Berger on wine: On the rise with Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley

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Shortly after the historic Freemark Abbey Winery in Napa Valley was purchased by Jackson Family Wines in 2006, Freemark winemaker Ted Edwards did a portfolio tasting for the new owners, Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke.

Often when a new owner takes over an older wine property, there is a fear that the winemaker will be asked to change the style of wines he or she has historically made.

Edwards admitted he was concerned that the traditional Freemark Abbey style might not find favor with the new owners, but any anxieties he had quickly evaporated after he served the first wine.

“Barbara said, ‘I live on chardonnay, but we don’t want you to change a thing.’ That was really amazing.”

The reason was that Freemark Abbey had always made a more delicate, restrained style of chardonnay, one that emphasized acidity and less time in the barrel. It ran counter to the oak-driven, softer chardonnays so popular in 2006, at the time of the winery sale.

The late Jackson was always concerned about quality, but he also respected the house styles of all the wineries he acquired, said Jackson Family chief winemaker Randy Ullom.

“We have always believed that, with any new property, we want to maintain and keep the house personality, and then to allow them to grow by using our resources,” Ullom said. “It the essence of what we do — keep that house style intact.”

Edwards said he came to realize what this meant in real-world terms shortly after meeting with Jackson and Banke. Under Freemark’s prior ownership, financial constraints limited his ability to acquire fruit from independent growers who had grapes that would greatly benefit some of his Napa Valley wines.

Being part of a larger organization allowed him to buy fruit from anywhere in the valley (from Coombsville to Howell Mountain) where he could find the right flavor profiles to not only maintain the house style but expand production with higher-quality wine.

A portfolio tasting with Ted a few weeks ago was enlightening. I was never more impressed by the quality and style of the Freemark Abbey wines — and I have a relationship with that winery dating to 1971. In particular, what was striking was that Ted, who joined the winery in 1980, completely understood the house style that had been set in motion a decade earlier by the great winemaker Jerry Luper.

It is exemplified by the 2015 Chardonnay ($30), a most impressive zero-malolactic, delicate-oak style, with a lemon peel aroma and superb acidity.

One of the most impressive red wines in the portfolio is a 2013 Merlot ($34) with dramatic varietal character (traces of dried herbs such as thyme and sage plus olives). It tastes best after decanting.

The winery’s top red wine, its calling card, is the Bosché Cabernet Sauvignon from the vineyard of that name in Rutherford, and the new 2013 ($150) is nearly as good as my all-time favorite Bosché wine, the 1995. The aroma has faint hints of mint and walnuts, and the complexity is impressive.

The winery’s 2013 Rutherford Cabernet ($70) is nearly as good since 43 percent of it is from the Bosché vineyard.

Each of the red wines represents a stylistic point of dramatic proportions, which is Edwards’ top achievement. “It’s a big part of our job — to provide continuity from the past,” he said.

The winery makes a half dozen different cabernet sauvignons, as well as a stellar smaller-production cabernet franc ($60). It needs a bit of time in the cellar.

One major factor in all these red wines is firm acidity, so the wines are virtually guaranteed to age beautifully. Decanting them allows them to be consumed soon.

Soon after Jackson acquired the winery, his staff completely redesigned the property, installing a gorgeous new tasting room on Highway 29. The property now also includes additional hospitality spaces and Two Birds, One Stone, a new yakitori-inspired restaurant by chefs Douglas Keane and Sang Yoon.

Wine tasting is now a sybaritic experience equal to any in the valley.

Wine of the Week: 2016 Freemark Abbey Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($24): Lime, lemongrass and a trace of peach are only three of the many subtle aroma motes. The wine is dry (think oysters), but succulent enough to work with slightly broader food as well, especially if it is not too cold.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at

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