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