By Michael Koehn
Growing up in the Napa Valley, I went to school with a lot of kids whose families worked in the wine business. In those days, St. Helena was a quiet, unassuming town with an economy dominated by agriculture – prunes, some hay, walnuts and yes, grapes.
Most of the wineries in the area then were small family run operations selling good drinking wines at reasonable prices, before international recognition of the Napa Valley as a premier wine producing region and widespread corporate involvement in the industry.
One of those family operated wineries, Sutter Home, was owned by the Trinchero family. Mario and his wife Mary had moved to northern California from New York in 1948, and purchased Sutter Home Winery with Mario’s brother John. Through long hours and hard work, the Trincheros made a go of it by producing hearty, everyday drinking wines and selling them to regional customers who sometimes refilled barrels and jugs at the winery’s back door. Mary Trinchero kept the books, younger children Vera and Roger helped on the bottling line, while older brother Bob assisted his father Mario and Uncle John, cleaning out tanks and barrels. It was a classic mom and pop operation.
As the industry began to mature, it was son Bob who came up with a product that was to vastly increase the fortunes of the winery. In 1972 he provided the American wine consumer with a new style of premium wine known as White Zinfandel, and during the 1975 harvest when some 1,000 gallons of bleed-off juice from a batch of red Zinfandel grapes didn’t completely ferment it resulted in a sweetish wine with a pink color and plenty of widespread appeal. Today Sutter Home White Zinfandel is available almost everywhere, and is one of the most popular consumer wines ever created, amounting to about 10% of all wine sales nationally and over 10 million cases sold a year. With its breakthrough success, Sutter Home has become the second largest independent family-run winery in the U.S.
On a visit to the Napa Valley I got an invitation to visit the Trinchero Napa Valley winery, a sprawling production complex and culinary center located a few miles north of St. Helena. It’s a remarkable new facility, a testimony to the family’s long term skills in the wine industry, and also a tribute to its roots in Napa Valley. With the opening of this operation, the Trinchero family is now poised to become one of the key players in the premium single vineyard varietal category.
“Trinchero Family Estates currently consists of thirty different labels,” says Bob Torres, Vera’s son and the winery’s Senior Vice President of Operations, “but this production complex is really the jewel in the crown for us. We started a winery under the Trinchero name in 1998 to commemorate our 50th anniversary, and this will be the new headquarters for that operation.”
We’re standing in the middle of the expansive winery on a perfect mid-seventies Napa Valley day. The entire facility sits on a knoll, elevated above the valley floor. In the background, Mt. St. Helena overlooks hundreds of acres of vineyards colored with fruit.
Our first stop is the Hospitality Center, which features a Tuscan-style culinary center with indoor and outdoor kitchens and dining, woodburning pizza ovens, and a reserve tasting room and cellar. It’s an appropriate introduction to the operation, as it contains family tributes from the early winemaking days. Just inside, a large inscription on the wall reads “In loving memory of Mario & Mary. May we continue in the same generous spirit.”
Entering the large tastefully appointed reception area there are framed black and white family photos and vintage artifacts displayed in glass coffee tables, including wine labels, boxes of cigars, logbooks, correspondence, and an old pocket-sized Sutter Home cookbook entitled “Mama’s Recipes for Keeping Papa Home.”
The food connection has always been strong with the Trincheros (The Sutter Home Napa Valley Cookbook was published by Chronicle Books in 2000), and we head into the center’s kitchen, a gleaming space full of industrial stainless steel appliances and striking graphic art. “This is where most of the activity takes place on the property,” Torres says. “We’ll be busy here almost every day of the week with industry events, lunches, dinners and tours.”
Next door is a small dining room that is decorated with the recipe for bagna cauda writ large all around the walls. This Piedmontese specialty calls for dipping bread and vegetables into large pots of warm olive oil flavored with garlic and anchovies. “It’s a traditional Italian dish served in the harvest season,” explains Torres. I can almost smell the aromas in this festive space, a perfect spot for dipping, eating and drinking wine with a view of the vineyards outside.
As impressive as the new facility design is, it’s the wine that is made and sold here that gives Trinchero Napa Valley its credentials. Specializing in red varietals, the winery produces vintages crafted under the care of winemaker Mario Monticelli, who provides a simple but painstaking approach to creating first class wine in very limited quantities, using a combination of state of the art technology and Old World sensibilities. “My goal is to put forth the finest expression of the fruit and the land from which it is grown,” says Monticelli. It’s an approach that takes the finest grapes harvested from over 200 acres of estate vineyards in some of the valley’s most prized appellations and extracts as much character from them as possible.
Inside the production center we see the hi-tech part of the operation. Gleaming stainless steel tanks sit in a room devoted to the early part of the fermentation process. “These tanks are computer monitored for all the characteristics we care about,” Torres explains. “They’re even online so Mario can check on them from a home-based computer, if need be. But he’s very hands-on with every part of the process.”
Next door sit 1,400 oak barrels, the final resting place before the wine heads to the bottle. Smells of wood and wine mingle here, a hint of what’s to come in the finished product, and we decide to head over to the tasting room.
We’re greeted there by Lee Ann Vallerga, a winery representative who explains the wines to us by type and vintage year. We zero in on the Central Park West Cabernet, a dense, delicious, fully-fruited red with a lingering finish. “We get some strange looks about the appellation,” Torres says. “The New York reference is another tribute to the original family home back east.”
There is a generous selection of vintages here to taste, and Lee Ann explains the details of each of them while we savor the moment. Although these wines are meticulously made and highly rated, the prices have been kept within range of the average wine consumer, a big advantage in an economic climate where Napa Valley boutique wineries sometimes charging over $100 a bottle have seen drastically declining sales.
Opened in mid-summer 2009, the Trinchero facility is also a model of respect for the environment, with energy efficiency, recycled water, packaging and office supplies, and employee transportation programs that use the highest standards for green business operation. A culinary garden, while not fully planted on our visit, also promises to provide year round organic herbs and vegetables for the nearby kitchen.
There is also an outdoor seating area with a fireplace where visitors can sit and relax, maybe enjoy a good cigar with a glass of Cabernet or vintage port while overlooking the lush vineyards that surround the winery. It looks to be an ideal spot for a photo op too, or a wedding. Up on the hillside, two large driftwood sculptures of longhorn cattle keep watch, part of the extensive art collection decorating the grounds.
On the way out of town on our drive back to Los Angeles we pass the original Sutter Home Winery on Highway 29 just south of St. Helena. It’s still a busy spot, beautifully restored, with the original winery now serving as a visitor center. Thinking back to the early days of the winery and its modest beginnings, it’s easy to think that Mario and Mary, who passed away in 1981 and 1999 respectively, would be simply amazed at the business empire they had helped create and the impressive new facility on the north side of town that now proudly carries their name.
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