Beringer – a corporate experience at one of Napa’s oldest wineries

Beringer has a long (by California standards) history and a beautiful property. I wish they told their own story better.

Beringer Winery, Rhine HouseStory

“Over two million Germans came to the United States between 1868 and 1888, more than five times the number of Italians […] There were not many of this huge number who came to the Napa Valley, but those who did had a profound effect on society here”, writes Charles Sullivan, a wine historian, in his ‘Napa Wine: a History’ book.

The Beringer brothers, Jacob and Frederick, were among those Germans. Jacob had worked at wineries and cooperages in German Mainz and was the first of the brothers to move to California from New York in 1869. He got a job as a foreman at another German winery in Napa, Charles Krug, while dreaming of his own estate. Not before long, in 1875, he and his brother were able to pay $14,500 for their own 97-acre property across from Charles Krug.

Beringer, Napa Valley, the caves

The brothers had an obvious business talent. In just two years, Jacob excavated spacious limestone ageing tunnels under Spring Mountain with the help of Chinese workers, and could produce 40,000 gallons of wine (counted in modern bottles, it’s almost 202,000). A year later, he further expanded the caves and increased the production to 100,000 gallons.

The caves still exist today, though they haven’t been used for production since 1979, and are open for visits, as is the beautiful Victorian Rhine House.

The Rhine House was brother Frederick’s contribution to the property. He joined Jacob in 1884 and helped expand the company thanks to his strong business connections in the East Coast.

The brothers weathered the phylloxera epidemic at the end of the 19th century, and replanted the vineyards. Frederick died in 1901, and Jacob in 1915.

“Unlike most Napa wineries Beringer stayed in family hands through Prohibition, Repeal, World War II”, narrates Charles Sullivan. The winery was considered to be one of the Big Five Napa Valley wineries in 1950s, along with Beaulieu, Inglenook, Louis Martini, and Charles Krug.

In the 1960s, Beringer was losing its focus and glow and, as some commentators said, was lacking resources to meet the demands of modern winemaking. In 1970, the family sold the winery to Swiss Nestlé, which managed the operations until 1995. A succession of corporate ownerships followed, until in 2011 it became part of Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates.

In 2015, the family connection was re-established when Mark Beringer, a direct descendant of Jacob, was hired as chief winemaker.

Visit

Beringer, Napa Valley, the Rhine House, stained glass

Today Beringer Brothers Winery is on the National Register of Historic Places and on the list of California Historical Landmarks, specifically for “the unique distinction of never having ceased operations since its founding in 1876.” The Rhine House displays original stained glass windows and woodwork.

I wish my ‘Taste of Beringer’ tour at the estate provided more historical information and colorful details. It would have been far more interesting than hearing general information about grape varieties and winemaking techniques, which was told following a corporate script (or so it felt). So my Beringer story above is based on Charles Sullivan’s book and other sources, rather than on information I received during the tour.

Nonetheless the tour gives one an opportunity to walk through the historic caves and do a seated tasting in one of the rooms of the beautiful Rhine House.

Wines

The tasting at the Rhine House is meant to be an educational wine and food activity, whereby three wines are tasted alongside a wedge of lemon, a pinch of salt, a table grape, and a sweet candy. The idea is to see how salty, tart or sweet foods change the perception of wines.

We tasted one white, one red, and one dessert wine made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes sprayed (!) with Botrytis spores after picking.

2013 Private Reserve Chardonnay ($46) is a big, round Californian Chardonnay with aromas of lemon, cantaloupe, and floral notes, along with buttery, yeasty and oaky tones. The wine was barrel-fermented and spent 7 months on the lees in French oak barrels.

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon tastes a little young and tannic, and has a complex bouquet of raspberry, blueberry jam, cocoa, prune liquor, and cinnamon stick.

Address: 2000 Main Street St. Helena. Opening hours 10:00 am – 6:00 pm from June to October, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm from November to May. A variety of tastings and tours are offered, ranging from $25 to  $125.