Forks and Corks: Freemark Abbey

Welcome to Backroads Insider. This is the last episode provided by our guest podcast Forks and Corks. Next time, the Backroads Insider will take the helm. Until then…

Freemark Abbey was established in 1881 by Johnathan and Josephine Tychson. The stone winery is just off the Silverado Trail in the St. Helena appellation. Ted Edwards started making wine at Freemark Abbey about one hundred years after its inception. The bi-spectacled humble winemaker is sporting a light green baseball cap as we head out into the vineyards behind the storied winery.

“Malbec is my favorite blending grape,” he says.

We’re standing in the vineyard that the Tychsons planted in 1881. It’s a hot August day, even for the Napa Valley.

“This Malbec here, Freemark Abbey, goes into our Josephine wine. We make a wine dedicated to our matriarch, Josephine Tychson, that started the winery back in 1886,” which is when she produced the first vintage. Edwards says they decided a few years ago to pay homage to Josephine Tychson by making a special bottling that’s only available to visitors and wine club members.

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In fact, the hill where the vineyard is planted is called Tychson Hill, named after Josephine and John.

Barry Dodds, who’s the Ambassador for Freemark Abbey, adds that there’s a backstory to the Josephine Cabernet blend.  John and Josephine Tychson moved to St. Helena with two small children with the dream of making wine, but before their first harvest John succumbs to tuberculosis. Josephine is undeterred. She doesn’t remarry. She doesn’t return to the South Bay to be near her parents. No, she perseveres. And with that, she became California’s first female winemaker.

The Bordeaux blend is comprised of half-acre Malbec, acre of Merlot, some Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate vineyards. They also blend in some Cabernet Sauvignon from the Van Zee Vineyard in St. Helena. Edwards says, it’s a “fantastic, intense Cabernet blend.” It has all the Bordeaux varietals except Petit Verdot.

In 1895, after years of farming and making wine, Josephine decides to sell the winery to her friend Antonio Forney. Like Josephine, he had fortitude. The Italian emigrated to America, and then walked from Ellis Island across the US all the way to St. Helena. Next, he brought family and granite workers from Vermont to cut stone from Glass Mountain to the east to build the majestic stone winery. Construction began in 1895 and finished in 1906, at which time he started making wine, until Prohibition put him out of business.

For years, the winery languishes. Many farmers in the Napa Valley turn their focus to prunes.  In the late 1930s, Mark Foster, Charles Freeman and Albert Ahearn buy the winery, and Freemark Abbey is established.

Then in 1967, another group of investors purchase the winery and their focus is on making ultra-premium wines. They start holding back wines every year, and you can still taste some of these wines because the ’67 Partners decided that they would create a library of wines. That decision lead to winemaker Brad Webb joining the team as an investor and winemaker.

“But prior to that he was the winemaker at Hanzell in Sonoma,” Dodds says. And Brad Webb is credited with figuring out how to inoculate and get malolactic fermentation to happen in a Chardonnay in Sonoma County. Then in the Napa Valley he figured out how to stop malolactic fermentation.

It’s Brad’s winemaking that catapults the tiny St. Helena winery onto the world stage with his 1969 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay at a blind tasting in Manhattan. The competition included France, Italy and Spain as well as Napa.

Then in 1980, Ted Edwards,  who’s fresh out of college and grew up farming, becomes the assistant winemaker. Edwards didn’t think he’d stay for long, but the partners embraced him and even took him in as a son. They had the same vision of making ultra-premium wines. They understood farming and winemaking. Edwards says he really loved working with the partners, who were aging, so the family decided to sell. In 2006, Jackson Family Wines bought the winery, and Edwards is thrilled.

Edwards says, the Jackson Family “are also salt of the earth people, just like the original seven going back to 1967. JFW has allowed him to source grapes from outside of Rutherford, so he’s able to make Napa Valley Cabs from all over the Valley, “from our vineyards up in Calistoga, Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, St. Helena, Howell Mountain, Oakville, Rutherford, Yountville, Atlas Peak. All these areas I collectively pull together different varieties using all of the five Bordeaux varieties in making our Napa Valley Cab. Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cab is truly a great example of a Napa Valley Cab because it’s like a handprint north, south, east, west.”

Forks and Corks is a production of Napa Valley Life Magazine.

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