spotlight: freemark abbey winery

One of the joys of drinking wine is knowing the story behind it. Just like knowing the land and soil in which the grapes were grown (see my posting on terroir last month), having a sense of the history of the place that made what’s in my glass makes the experience that much more intimate. It’s as though, on some level, I’m sharing the bottle with the people and events that made it. I thought it would be fun to personalize some of the producers out there, offering some history and a story or two about how they came to be. That way, when you see their bottle in the store, you might be inclined to pick it up for no other reason than because you found their story interesting, inspiring, intriguing, or all of the above.

Freemark Abbey is a winery in the St. Helena appellation of Napa Valley. And no, there is no religious connection. While the winery was founded in 1886, it did not gain its current moniker until 1939, when three southern California real estate developers bought it. Their names? Charles Freeman, Markquand Foster, and Albert (Abbey) Ahern.

The winery’s founder was Josephine Marlin Tychson. Her husband, John, was sick with tuberculosis, and Josephine hoped the dry Napa Valley air would help him recover. She bought 147 acres of land for $8,500 (around $200,000 today – not bad considering that prime vineyard real estate in the Valley has sold in recent years for $100,000 – $300,000 an acre) and built a 30,000 gallon facility, which she named Tychson Cellars and in which she mostly made Riesling and Zinfandel.

After Josephine died, the winery changed hands several times. In 1898, Josephine’s good friend, Antonio Forni, bought the property and built a new winery that he named Lombarda Cellars. In 1899, after much success producing and selling Italian-style wines, Forni knew he needed greater capacity. Using stones from Glass Mountain nearby, he built the structure that Freemark Abbey uses to this day for production and storage. The advent of prohibition forced Forni out of business, though, and the winery fell into decline.

The modern winery we know today came into being when two local grape-growers, Charles Carpy and Laurie Wood entered the picture. After a couple of years planting and harvesting grapes in the Napa Valley, they bought the dormant property in 1967, along with partners John Bryan, Dick Heggie, Bill Jaeger, Brad Webb, and Jim Warren. Their academic interest in viticulture, including the work being done at the University of California Davis, helped give them the tools and connections to grow quality grapes and recruit knowledgeable partners. Their first crush took place in 1967 down the road at the new Robert Mondavi Winery.

The winery quickly gained prominence. In 1973, wine writer Robert Lawrence Balzer staged a tasting of 23 California, New York, and French Chardonnays. A panel of 14 judges gave the highest marks to the 1969 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay. Three years later, the 1972 Chardonnay was selected by Englishman Steven Spurrier to participate in what came to be known as the Judgement of Paris. While the Freemark Abbey did not win the tasting (that honor went to the 1973 Chateau Montelena), it bested the likes of Bâtard-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, which is no small feat. Its success in the 1976 Paris tasting helped put California on the international stage as a quality wine producer.

Today’s Freemark Abbey wines are always approachable, reliable, and quite budget-friendly. I added their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon to my recommendations page under the $30-ish heading. I had this wine with a steak dinner in San Francisco and I was blown away by how smooth and complex it was. On the lighter side, Chardonnay lovers should enjoy the light oak undertone to the pineapple, banana, and apricot ($20). With an annual production of 40,000 cases, their wines are not in every store, but you should not have trouble finding them in well-stocked wine shops and restaurant wine lists that include a California focus. Their label will jump out when you look for the picture below of Antonio Forni’s historic stone building, which appears on all the labels.

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