Trefethen winery celebrates 125th birthday

2011-09-23T00:00:00Z 2011-09-23T21:49:45Z Trefethen winery celebrates 125th birthdaySASHA PAULSEN Napa Valley Register
September 23, 2011 12:00 am  • 

In 1886, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty. The same year, Hamden McIntyre completed construction of an unusual wooden winery in the Oak Knoll district, four miles north of the town of Napa. 

This Sunday, a replica of the Lady of Liberty will join the celebration as the Trefethen family, current-day owners of the historic winery, invite residents to a country fair and parade marking the 125th birthday of the building now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Our winery has always been a Napa Valley landmark since its earliest days,” said Janet Trefethen, whose family revived what had become a ghost winery in the 1970s. “It’s stood as a sort of a sentinel guarding the southern entrance to the valley. It’s part of the community and this is why we want the community to celebrate with us.”

The party begins at 11 a.m. with a parade that will include the Statue of Liberty float along with a birthday cake float decorated by school children from Browns Valley and Vichy elementary schools, the Napa Valley Language Academy and Harvest Middle School.         

A Boy Scout honor guard and the California Repercussion marching band will be leading the parade, and other wineries will be driving vintage pick-up trucks and tractors.

Festivities will continue with wine, food, games and children’s activities until 3 p.m. Admission is free, but a suggested donation of $10 per vehicle will benefit the Viticulture and Winery Technology program at Napa Valley College. Tickets will be sold for food truck fare, which will be available throughout the day.

Originally named Eshcol after a biblical valley where giant grape clusters grew, the winery was commissioned by James and George Goodman, who had founded the Bank of Napa in 1858. In 1882, they purchased the 280-acre property, which had 40 acres of vineyards.

McIntyre, a former sea captain-turned-winery builder, also designed and built Far Niente, Inglenook and Greystone, the present home of the Culinary Institute of America. 

The Goodmans wanted a wood building instead of the more typical stone winery then being built in the valley. The three-story design included a horse-powered elevator that hoisted grapes to the third floor for crushing. The juice flowed to the middle floor for fermentation and was aged on the first floor. The 250,000-gallon capacity winery cost $1,500 to build.

It survived the phylloxera epidemic of the 1890s and continued to produce sacramental wines during Prohibition. By the 1940s, however, it was dormant, and remained so until 1968, when Catherine and Gene Trefethen, who had just retired as CEO of Kaiser Industries, purchased the property along with a patchwork of adjacent vineyards and orchards and began transforming it into a 600-acre estate.

“All their friends and Napa neighbors thought they were nuts,” Janet Trefethen notes in a history she compiled of the winery. 

Janet, who had married the Trefethens’ son, John, in 1973, said when she first saw the dilapidated ghost of the once imposing winery, her first reaction was it would make a great barn for her horses. 

The younger Trefethens, however, decided to restore the building “to its former glory,” the family said. Other than replacing the dirt floor on the ground level with concrete, they made no structural changes, and their painstaking work was recognized in 1988 — a century after the winery’s construction — when the Department of the Interior put the building on the National Register of Historic Places as the only 19th-century, wooden, gravity-flow winery surviving in Napa County. 

Meanwhile, in 1973, Trefethen released its first wines. By 1979, the Trefethen chardonnay was named best in the world at a the wine olympics in Paris.

Today, the McIntyre building is a stunning centerpiece of the state-of-the art winery. On the ground floor, the historic rooms are used to welcome visitors, host tastings and hold the wines. The 13,000-barrel cellar is used for aging wines. The second floor, which displays the Eshcol winery’s original de-stemmer/crusher, is a barrel-aging cellar for the winery’s Bordeaux variety red wines. 

Leading a tour of the building, Janet Trefethen describes lugging baby carriers for her children, Loren and Hailey, up three flights to her third-floor offices, as she and her husband worked to restore the winery. These younger Trefethens have also joined the family business, and Janet has become the winery historian.   

The history of Napa and its wine industry are contained in the building, she said — from a 19th century hanging from beams on the second floor to a more recent performance by stars from “Phantom of the Opera.”

“If these walls could talk ...” Trefethen said. 

Copyright 2016 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(4) Comments

  1. Local Yokel
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    Local Yokel - September 23, 2011 7:54 am
    A photograph of the old winery building would have been more interesting than a picture of the back of someone's head.

    We have all seen the statue of liberty before, but like many, I have never seen the historical building described in the story.
  2. kbc
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    kbc - September 23, 2011 8:14 am
    Happy Anniversary Trefethens!
  3. glenroy
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    glenroy - September 23, 2011 10:33 am
    Wonderful wine, wonderful family…
  4. notpc
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    notpc - September 23, 2011 11:00 am
    One of the friendliest staffs I've encountered at any winery. The family has been generous to the community which is neatly appreciated. Congratulations and continued success.
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