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.
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.