Ted Edwards, Winemaker Emeritus, Freemark Abbey
Photo ©Tom Hyland
Freemark Abbey Winery in St. Helena is one of Napa Valley’s stalwart producers. Originally established in 1886 with a small redwood cellar on the estate (its winemaker Josephine Tychson was the first female winemaker in Napa), it was among the first in the valley to open a tasting room to the public in 1949. Seven partners reestablished the winery in 1967, and since then, Freemark Abbey has become a valley icon.
Today, Freemark Abbey, which was purchased in 2006 by Jackson Family Vineyards (owners of several Calfornia properties including Lakoya and La Jota in Napa, and Hartford Family Winery and Matanzas Creek in Sonoma), is well recognized for its signature Cabernet Sauvignons from Bosché and Sycamore Vineyards in nearby Rutherford, as well as multiple offerings of Merlot and Chardonnay. Not only are these well made, highly praised wines, but they are in many instances, fine values, something not that common in Napa Valley these days.
What I admire most about the wines of Freemark Abbey, along with their consistency, is their style. These are not blockbuster, over-the-top wines designed to “wow” you, but rather, elegantly styled, sometimes even subdued offerings that are emphasize varietal purity over power. This is not always the situation in Napa, so when you find wines like these, you treasure them.
Ted Edwards has been winemaker since 1985 and has been the face of Freemark Abbey in the modern era. Now Edwards has become Winemaker Emeritus, as he will work more in the vineyards, while passing the winemaking torch to his former assistant, Kristy Melton; the team will traverse the same path that brought the winery so much acclaim in the first place.
Kristy Melton, winemaker, Freemark Abbey
Photo ©Tom Hyland
I recently sat down with Edwards and Melton in Chicago to learn more about the winery, their winemaking principles and what the future holds for Freemark Abbey.
Tom Hyland – How would you describe the changes over the years at Freemark Abbey and in Napa Valley?
Ted Edwards – What we’ve learned over the years is more about our vineyards and new clones, and what it takes to develop the darker fruits. We know that the consumer, as to having green pepper or chili pepper, they prefer dark cherry. As a winemaker, you’re walking that fence … because you’re getting high alcohol. So we’ve been true to ourselves. On average, we tend to harvest earlier that normal in Napa Valley.
TH – I still find too many Cabernets from Napa that are too powerful, sort of in-your-face wines.
Kristy Melton – I think we’re seeing a few producers coming back to a more classic style. We’ve tasted a few wines recently and we’ve heard people talk. Hopefully that’s becoming more common than scarce. We like to think so.
TH – When you meet consumers at tastings, what are they telling you about your Cabernets?
KM – We haven’t done a lot of public tastings recently, but we’ve talked with a few critics that have said in all their portfolio tastings that there is still that big Napa Cab, but some of the cult producers are stepping back from that a little bit, which is always interesting to see.
TH – Is that because there are too many wines alike?
KM– Perhaps and maybe they’re more interesting and compelling and more complex?
TE – I think so many of the newcomers are striving for their niche, their identity, so the big, the robust, the really ripe is popular. So it helped establish some brands.
TH – For Sycamore and Bosché, what is the percentage of new oak?
TE – In general, we’re looking at 50% to 65% new oak.
TH – Tell me a little bit about recent vintages in Napa.
TE – 2015 was a great vintage. It was wonderful, but we didn’t have enough of it. Our production was about 50% normal size. I think it was because of drought.
KM – The 2016s are softer than the 2015s. Not as soft as 12, but really approachable. 2017 was a hot, hot year; every weekend was hot … It depended on when you picked – it was a tricky vintage. We’re bottling our 2017s now, and we’re really happy with them.
TH – Do you cut back on new oak in a vintage like that?
KM – We do it lot by lot, not by vintage overall. As we taste fermenters, we note that this lot has more substance, so it can handle more than this one, which is a little lighter. Sometimes this is even within the same vineyard.
TH – I want to get your thoughts on how Napa Valley producers have matured as far as making these wines. What have you seen over 40 years?
TE – Over the 40 years, I’ve seen so much in terms of change in the number of wineries. I mean, it’s phenomenal. If I just go back to 1967 when the partners bought Freemark, the ghost winery that was just sitting there. There were only like 12 or 14 wineries in the valley. Today there are over 450, which is phenomenal. A lot of little wineries bought their 20 acres and they have a barn and they have a winery.
Then there are some lots that are smaller than that. I think the neat thing about that, if you have time, is to go around and visit some of these places. You’ll see that they are being true to their acreage. There are specific flavors that are coming off that acreage.
If you’re an enthusiast about wine, you can look at a hillside or at a section of the valley floor, and taste something that came from there and it will kind of give you some ideas. That feeds us as enthusiasts.
KM – I think you get a lot of diversity with that as well. I think there’s a vision of Napa Valley that people have, which is one thing. With all the producers now, you can find all sorts of things, you can find all types of vineyard expressions. There really is something for everyone.
Notes on current Freemark Abbey releases:
2019 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley) – Textbook varietal aromas of grass and light herbs (coriander, basil), with delicate notes of melon and pear. Medium-bodied, with very good freshness; touch of spearmint on the palate. Medium-bodied, this is clean and nicely balanced with good acidity. Refreshing – enjoy over the next 2-3 years. Very Good
2018 Chardonnay (Napa Valley) – Light yellow; aromas of lemon peel, orange blossom, and a hint of grapefruit. Medium-bodied, elegant, with finesse; a subdued style. Good acidity and nicely balanced; oak notes are nicely integrated. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. Very Good
2017 Merlot (Napa Valley) – Bright ruby red; aromas of black cherry and red flowers. Medium-full – 60% of the fruit is from Howell Mountain – the tannins are quite soft and the wine is nicely structured. Balanced acidity, elegant finish. Enjoyable now- drink over the next 5-7 years. Excellent
2016 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) – Aromas of black cherry, raspberry and red poppy. Medium-full with very good concentration. Quite harmonious, with round, elegant tannins and good acidity. Very well made, this offers bright, ripe Cabernet Sauvignon fruit that is very appealing. Approachable now, but best to wait another year or two, with peak drinking in 7-10 years. Excellent
2015 Cabernet Bosché (Napa Valley, Rutherford) – This Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bosché vineyard in Rutherford has been the signature wine of Freemark Abbey for more than three decades. Bright, deep ruby red; aromas of black currant, black cherry and violets. Rich mid-palate, excellent persistence. Lovely wine, with beautiful complexity as well as impressive depth in the finish. Excellent persistence, good acidity. Approachable now, but this will be more impressive with additional time in the bottle. Peak in 12-15 years, perhaps longer. Outstanding
2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Sycamore Vineyard (Napa Valley, Rutherford) – Another single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Freemark Abbey; the Sycamore Vineyard is slightly more than a mile south of Bosché, and is situated up against the Mayacamas Mountains. Bright, deep ruby red; aromas of black cherry, blackberry and violets. Excellent ripeness, subdued wood notes, good acidity. Silky tannins and balanced acidity. Peak in 10-12 years. Excellent