We were invited to a press event at Rombauer Vineyards in St. Helena last week. We had been to the Rombauer tasting room on several occasions, but this event was a special look inside the Rombauer Vineyards cellars with winemaker Richie Allen and KR Rombauer III. Did we ever learn a lot about Rombauer wines! Everyone knows about the ever-popular, and sometimes scorned, Rombauer Vineyards Carneros Chardonnay. It’s the flagship wine at Rombauer and, with a 100,000-case production, it is sold widely in wine shops, supermarkets and many restaurants. But there is so much more to Rombauer than this Chardonnay. There are small lots of Chardonnay made from single vineyards and selected blocks of vineyards. Then there is a lineup of Cabernet Sauvignon that is very impressive. Two innovations in winemaking at Rombauer give an insight into how much effort is spent on a quest for, as KR Rombauer stated, “making a better wine each and every vintage.”
The Optical Sorter
Yes, the Rombauer Vineyards Carneros Chardonnay is the flagship wine, but the optical sorter is used only for the red wines. All the Chardonnay wines are whole-cluster fermented. Red wine production is quite different, and an important step in red wine making is the sorting table. A cluster of red grapes needs to be de-stemmed, and everything is removed except the good berries. This is tedious work and it requires a lot of workers. But the optical sorter can do this job in minutes. As explained by head winemaker Richie Allen, the optical sorter software is programmed to scan for a certain size of berry. In nanoseconds, the scanner discards the unwanted berries and other vegetation. The optical sorter passes along the right-sized berries to be crushed and fermented. It’s astonishing how this works. Rombauer was one of the first to implement the optical sorter in the Napa Valley, and undoubtedly one of the few wineries to have two optical sorters.
60-gallon oak barrel fermentation for Cabernet Sauvignon
60-gallon oak barrel fermentation is a rarity in the Napa Valley. Only Beaulieu Vineyards is doing the same, but just with their George de Latour red blend. 60-gallon barrel fermentation began in 2010 as an experiment at Rombauer. The heads of the barrels are popped off and filled with the crushed fruit. The barrels are turned on their sides and placed on a rack with wheel sets. These barrels are turned a quarter of a turn back and forth three to four times a day until fermentation is complete. In 2010 the experiment began with just two barrels, and today that successful experiment has translated into 600 barrels. It is only the Cabernet Sauvignon that is fermented in this manner.
Tasting Rombauer wines
Following the tour of the cellars, we tasted the Rombauer lineup of Chardonnay and Cabernet wines. We also tasted the first-ever vintage of a Sauvignon Blanc. The Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and refreshing, with a fantastic mouth feel. Our tasting of the Chardonnay wines began with Carneros Chardonnay followed by small lots of four Chardonnays. Our favorite was the Home Ranch Chardonnay ($70). It was interesting to observe that after tasting the small-vineyard Chardonnays, the Carneros Chardonnay tasted rather flat in comparison. On the Cabernet Sauvignon side of Rombauer, we tried five elegant wines. Rombauer may be noted for its Chardonnay, but these Cabs were quite delicious. Perhaps the optical sorting and the small-barrel fermenting is the reason for producing these intense but balanced Cabs. Our favorite of the tasting was the 2012 Atlas Peak Vineyard ($90).
The Rombauer Vineyard tasting room is located on Silverado Trail at the northern end of the Valley. The tasting room is open daily, but check the Rombauer Website for complete visiting details. The tasting room will be undergoing renovations, so be sure to check http://www.rombauer.com/visit/tastings/.
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