Koerner Rombauer, patriarch and founder of Rombauer Vineyards, passed away a few days ago, the most recent in a tragic run of historic California wine personalities.
The Rombauer brand is most famous for its off-dry, ubiquitous Chardonnay - a wine that sommeliers love to hate. And I'm betting that most sommeliers' knowledge of Rombauer stops and starts there.
Readers might be surprised to know that the Rombauer family's history in food and wine runs deep. Koerner's great aunt Irma Rombauer famously penned The Joy of Cooking in 1931, one of the most widely printed and beloved cookbooks of all time.
They might also be surprised to learn that Rombauer's spacious winemaking facility, which launched in 1982, did a great deal of custom crush business at a time when a rush of new Napa brands were just getting started. Their facilities served as the jumping off point for names such as Corison, Dominus, Neyers, Viader, Spottswoode, Pride, Merryvale (which at the time was owned in part by Bill Harlan), and Livingston-Moffett.
The opening winemaker for Rombauer, and therefore the overseer of the custom crush operation, was Bob Levy. When Merryvale moved to its own facility in 1988, Levy left Rombauer to go work for Bill Harlan, in whose employ he remains today.
Though today's wines are assuredly made in an early-drinking, mass-appealing style, the earliest vintages of at least Cabernet and Merlot were quite age-worthy. I've dazzled more than a few skeptics on Romabuer's reds from the early and mid-1980s.
There is no question that Koerner played a critical role in Napa's resurgence. And his wines are certainly beloved by a broad and vocal set of consumers. His passing is a good reminder to all of us to look past our own likes and dislikes, to get to the heart and the history of all corners of the wine industry.
I used one of their Chardonnays in a tasting seminar a couple years ago to make a point about winemaking style and I remember feeling surprised how delicious it was. Sort of in the same way I turn up Madonna when it comes on the radio. It's not Bartok, but for some reason it goes over much better than the 4th string quartet when driving my daughter and her friends to the movies—still trying to figure out why that is. From my experience, Rombauer always made consistent quality wines. When we bash them to our customers, it comes off about as well as me telling people that Beyonce lacks the complexity of Arnold Schoenberg and that they should trade in Lemonade for Pierrot Lunaire.
I believe one of the Masters at my Advanced Course poured Rombauer for all of us to blind taste at the beginning of one of the seminars. It was so great to hear so many different reactions to the wine without a label. That moment certainly lingered with me as a "don't drink strictly based on labels" moment.
I just had the great chance of being part of Master Napa about a month ago where they broke up the lot of us into groups of two or three to be taken all over the valley to different AVA's. My group was taken to Rombauer where I initially rolled my eyes and sighed. I was really delighted with the experience. Richie Allen, winemaker, spent three hours with us detailing the workings of Rombauer, the history and the passion of Koerner. I found it pretty remarkable that all the grapes going into the 200K cases of chardonnay are hand-harvested. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but it gets people interested in wine, and at the end of the day that is better than them drinking no wine. As an aside, the Buchli Station Chardonnay, a single vineyard from deep in Carneros, is a bad ass wine. Yes, it has the signature Rombauer richness and weight but their is elegance and charm to it for sure. A shame that it is only like 100 cases/vintage and available to club members only. Would love to have that on my list. Hope I haven't done any disrespect to Mr. Rombauer with my ramblings in his memorium post.
Yeah, I poured that wine blind for the winemaking seminar at the advanced that year ;)
There was definitely a point where I enjoyed the Rombauer style and it wasn't terribly long ago. If they serve as an introduction to or even preferred choice of wine for many people, that's definitely not a bad thing at all. And as you've pointed out, he did a lot to get many started in the valley.
What I could never get over were the godawful labels that looked like someone was printing them out on an inkjet in the back.
I can't believe I never made the connection between Rombauer the wine and Irma Rombauer! What a fascinating family. Thanks for sharing all of this great history, Kelli - a lovely remembrance.
It was definitely poured for us at the Dallas Advanced course 2 years ago. If my memory serves me, it was used to demonstrate the difference between oak and lees, we were blinded on Domaine Eden Chardonnay side by side with the Cougar juice, and asked to Identify which had more oak and which had seen more lees contact. I still remember Master Kruth walking around with a glass, smiling while stating "I think its good" ! Im not ashamed to admit that I poured it BTG for a couple of years.
Koerner Rombauer was a total character and wore a big, huge, gigantic, enormous smile on his face 100% of the time. He demonstrates that there is always far more to a person than meets the eye. Back when I was working as a graphic designer, I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet Koerner and design various projects for Rombauer Wine. You might wonder about that because what you see of designs for Rombauer Wine are pretty basic. But the projects I worked on were private projects, not distributed publicly, such as labels for special editions of Rombauer Wine. The work we did was beautiful and these projects were a real treat. I'm extraordinarily grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Koerner.