Rombauer chardonnay, aka “cougar juice,” “Danville crack,” and “Vitamin R,” is prized for its buttery, creamy richness, all sourced from Sonoma County. So many people are now hooked on this soft and sophisticated chardonnay that getting your hands on it now is mater of luck, as it is tightly allocated. The 400k case Napa winery founded in 1980 devotes over 60% of its production to chardonnay, with sauvignon blanc, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and merlot rounding out the portfolio. In addition to the prized Carneros Chardonnay, the winemaking team also crafts a passionfruit, lime, honeydew and kiwi-packed Rombauer 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, along with a 2021 Rombauer Proprietor Reserve Chardonnay ($80): with its peach pie cobbler with ginger cream flavors, it tastes like pure luxury. The 2020 Zin ($38), which has been sourced from mostly Amador Foothills fruit since Rombauer took over the Renwood winemaking facility and tasting room in Plymouth, is energetic, red-fruited, silky and emphatically baking spice-endowed. The 2018 Proprietor Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) stands out for its smoothly integrated fruit, tannins and a harmonious balance that flies in the face of Napa extreme.
But, why did it take so long to add a pinot noir? The answer, according to Richie Allen, VP of viticulture and winemaking at Rombauer, who has been with the brand for more than 20 years, is that brand founder Koerner Rombauer, who passed away in 2018, was a stickler for quality. He adamantly insisted that he never wanted his name on anything that didn’t wow him. And he was not a pinot fan, preferring cabernet as his red beverage of choice. As an aside, Allen told us that he finally got Koerner to add sauvignon blanc to the portfolio by paying for the grapes himself: fortunately, it met the KR taste test and was bottled under the Rombauer label.
The conversation around pinot nor began to change when Adam Lee, who took the wine world by storm with his brand Siduri, came to Rombauer with a proposal. Lee had built his brand on pinot noir sourced from rockstar winegrowers, the Franscioni and Pisoni families, and in turn, he helped elevate the status of the Santa Lucia Highlands to cult status. Soon other winemakers were vying for fruit from Garys, Rosella’s, Sierra Mar and Soberanes, storied vineyards that have also become essential components of the Testarossa and Bernardus portfolios.
Knowing that any pinot noir worthy of the Rombauer name on the label had to be fantastic, Lee, Allen, and his winemaking team, Luke Clayton and Andrew Holloway, tasted hundreds of pinots from every part of the west coast, from Santa Barbara to Oregon, along with Koerner and his son, KR III. “I went to Bottle Barn and bought like 70 different pinots,” recalls Lee. They were from all over: Santa Barbara, Sta. Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast, even Oregon.
The wines from the SLH kept rising to the top. Allen then posed the question: was it even possible to get fruit from these highly popular and tightly allocated vineyard sources? The answer was yes, and Lee arranged for Rombauer to procure the fruit they needed for their first vintage, 2021. The wine was poured to great reception at the 2023 Santa Lucia Highlands Gala, held May 14, at Mer Soleil on River Road. Nobody expected Rombauer: and certainly nobody expected them to be pouring a pinot noir, but it was a massive hit.
Rombauer and Lee had intended to start the project in 2020, but Mother Nature had other plans. Fortunately, 2021 was generous, and they were able to get fruit from five vineyards, including Garys’, Soberanes, Rosella’s and Sierra Mar, as well as Lemoravo, farmed by grower Kirk Williams, who called it Fairview, back in the day when Big Basin Vineyards sourced some syrah from there. A dispute with another winery led to Williams changing the name to Lemoravo, a mashup of lemon and avocado, two other crops that Williams tends here on the northern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands bench.
So, how does the 2021 Rombauer SLH Pinot Noir ($65) taste? Aged for 10 months in 30% new French oak, it’s silky and complex, with lovely layers of ripe cherry and plum, then lilting cranberry and pomegranate, all underpinned by earthy depth and alluring warm spice. The entire Rombauer winemaking team is totally jazzed about the project and eagerly shared a sneak peak of the 2022 as well. Even more energetic, with lively red cherry and cranberry, it will make a juicy Chapter 2 of this evolving novel.
Too bad Koerner did not live to taste this amazing juice, as he passed away in 2018. But with any luck, you can, because there are few opportunities to taste what all of these amazing vineyards blended together can contribute to a singular wine. There might be some single vineyard bottlings in the future as well, which would bring the Santa Lucia Highlands story to a broader audience in even finer detail.
Thanks to Rombauer for elevating the reputation of this region to an entirely new set of wine lovers with a solid, expressive pinot noir that could only have come from the Santa Lucia Highlands. And, thanks, Adam Lee, for being the instigator.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist and wine judge who enjoys telling tales of winemakers, winegrowers and wines. Each bottle of wine has a story to tell, and becomes part of the story of those who consume it. For over 20 years, she has written regularly for a variety of industry and consumer publications. Every purse she owns contains a corkscrew.
Craft Wine Association 1121 L Street, Suite 700 Sacramento, CA 95814 916.672.0854
ⓒ All Rights Reserved – Craft Wine Association – 2023