Valley. “It’s a simple concept, but sometimes takes you places you wouldn’t expect,” adds Crafton. The cool location offers the proper soil and climate combination for long hang-time, resulting in crisp acidity and texture while unlocking the grape’s flavor potential.
Crafton hopes newcomers to Riesling taste the Chateau Montelena Potter Valley Riesling and have an “A-Ha moment, realizing they do like Riesling.” He hopes fans of the grape will appreciate the “varietal purity and stylistic complexity” across each unique vintage. “But most of all, I want them all to recognize the wine as delicious. If we haven’t been able to convey that in the bottle, we haven’t done our job.”
“I planted Riesling in 1972, because I thought then, as I still believe today, that Riesling is one of the four most important wine grapes in the world,” proclaims Stu Smith, Managing Partner and Enologist of Smith-Madrone Winery. He adds no single variety dominated the market at that time like Cabernet Sauvignon does today, and the white wine boom was still a few years away.
In the mid ‘70s Americans sought drier white wine and turned to Chardonnay. Smith explains Riesling was becoming too sweet due to poor harvests and many winemakers lacked the knowledge to make it properly—balanced between sugar and acid. While this period ended Riesling’s reign, Smith sees the positive, “Fortunately, Napa Valley is down to just a few wineries that care about making quality Riesling.”
After these market ups and downs, selling Riesling today isn’t always easy. According to Smith, the Smith-Madrone Riesling sells very well at the winery and direct to consumer, showing to be “especially popular with the younger crowd and sommeliers.” But, he adds, “Unfortunately, Riesling sales through traditional distribution are difficult, especially, in a market place where access by small wineries is limited.”
Quality Napa Valley Riesling costs $20 – $30; however, competition among large, inexpensive brands proves challenging for boutique wines. “The largest producer of Riesling in the world has priced the wine to be a supermarket wine on the lower shelves,” explains Smith. Adding, “Germany seems to know how to market automobiles and optics, but can’t seem to do the same for wine.”
Trefethen Family Vineyard
Trefethen was not unique in producing Riesling in the ‘70s, what is unique is their long commitment to the grape. The reason, according to Hailey Trefethen, is simple, “We like it. It has great versatility on the table, offers brightness that makes it refreshing, and has great intrigue as it ages.” Representing the fourth generation, she adds, “I’m incredibly thankful that my parents stuck by Riesling, and I’m excited to keep that tradition going forward.”
The Oak Knoll District is known for Cabernet Sauvignon production, but Bryan Kays, Trefethen Winemaker, feels it is also the ideal home for Riesling, “showing citrus in its youth, developing jasmine, white tea, and tropical fruit as it ages, with a slate or wet stone character.”
Like Chateau Montelena and Smith-Madrone, Trefethen’s Dry Riesling has a large fan base. They sell out of their 5,000 case production annually. Furthermore, this wine has success with distribution and on premise sales.
Trefethen employs this wine to kick off the many wine dinners they host throughout the United States. A few of Chef Chris Kennedy Akin’s favorite pairings include oysters and spicy cuisine. “The complex flavors of a curry topped with tzatziki and fresh picked cilantro will have you wishing the pairing would never end.”
Calder Wine Company
Like the rest, Calder’s Riesling is a hold-over from the 1970s. The .66 acre, dry-farmed, head-trained, organic vines on the Rossi Ranch in Rutherford gives a nod to the region’s viticultural history. “The Riesling exists due to the combination of prior generations of vineyard owners who planted a true kaleidoscope of varieties all over the valley, and a subsequent generation (my dad and I) who have been too stubborn to rip it out,” explains Rory Williams, Calder Winemaker.
Similar to Oak Knoll, Rutherford is Cabernet Sauvignon country. Williams appreciates this fact. “The reason I find the wine interesting to make is because it does provide some transparency to Rutherford terroir. In its own way, the wine reflects the power and structure of the red wines for which the Rutherford bench is justly famous,” he shares.
Rutherford’s warm temperatures offer a unique expression for this wine. “Instead of lemony flavors backed by terpenes, it leans toward ripe apricot, pineapple, and a savory depth to the aromas,” elaborates Williams.
Calder Wine Company embraces Riesling as part of a kaleidoscope of Napa Valley varieties. “I hope that people come to realize that the range of Napa’s ability to make great wine extends beyond Cabernet, tying into its long history of experimentation and risk-taking.” Riesling is part of that long history.
How Does Riesling Age?
Age-ability, a benefit of a well-made Riesling, is often overlooked. If given time and the right cellar conditions, Riesling can age for decades. “We recently poured a bottle from 1988 and it was fabulous,” shares Bryan Kays, Trefethen Winemaker.
Like many wines, Riesling loses some of its immediate fruitiness as it ages and starts to really flaunt its savory side, adds Rory Williams, Calder Winemaker, “My first vintage of the Riesling was 2011, and the wine is still going strong. It’s hard to know what its end point is, but I’ve had Stony Hill Rieslings from the 1970s that were fabulous and transformed into something utterly unique.”
“Riesling defies conventional beliefs that white wines don’t age,”adds Stu Smith, Managing Partner and Enologist at Smith-Madrone Winery. “A Smith-Madrone Riesling that is 25 or even 30 years old is a thing of beauty, with a complexity of aromas that makes swirling the glass a gift to the senses. Aged Riesling pays great dividends to those with patience and rivals any equally aged red wine—a bold statement, yet true.”