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Freemark, Ahead of Its Time

February 02, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wine advertising is notoriously boring. You've got your bottle shot, your chateau-winery shot, your idyllic situation shot and your photogenic winemaker posing as somebody with a scintillating personality shot. That's just about it--in a word, humorless. But every once in a while something interesting comes along.

One of my all-time favorites is an ad for Freemark Abbey that appeared in magazines a few years ago. It featured a full-page shot of a couple of good ol' boys in overalls standing in a vineyard, tasting grapes right off the vine. The caption read, "Two of the hip, trendy guys who bring you Napa Valley wine."

The ad's humor comes from a sly contradiction of the viewer's preconceived notions: that farmers aren't sophisticated and that Napa Valley vintners are all dot-com gazillionaires making the glamorous wine country lifestyle scene. The good ol' boys in the picture are Freemark Abbey founding partners Chuck Carpy (who died in August 1996, not long after the ad ran) and Laurie Wood, two of the most respected wine men in Napa Valley history.

In fact, when Carpy, Wood and five other partners made their first Freemark Abbey wines in 1967, they actually were hip and trendy. For perspective, consider that they were a year ahead of Robert Mondavi, two years ahead of Chappellet, five years ahead of Clos du Val, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena.

They anticipated by a decade the explosion of small quality-oriented California wineries in the 1970s and beat the first of the current crop of over-hyped cult Cabs by a quarter of a century. And the fact that Freemark Abbey remains a blue-chip producer more than 30 years later is precisely because those guys were farmers from the get-go.

That's why it was no accident that Freemark Abbey's unctuous Chardonnays helped establish the California Chardonnay style that most of the world practically worships today ("Getting at the flavors of these wines would be a lifework for a poet," wrote Bob Thompson in his 1988 book "Notes on a California Cellar Book" [William Morrow, 1988]). They were also ahead of the curve with varietal Merlot. Freemark Abbey's sister winery, Rutherford Hill, specialized in Merlot made primarily from the vineyards of partner Bill Jaeger.

But it was Freemark Abbey's Cabernet Sauvignons--especially the single-vineyard bottling from grower John Bosche's superb Rutherford planting--that made the earliest and most lasting impression on the wine-scape. Cabernet Bosche is one of the pillars of Napa Valley's reputation. The wines are valued not only for their sensual beauty and capacity for long aging but also as singular expressions (enhanced by dry-farming) of both vintage and terroir.

The 22-acre Bosche vineyard is on well-drained alluvial ground in Rutherford. It's among the valley's most privileged sites. Cabernet Bosche typically shows a touch of the graphite-like scent of clean dirt that longtime Beaulieu wine master Andre Tchelistcheff called Rutherford dust--not surprising in light of the fact that the vineyard is adjacent to Beaulieu Vineyard's famous BV#1, the source of Georges de Latour Private Reserve.

Rutherford was one of the earliest parts of the Napa Valley to produce wine. When Napa Valley pioneer George C. Yount arrived in 1838, he was given 11,814 acres by Gen. M.G. Vallejo, Mexico's colonial governor in Alta California; the land grant still appears as Caymus Rancho on U.S. Geological Survey maps of the valley. Twenty-six years later, Yount's granddaughter Elizabeth married Thomas Rutherford. As a wedding gift from Grandpa, they received 1,040 acres of Caymus Rancho at a relatively wide spot in the valley between modern-day Oakville and St. Helena.

Four years after the wedding, a railroad line was extended up the valley, with a stop among the burgeoning vines at Rutherford Station. Thus the Rutherfords gave their name to what would eventually become some of the most revered viticultural land in California.

John Bosche, who was born in Chile and became a successful San Francisco attorney, bought a vacation home in Rutherford in the mid-1950s. The property came with an old vineyard made up of diverse grape varieties. Not all of them were, shall we say, noble. Bosche began replanting to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1961. Laurie Wood was his viticultural consultant. It was a no-brainer to sell the first crops to neighboring Beaulieu, but Bosche was always a little frustrated to see his grapes subsumed into various BV blends (including the Private Reserve in some years).

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