“The Good Stuff”
Napa Valley-based Rombauer Vineyards likes Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc so much it bought not one but two Sonoma County vineyards over the last two years to help meet its needs (and the demand) for the popular white wine.
In 2022 it bought what it calls the Carriger One Vineyard in the southwestern reaches of Sonoma Valley at the base of Sonoma Mountain.
The vineyard is named for Nicholas Carriger, who bought 1,000 acres from General Vallejo in 1847 and is credited as the first American to grow wine grapes in Sonoma Valley. Originally from Tennessee, Carriger traveled west for a time with the Donner Party, but parted ways with them in Salt Lake City, carrying on to avoid bad weather. It was a smart decision.
Surviving the trip west, Carriger shortly after struck gold in California, which enabled him to pay Vallejo $4,000 in gold dust for the land.
Much of this benchland is a mix of river rock and alluvium washed down from the mountain. The Nicholas Carriger Estate, with a 10,000-square-foot, three-story winery and distillery built in 1875, is designated as a Sonoma County Historic Landmark. His original vineyards were wiped out by phylloxera in 1885.
Interestingly, the Carriger estate also once included vineyards in the Russian River Valley, including what is now called the Saitone Estate Vineyard in the Olivet-Piner region. Established by Antonio Saitone in 1895 to primarily Zinfandel, it is owned by Williams Selyem, which makes a vineyard-designated Zin from Saitone that is still dry-farmed, head-pruned and planted on St. George rootstock.
Carriger Road is also home to Idell Family Vineyards and The Michael Mara Vineyard, a partnership between Idell and Matthiasson Family Vineyards; as well as the Kuenster-Miers Vineyard. Stone Edge Farm and Vineyard is also here. Kenwood Vineyards for a long time had a Carriger Estate Vineyard.
Planted to 45 aces of Sauvignon Blanc, the Carriger One site has well-drained, rocky soils; Rombauer is replanting another 45 acres there to Sauvignon Blanc, grafting over from Cabernet Sauvignon.
In January of 2023, it bought the adjacent 54-acre planted vineyard, Carriger Two, which has served as a primary source of Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc since 2014, the same year it started making the wine.
Rombauer president and CEO Bob Knebel noted at the time of the acquisition that the site is perfectly situated between Rombauer’s other Sauvignon Blanc vineyards in the warmer Napa Valley and cooler Russian River Valley, and that the Carriger fruit “brings punchy varietal intensity to the wine.”
Vice president of viticulture and winemaking Ritchie Allen agrees.
“We looked to Sonoma County because it’s cooler and does better with Sauvignon Blanc than Napa,” he said. “In Napa, everyone is taking out Sauvignon Blanc and planting Cabernet Sauvignon.”
With Carriger, which was at one point planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s the opposite. Still, it wasn’t easy for Allen to convince Rombauer’s owners to make a Sauvignon Blanc in the first place. It took five years of pleading. But after the first 1,000 cases sold out in six months, Rombauer added Sauvignon Blanc permanently to its portfolio.
Allen says in 2019, at a production level of around 16,000 cases, people really started to know the wine and sales went even more gangbusters, and they couldn’t keep it on shelves. Even he, the original proponent of Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc, was caught off-guard with how popular the wine was and it was a scramble to find enough growers with grapes.
In 2022, the wine grew to 48,000 cases. He’s hoping with the addition of Carriger Two, he should hopefully be able now to meet demand more easily.
In Allen’s mind Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc does not compete with Rombauer Chardonnay, instead attracting younger consumers and enticing red wine drinkers who think they’re not interested in Chardonnay but might try a fresh white wine.
Rombauer Vineyards was founded by Koerner and Joan Rombauer in 1980 in the Napa Valley. Koerner was a commercial pilot for Braniff Airways who had taken an interest in wine, first becoming a partner in Conn Creek.
His great-aunt Irma Rombauer was the author of “The Joy of Cooking,” and the still family-owned winery has always maintained a focus on wine’s place at the table.
Rombauer made its first wines at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, but in 1982 was able to break ground on its own winery site off the Silverado Trail between St. Helena and Calistoga, where it still is today, and crush its first Chardonnay.
The 1982 Rombauer Chardonnay was released to the world in 1984 at the suggested retail price of $12.50, and quickly became one of the standard bearers of California Chardonnay. It remains a juggernaut in the marketplace, the number one-selling luxury priced Chardonnay in America.
In 1990 Rombauer bought its first Chardonnay grapes from the Sangiacomo family in Carneros, beginning a longstanding relationship with the growers. It soon started adding more vineyards of its own.
In 2013 Rombauer bought the Davitto Ranch in Sonoma Carneros to develop a 180-acre Chardonnay vineyard, renaming it Patriots Vineyard. Its other vineyards in Carneros include Buchli Station, bought in 2002, with 68 acres of Chardonnay and Merlot; and 110-acre Home Ranch, planted entirely to Chardonnay in 1982, its original source.
In 2014, when it released a Sauvignon Blanc, it was the first new variety to be made at Rombauer in more than 20 years, and only its second white wine.
In 2022, in addition to Carriger One, it bought the 52-acre Haire Vineyard in Carneros to secure its Chardonnay holdings once again, a source of Rombauer grapes for more than two decades.
Today, Rombauer owns and/or leases 900 planted acres of vineyards in Carneros, Atlas Peak, Stags Leap District, St. Helena, Calistoga, Sonoma Valley and the Sierra Foothills and makes Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. It also has a tasting room in the Sierra Foothills, the former site of Renwood.
As of the 2022 vintage, Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc is 76% Sonoma County and 24% Napa County, but Allen expects it will eventually be sourced entirely from Sonoma County.
“There are pockets of Sonoma County that do so well in certain varieties, you can grow anything,” he said. “It’s so much more versatile than other AVAs, it’s exciting.”
Photo Credit: Sonoma County Library Photo Collection