I don't always drink new-world Chardonnay, but when I do, it's Rombauer! Stay thirsty, my friends!
My palate gravitates toward French, Italian, and German. For whites - white burgundy - Chardonnay that expresses fruit, minerals and cooler climate of Côte de Beaune (Burgundy, France) and Chablis in a leaner, higher acidity, and dare I say, a more nuanced way that challenges many American palates. Polar opposite of Rombauer. Rombauer is colloquially known as everyone's mother's favorite Chardonnay - a rich, sweetly, buttery, and approachable California Chardonnay, a style that huge number of domestic consumers adore. I rarely make it to Napa anymore, but recently when I got an invitation for a press tasting and tour at Rombauer, I cast my personal preconceived notions aside, and decided to learn more about what makes Rombauer a public's darling, with 100,000 cases of their "house-style" Carneros Chardonnay sold each year. It's polarizing - on one side are wine geeks for whom Rombauer is a symbol of what's wrong with New World wine. On the other side are consumers who just love the taste at the price they can afford, without necessarily the need for intellectual intrigue of Old World, or the prestige, exclusivity and price tag of California top "cult" producers (like Kistler, Marcassin, etc). Keeping an open mind, and after having tasted Rombauer Chardonnay before, and again at this event, I find it an unapologetically rich and oaky style, and I think it represents "sweet spot" (pun intended) value $$-wise. I respect that. I could see enjoying a glass of Rombauer Chardonnay by itself or with buttered lobster or heavier fried foods that can stand up to the caramelized fruit and oak flavors - a slutty, guilty pleasure. In fact, tasting their four Chardonnays, I couldn't help but imagine I was drinking liquified buttered lobster. It turned out to be the wrong imagery because a few days later when paired with lobster roll from Lobsta Shack, the Rombauer all but overwhelmed it.
Frankly, having a whole meal with the 2014 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay initially seemed like a good idea, for about 1 glass. After that I couldn't go on. The (14.5%) alcohol, heft, and the sweet caramel / butterscotch really tired out my palate long before the dinner ended. A bit too young obviously, I expect with age the oak flavors would integrate better. Some of my friends who love Rombauer told me they love drinking it without food.
At Rombauer I learned that their Cabernets are also of solid quality but seem to be made in less opulent style than the Chardonnays. They too are value in the category of premium Napa Cab.
The tasting and tour began with Richie Allen greeting the press with a glass of 2015 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Very fresh expression, a good start. Richie is the director of viticulture and winemaking since 2013, after he had worked his way up through the ranks of Rombauer, starting as a harvest-time intern in 2004. They have 2 more winemakers, but Richie is the boss now. Originally from Australia, he is extremely enthusiastic and passionate about Napa Valley and his employer.
The owner, "KR" Rombauer (Koerner Rombauer III), son of the founder Koerner Rombauer, showed up with his dog. He explained his family had moved to Napa valley in 1972, and been in wine business ever since. His dad's great aunt, Irma Rombauer was the author of the internationally-renowned Joy of Cooking cookbook, perhaps the most famous American cookbook of all time! Originally partners in Conn Creek winery, the Rombauers founded Rombauer Vineyards in 1980, and over the years have been expanding their holdings to support the enormous appetite of American public for their Chardonnay. His philosophy: "Understand what customers like, and what customers love. Make wines their customers love."
All wines were opened for ~1-2hrs prior.
1. 2015 Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc, 14.2%. 10% neutral (5yr old) French oak, pick in August (cooler site) bottle in Dec. Very classical grass and lime, some glycerol but not thick, actually quite fresh and elegant, good acidity, and not hot despite the alcohol in the 14% range. $24. Quite good quality. Richie recommends drinking this from Spring 2016 while young.
For reds, 40% of 2013 Napa Valley cab and all reserve cabs are barrel fermented and barrel aged in new French oak. The red varietals are partly barrel fermented for richer, deeper, rounder profile. Richie would have them all that way, but he is constrained by time, resources, space, etc. Barrel fermentation approach is extremely labor intensive, as it requires turning barrels by hand frequently during fermentation. He talks a lot about relentless focus on the quality, sorting, types of barrels and how key they are to the quality and style of their wines. Clearly at Rombauer, Chardonnay is the claim to fame, but Richie is very serious and excited about their reds program as well.
Then we head to the chilly caves dug in the side of the mountain abutting the production facility where hundreds of barrels are resting. Here we have a taste of Merlot. A bit too cold. Everything is so pristine, without the spittoon I can't gather the courage to spit on the ground. So I take a small sip and savor it in my mouth for a long time, before finally swallowing.
2. 2012 Rombauer Carneros Merlot - 86% merlot, clay soil, small amount of barrel fermented. Chocolate, ink, smoke/tar, black cherry / blackberry. Quite good. Not heavy, not thick, quite lively actually. $35
Back at the main facility, we continue with a sit-down portfolio tasting of Rombauer Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Zinfandels.
3. 2014 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay (house-style) ripe pineapple coconut vanilla nose (Pina Colada). Heavy rich full body, very viscous, spice, a lot of melted popcorn butter, caramel, butterscotch. Recommended started drinking 2 years in. Low acidity. Really begs for lobster with butter, but in actuality turns out a better match with coconut-popcorn shrimp. KR Rombauer recommends cellaring for 7-10 yrs for aged flavor. 100k cases. 1/3rd new oak. 14.5%
4. 2014 Rombauer Buchli Station Chardonnay more lifted nose. A bit lighter in profile, more refined and citrusy, but otherwise similar. Longer finish. 120 cases. 50% new oak, mostly French. 14.6%. This was my favorite of all the Chardonnays.
5. 2014 Rombauer Home Ranch Chardonnay lifted citrus again on the nose, sweet flower pollen. Spicy minerals more evident on the palate. Verbena? (Aloe spice?) Quite spicy finish. Sweet caramel & flower spice. Heavier and slightly less acidity than Buchli. 14.6%. 120 cases
6. 2014 Rombauer Proprietor Selection similar. A lot of thickness, viscosity. It's solid underneath, but why this much sweetness? 800 cases. Recommend drinking 4-5yrs.
Then come the Cabs.
7. 2013 Rombauer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - crushed stones, spice, well balanced, deep but not thick or heavy. Tannic. 12k cases
8. 2012 Rombauer Diamond Selection Cabernet Sauvignon - tannic, clean & spicy. 1500 cases
9. 2012 Rombauer Atlas Peak Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon - smoother & sweeter, graphite, but still tannic. 250 cases
10. 2012 Rombauer Stice Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon - quite grapy (welsh's grape juice), unsweetened chocolate, crushed gravel. 250 cases
11. 2012 Rombauer Le Meilleur du Chai "Best of the Cellar" blend (75% cab) - tannic, dark, still not super dense (which I appreciate), inky. 250 cases.
The Chardonnays are poster-boy Cali Chard, full of richness and brute-force sex appeal. If that is the style you like, I think the quality is solid and they are a relative value at $30+/btl for the Carneros Chardonnay (wine-searcher pricing) and $65 for the single-vineyard and reserve cuvees sold at the winery. The cabs are more restrained but are also well made and represent value, in the range of $35-100/btl, possessing a consistent, intense but not heavy style with some strong fine tannin, relatively light on their feet, not thick texture, crushed gravel & graphite. Solid stuff.
We were also served 3 different Zinfandels with lunch. They paired nicely with duck confit smothered with lentils and roasted dry fruit jam. I recall Fiddletown Zin was particularly satisfying in a sweet and juicy kind of way.
And finally, a rare and quite tasty bottle of 2011 vintage Zin Port from El Dorado County, which is Richie's pet project, currently not commercially available.
Bottomline - good quality, good value. Matter of style. Chardonnay is a bombshell Napa. I asked Richie if he had tried making them without oak, just as an experiment, and he replied "I like my toast buttered." There you have it. At 100,000 cases of their "house" Carneros Chardonnay made and sold each year, the public clearly agree.