After the 6.0 earthquake hit Napa on Aug. 24, 2014 at 3:20 a.m., the photo seen around the world was of Trefethen’s historic 1886 winery building leaning four feet to the west and looking like it was going to collapse any minute.
Two-and-a-half years later, this building, which has now survived the kiss of death twice throughout Napa’s history, is reopening under the leadership and hard work of the third-generation Trefethens, Hailey and Loren.
Resurrection, Part I
Designed by Hamden McIntyre, the same architect for Far Niente, Inglenook, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, this redwood, gravity flow winery originally known as Eshcol witnessed the original renaissance of Napa Valley viticulture. After Prohibition, it was one of just a few dozen wineries left standing.
For about 40 years, standing is about all the building would do, waiting patiently for the Napa Valley’s next big boom. In 1968, Catherine and Eugene Trefethen purchased the property, but farming, not winemaking, was their priority, as their intention was to sell the estate’s grapes.
“It was a winery that was known for its quality. It really was a model farm, a model estate,” said Jon Ruel, Trefethen’s chief executive officer, who has been with the company for 13 years. “When the Trefethens purchased, it had been mothballed. There was no winemaking, very little vineyard; there was more prune trees than vines—prune trees, walnut trees and grazing land.”
It was their son, John Trefethen, who had a greater vision, and he and his wife Janet went on to build Trefethen into the winery it is today. After making wine in the basement for years, the couple produced their first commercial wine in 1973, and Trefethen’s big break came at the 1979 Gault Millau World Wine Olympics in Paris, held just three years after the 1976 Judgment of Paris that got the rest of the world’s eyes on Napa Valley for the first time.
The Trefethens didn’t even enter the competition, which featured wines from 33 countries, but a friend secretly submitted their 1976 chardonnay, just for fun. Then it won the title of “Best Chardonnay in the World.”
“He didn’t tell us, so when we won, when Trefethen chardonnay was declared the best chardonnay in the world, nobody could believe it, especially not anyone at Trefethen,” said Loren Trefethen, 34.
“My mom started getting these phone calls and she thought my dad’s friends were playing a practical joke, so she unplugged the phone, went back to work, and for a whole day nobody could get a hold of anyone at Trefethen. It wasn’t until the following day when the CBS News helicopter landed that mom realized she might have made an error. So she received them, gave them the scoop and that was not the end.”
As it turned out, not everyone was ready to accept an American winner. A disgruntled Robert Drouhin, whose family has been making wine in Burgundy since 1880, wrote a letter demanding a rematch, and all of the winners reassembled in 1980.
Again, Trefethen left victorious.
“Those three tastings really changed the world of wine and put Napa Valley on the map, starting with the Judgment, then the Wine Olympics, and the rematch in 1980. We became one of the first cult wines,” said Loren Trefethen.
You might say the rest is history, but in another 34 years, Trefethen would need to rebuild once more.
“We had employees who were on the phone within hours of the quake, saying, “Hey, how’s the winery? I gotta come in!’’ said Ruel. “And my first question to all of them was, ‘How are you? How’s your family? How’s your house?’ And they’d say, ‘I’m fine! I’m coming in!’”
The truth was, the winery was in bad shape, and the family needed all of the help they could get. But before any decisions about its fate could be made, the building needed to be stabilized and grapes needed to be brought in. An early harvest was upon them.
“We didn’t need anyone to come tell us it was red-tagged,” said Hailey Trefethen, 30. “It wasn’t about saving it or anything at this point. We just needed to make sure it didn’t fall farther, and we needed to get our crush equipment, which was right up against the building, a little further away so that we could start bringing in fruit.”
Just five days after the earthquake, they did, taking the utmost safety precautions. Some employees’ job was to sit watching the building with a hard hat and an air horn, ready to blow it in case the structure started to shift.
The first step to securing the building was attaching massive steel buttresses to the outside. Once stabilized, it was time to evaluate if it was worth saving.
The unanimous verdict: It was.
“This building has been here throughout Napa’s history, when it was a booming industry in the 1800s,” said Hailey Trefethen. “We just think it’s so much part of Napa’s cultural heritage and it has a lot of really wonderful family memories for us too.”
She and her brother, Loren, grew up in the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, with fond memories of playing tag in the barrel room.
“My parent’s offices were on the third floor and Mom hauled us up there every single day when we were little, and she’d have a little cradle up there, so it was a big part of our lives that we spent here,” she said.
Resurrection, Part II
Hailey Trefethen took the lead on the restoration process, and over the last two-and-a-half years, has undergone a crash course in engineering and building.
“These are the first blueprints honestly that I’ve worked with, first time working with a structural engineer, everything like that. It was all new to me and amazing,” she said. “My parents helped restore it that first time, and here we are again, restoring it, on a different level and for different reasons.”
The first step was getting the building upright, a process that was supposed to be painfully slow.
“Everyone had been talking about the structural memory this building had because it wanted to go upright,” she said. “A piece of wood or anything that’s been in one spot or one position for 130 years, it wants to go back to that same from. We thought it would take a couple months, but it ended up taking us about a week.”
Engineers then began a full seismic retrofit, which included installing 20 tons of steel in the form of a steel moment frame inside. This frame enabled the Trefethens to keep the floor plan open and as close to its original state as possible.
Currently, from the outside, the building looks just as it did pre-quake, except newer. While all of the original redwood siding was taken completely off so that the building could be reframed, 88 percent of it was deemed in good shape, and put right back on, piece-by-piece. It then got a new paint job, but the Trefethens decided to keep its muted, rusty-orange color.
“If you’re driving up to Tahoe or sometimes in the Sacramento Valley, you’ll see a really old barn that probably at one point was painted red and has faded to this kind of like orange, and that’s what we think probably happened with this building, but we’re not sure,” said Hailey Trefethen. “That’s the way we found it, so that’s what we always kind of kept it as.”
It’s the inside that wows. Dramatically open and purposely minimalistic, it’s a tribute to the historic redwood siding and the towering Douglas Fir beams throughout.
“From the outside, some people are like, ‘Oh great, it’s an old barn. You guys are going to save it, that’s nice.’ They don’t get it,” she said. “And then you walk inside and they start seeing this building and how it was constructed, and everyone gets so giddy. Carpenters who have come in to do jobs for us, and they’re just like, ‘Oh my God!’ Especially when you think about the era it was built in, it’s even more impressive.”
The Trefethens also took the restoration as an opportunity to make improvements upon the building’s previous state. The first floor, which used to be half barrel room, half tasting room, is now exclusively barrel storage, with a small reception area for greeting guests. The tasting room has been moved upstairs to the second floor, which was previously inaccessible to the public because the building didn’t have an elevator.
Now it does.
“The second floor has always kind of been our favorite part, but we’ve never been able to share that with people because we didn’t have an elevator,” said Hailey Trefethen. “It also just really logically makes sense to put people above winemaking, rather than under winemaking, and to put them in a place that has 25-foot ceilings, where you really get a sense of its history.”
Once opened, Classic ($25) and Reserve ($40) tastings will be offered seven days a week, with a view overlooking the estate vineyards. A tasting and tour of the vineyards and historic winery ($45) will also be available Monday-Friday at 10:30 a.m.
Embracing its scars, in the middle of the second floor you’ll find what the Trefethens are referring to in jest as “The Remembrance Beam.”
“We wanted to leave something that showed the damage and showed what this building has been through. We left that one post cracked and leaning sideways, but obviously well supported,” Hailey Trefethen said.
The entire restoration process has also sort of organically kick-started the passing of the torch from the second generation Trefethens to the third. The quake pushed Hailey and Loren Trefethen to jump in and assume new roles and responsibilities, just as their parents did more than 40 years ago.
“In the beginning, they did everything themselves. John figured out how to make wine, Janet figured out how to sell it. They fell into some natural roles between the two of them. John more on the operations and finance side, and Janet on the sales and marketing side,” said Ruel.
“As we’re now grooming the next generation and really poised to pass that torch, we’re seeing something very natural in terms of a division in responsibilities between Hailey and Loren as well. Hailey is more attached to the estate itself, passionate about everything we do to grow the grapes, craft the wine and get it into the bottle, and Loren is just as passionate about what happens when we open the bottle, and share it with friends and family. He’s so interested in the experience of sharing wine, how that can make a story and make a memory on the hospitality side of things.”
The winery building will have its grand re-opening party on Saturday, May 6, from noon to 4 p.m., paying tribute to its 130-year history with a vintage Victorian theme. The community celebration will feature local high school choirs, vocalists and a barbershop quartet, in addition to Motown and R&B music from cover band Twice as Good. Tickets cost $95 for the general public and $75 for wine club members and foundation supporters. Visit trefethen.com for more details.