The legacy of Koerner Rombauer

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.

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  • 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.

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