April 23, 2014
 

PHILIP TOGNI VINEYARD

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
Spring Mountain, Napa

Retail: $137.95 / btl 

 

Classically styled. Generous. Age-worthy.

Philip Togni has been making profound Napa Cabernets for decades. This recent article by the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Bonné acutely captures how the wines remain among the valley's best, while in a stylistic category all of their own. 

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Lasting reputations are built not in a 99-point instant, but at a generational pace.

 

The Longest of Long Views on Napa Cabernet
by Jon Bonné

What strikes you first about Philip Togni is an utter sense of propriety. Here is a man who was planting Cabernet in Napa Valley before the first American was launched into space. Togni has nothing to prove. And yet here he is, with his trim white beard and old army jacket, hampered by a cold one late winter day, shuffling around his winery high on Spring Mountain, 2,000 feet above St. Helena. He takes pains to show me an account, translated from Flemish, of a 1996 Belgian tasting, in which his 1990 Cabernet trumped the 1990 Chateau Latour. ("Californische wijn beter dan Bordeaux.") After five decades in some of Napa's best cellars, Togni does not presume. Certainly he could. Consider the 1969 Chappellet Cabernet, made just months after Togni's daughter Lisa was born; it's now widely considered one of the best Cabernets that California ever produced. His role in its creation is, by his account, minimal — the winemaking was just "blindly following Medoc practice," the traditions of very traditional Bordeaux. Grapes were picked at a level considered barely ripe by today's standards. No modern refrigeration techniques. The wine was aged in barrels of no particular consequence, stoppered with archaic wooden bungs, filtered and bottled.

"Looking back from the later heights of sophistication, it was all pretty simplistic," Togni says. "God smiled, and we had a miracle." Surely there's credit going unclaimed here. But demurral is Togni's style. His name isn't often uttered in Napa today, and his mountain property isn't a spot most will ever see. To get there, I locate an unmarked driveway, unlock the chain-link gate, drive through, lock it back up and proceed down a dirt road to what's essentially a hilltop dacha. I have come to see Togni for a bit of sentimental education about the Napa that used to be, but also for insight about Cabernet as it used to be. There is the obvious stylistic discussion, or, as Togni describes it, "a period, prompted by some of your colleagues, of high-alcohol wines." But as he tells it, the discussion about what California Cabernet could, and should, be has been unfolding over much of a century. Even in the 1960s, he was advocating for wines that demonstrated "real true vinosity" — the complexities that make great Cabernet — rather than just a bottle full of fruit. In turn, the Togni wines have gained a reputation for astonishing endurance. They are tensile and savory, dark-fruited and cedar-edged, showing the broad, ripe structure that shows mastery with this particular grape. They routinely last 20 years or more, matching the toughness of great old Bordeaux with a Napa generosity.

 
 

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If they are not friendly when young, they have what in Togni's beloved Bordeaux would be called poise. On these shores, we'll go with "backbone." This helps reinforce Togni's view that style can ebb as well as flow. "What one tries to do, looking with a longish perspective, is not to see the waves," he says, "but to look at the swell." Yet progress rolls forward, even here. Togni has begun to hand the reins to Lisa, 44, who will ultimately take over the cellar and a modest production of just under 2000 cases, giving Philip and his wife, Birgitta, if not a retirement, time to relax. Togni turned 87 last fall. "My dad's one of those people who's never going to retire," Lisa says.

Togni also represents a time when winemaking was a largely invisible job, essentially work for hire. He has been in the valley so long that he still pronounces Mondavi with a long middle vowel — "Mon-DAY-vee" — in the style of the 1950s, before Robert's winery was even a blueprint. Consider, if you will, Togni the other half of a duo with Andre Tchelistcheff, the dean of 20th century Napa winemakers, who died in 1994. The two provided an indelible link to Old World traditions during California wine's formative years. Raised in England by a British mother and Swiss father, Togni was trained in geology but was more intrigued by wine. He applied to wine school in Montpellier, and went there before heading north to Bordeaux to enroll at the local university under Emile Peynaud, the great French enologist. "So I guess," he says, "I started out with a lot of prejudices that I've retained in the New World." Togni itinerantly worked his way through several wine regions, including Chile, then in January 1959 arrived in California to help plant Cabernet at Mayacamas Vineyards on Mount Veeder. Within a year, he migrated south to another mountain - as the first winemaker at Chalone Vineyard, harvesting Pinot Noir (or something like that — "all those vines that had a good yield turned out to not be Pinot Noir"), Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay high in the Gavilan Mountains of San Benito County.

After an interlude doing "varietal studies" for Gallo, making hundreds of experimental lots of wine to determine how the company should replant its vineyards, he returned north to the hills once again, hired by a recent Napa arrival named Donn Chappellet who had acquired land on Pritchard Hill above Rutherford. Like Tchelistcheff, Togni continued a journeyman's path through Napa. But in 1975 he and Birgitta found 25 acres on Spring Mountain, a spot thought abandoned during Prohibition save for a single Cinsault vine, which remains. Initially it was just for their home, but in 1981 they began to plant. A first harvest came in 1983. Togni's model, as he frequently points out, is Chateau Calon-Segur — the Saint-Estephe third growth often overlooked because of its unsociable ways, but one with a tremendous record for durability. True to Bordeaux fashion, Togni makes a second wine, Tanbark Hill, from a 3 1/2-acre parcel of younger vines. The family's operation is minuscule: three Tognis, two longtime employees and two part-timers. The modest winery, built into a hillside, is entirely solar powered. They operate their own small bottling machine. Tucked between spruce trees is a rudimentary sorting table. "Nothing is done quickly here," Lisa says.

Winemaking is very much of an era — picking in late September, relatively neutral yeast added for a brisk 10-day fermentation, wine into barrels made by the cooper that Togni has used since the 1970s. No wizardry of any sort. Just the practical extension of that Bordelais education.

As Togni puts it: "There are lots of manipulations around that we don't subscribe to."

This sort of understatement guides the whole endeavor. Togni has, for instance, never given up his "table wine" designation, which negates the need to list the alcohol level. ("Table wine," in the government's eyes, ranges from 7 to 14 percent alcohol.) "We're just of a mind-set that numbers don't belong on a label," Lisa says. Progress must roll on, of course, and Lisa is slowly taking the reins. After getting her MBA, she worked two harvests in Australia and did a stint in Bordeaux at Chateau Leoville-Barton — another model estate in Togni's book — before returning to California and working for the Boisset family's wine empire for nearly four years. For more than a decade, she has been atop the mountain. Hopefully change won't come too quickly, at least for one of Togni's longtime diversions: his rare Ca' Togni. An astonishingly sweet red wine, it is fresher than Port and exotic with the floral scent of bergamot, inspired by Togni's long fondness for Constantia, South Africa's great sweet wine.

When UC Davis offered him cuttings of Black Hamburg, an evident cross of Muscat of Alexandria and the alpine grape Schiava, Togni planted them on his steepest, rockiest quarter-acre. Dessert wine not being a terribly smart business proposition outside of Sauternes, it is not clear that the Black Hamburg will remain. My hope, at least, is that the economics of Cabernet are tempered enough for this quarter-acre to endure. After all, quiet endurance has marked Togni's career. If his approach to Cabernet has not been in fashion of late, the wines have made their case in a subtle and ultimately persuasive way. Since Napa Valley is, as he notes, now overcrowded with Cabernet dreamers ("To me, the question is, do we need them all?") there is one additional lesson to borrow from Togni's beloved Medoc:

Lasting reputations are built not in a 99-point instant, but at a generational pace.

"There are two kinds of people who run wineries here," he says. "The guys who worked their way up, and the ones who parachute in with a small fortune.

"The thing about the new guys is that they need to understand the value of a track record."

Perhaps that's why Togni is in no great hurry to change.

Bonné, Jon.
The San Francisco Chronicle. 
The Longest of Long Views on Napa Cabernet. Apr 11, 2014. 

Photo Credits:
Lacy Atkins, The Chronicle   
 

 

Robert Parker's Wine Advocate

95+ Points — 'The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon impresses for its length and total class. Mocha, game, smoke, graphite and plums are all supported by veins of cool, insistent minerality. This isn’t a blockbuster Cabernet, rather it is a wine that impresses for its finesse and precision. Sweet red cherries, mint, pencil shavings and violets are some of the notes that are layered into the super-refined finish. As always, Togni’s Cabernet Sauvignon is distinguished for an extraordinary bouquet that recalls some of the great wines of the Medoc and the structure to age gracefully for years. It will be interesting to see if the 2010 blossoms in bottle. Anticipated maturity: 2020-2040. 

Philip Togni, along with his wife Birgitta and daughter Lisa continue to turn out some of the most distinctive and age worthy Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley. The wines are built on structure more than overt fruit, so they need a few years in bottle to come together, but when they do, they are spectacular. Sadly, this year there are no library releases, as Togni did not bottle his 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon and there isn’t enough of the 1992 for a commercial release. Togni remains a benchmark, reference point producer for Napa Valley, with pricing that is incredibly consumer friendly.' — Antonio Galloni