Janet Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards personally takes us through five decades of wine.

I have been selling, drinking and enjoying her wines for almost 20 years. Yet, I had never met Janet Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards before. And here we were, in one of the gorgeous upstairs banquet rooms at 53 by the Sea in Honolulu with floor-to-ceiling glass windows showcasing the backdrop of beautiful Waikiki and Diamond Head about to taste Chardonnay and Cabernet from Trefethen spanning five decades. If this was not the best setting ever (outside of his/her cellar or vineyard) to meet a vigneron, I don’t know what is.

Janet Trefethen is one of the most genuine winery owners I have met from Napa Valley. We could talk for days about days gone by in Napa Valley, when there were only a handful of wineries in the valley—Robert Mondavi was just starting to make wine, Andre Tchelistcheff would come and taste their barrels just to see what they were doing and other winemakers would come by and ask if they had a spare barrel. The early winemakers in the valley would call each other up for help if they had something go wrong in their cellars. There was a strong sense of camaraderie and pioneering spirit back in those humble beginnings, and Janet Trefethen was there through all of it.

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The Trefethen Family Vineyard was once known as the Eschol Winery before Eugene and Catherine Trefethen purchased it in the 1960s.

The Trefethen Family Vineyard was once known as the Eschol Winery before Eugene and Catherine Trefethen purchased it in the 1960s. Their son, John, and his wife, Janet, took on the responsibilities for running the estate and making the wines in 1973. After winning “Best Chardonnay in the World” honors at the 1979 Gault Millau World Wine Olympics in Paris with the winery’s 1976 Chardonnay, the reputation of Trefethen wines grew. More recently, the area in which the estate lies was given its own American Viticultural Area status in 2004 with the leadership of the Trefethen family and their wines. And yes, let us speak of their wine.

We started with the Chardonnays. The 2014 from 750ml had a beautiful nose, singing with perfectly ripe fruit leaning towards the tropical spectrum. The fresh pulp of apples and a hint of pineapple are distinct. The wine is in beautiful balance as the acidity is quite bright and keeps the wine buoyant. This has many lovely days ahead of it. The 2007 from magnum was quite different—roasted sugar cane, toasty with vanilla scents, butterscotch, cedary with plenty of oak still prominent in the wine. It is buttery on the palate with plenty of richness but not as heavy-handed as I expected from the nose. It has a most wonderful texture, like the fat of a baby. It is a touch oaky for me but many in the room were quite enamored. We jumped then to the 1996 from magnum, which was almost coconut-like, roasted nuts, toasted bread and a note of burning sugar cane in a good way. This wine, too, had an unctuous viscosity but with higher acidity than the 2007. This was more my speed with a tremendously long finish without being overly oaky on the finish. I really liked 1996 in Napa and this reminded me why. Next came the 1985 from magnum, which was the darkest of them all. It had a rancio character with a Sauternes/sherry like quality, almost menthol-like. It has the highest acidity of the wines and reminds me of wilted flowers. It has a warm finish with nuts, and reminds me of an old Blanc de Blanc Champagne without the bubbles. It is likely the odd one out of the bunch but still a delicacy. Last and perhaps my wine of the day was the 1979 from magnum. This wine still makes me wish I had been around to scoop up as many magnums of it as possible when it was released. This is amazingly complex and delicious wine—one of the best new-world Chardonnays to ever grace my lips!

We then switched over to the Cabernets, beginning with the 2012 from 750ml. This wine is plush with sweet fruit, dark in character: plums, cassis and pomegranate. This is a baby. The 2006 from magnum still had darker fruit, almost blueberry in character.

The character of the fruit was slightly dryer and definitely spicier with notes of tea and rosewood. It has a very nice complexity with a deeper, more brooding structure. This wine still has long life ahead of it, with all that structure, even at 10 years old. The 1999 from magnum seemed much older with a lot more secondary aromas and flavors. The 1986 from magnum was distinctly earthy with a note of Brett. The fruit was a touch dry with a note of game and cured meat. This wine seemed like it was from the old world, rustic and earthy. And lastly, the 1978 from magnum was marked by a touch of coconut from American oak aging. The flavors kept coming like waves on the palate with fruit, then oak, then earth, flowers and savory.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and having Janet Trefethen there to taste it with was unforgettable. I will do my best to keep these wines in my cellar for years to come.

All photos courtesy Trefethen Family Vineyards