SCALING THE VINE TO NEW HEIGHTS

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By Michael Cervin | Photos by Dale Higgins

Life is full of twists and turns, unpredictable adventures that draw you, almost imperceptibly, to
where you are supposed to be. When Richie Allen was 19, he left his native Australia, came to
California, and spent four months rock climbing in places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree in San
Bernardino County, with no thought of wine.

“One of my earliest memories of wine was when I was eight years old
on holiday in North Eastern Victoria,” says Allen. His parents went wine tasting, toting their two
young boys with them. “My brother and I were in the back of the car and fought the whole time. I
really didn’t enjoy it,” he says bluntly. Perhaps it’s ironic that he ended up as winemaker for
Rombauer Vineyards, one of Napa Valley’s star wineries.

It was on a California trip when a group of friends went wine tasting in Amador County. “Wine
became really interesting,” he says deliberately. He returned to Australia, spending the next few
years immersed in winemaking studies at the University of Adelaide. After graduating in 2003, he
worked with Australian and New Zealand producers, including the highly regarded Penfolds. Allen
joined Rombauer Vineyards in 2004 as an intern, which was only to be a short-term job; however, the
winemaking team liked him so much they offered him full-time employment as enologist. He became the
assistant winemaker a year later, then winemaker in 2008. Like scoring a home run the first time at
bat, Allen admits he was at the right place at the right time and sometimes has to pinch himself
for landing such a coveted job.

Rombauer produces approximately 130,000 cases of wine each year, half of which is their iconic
Chardonnay. “The Rombauers told me, ‘just make the best wine you can,’” says Allen. And of course,
Chardonnay is Rombauer’s
calling card. But Chardonnay keeps getting a bad wrap from the
wine press as new, hipper white varieties vie for attention. Allen’s biggest challenge? “How do you
continually improve? We make incredible wines, but how do we make them better?”

He tries not to overthink the winemaking process in spite of the barrage of technical information
available to him with his state-of- the-art equipment. “We have machines in our lab that can
measure compounds that the human palate cannot comprehend,” he says. He gets data constantly during
harvest: tonnage per acre, cluster counts, sugar numbers, leaf densities, gallons per vines; all
this data in real time. “But at the end of the day, it’s all useless unless the wine tastes good,”
he notes.

And Rombauer Chardonnay does indeed taste good, being one of the most popular versions of
Chardonnay in the U.S. Sure, Chardonnay has its critics, but a brief pause amidst the hype reveals
something remarkable: “Chardonnay makes a more diverse portfolio of wine styles than any other
variety in the world,” says Allen. “You have everything from blanc de blanc Champagne to barrel
fermented, stainless steel, and dessert wine.”

What does he prefer with a Rombauer Chardonnay? “Lobster with butter sauce, or fresh ceviche with a
young Rombauer.” But of course, it’s not all Chardonnay. “We’re not a one-trick pony; we’re making
some of the best Cabernet and Merlot in the Napa Valley.” Not to mention the Zinfandel Allen makes
with fruit purchased from Amador and El Dorado Counties, the very places he discovered wine so many
years ago.

Allen has managed to achieve so much already. The one thing he hasn’t achieved? “Climbing
Yosemite’s El Capitan still eludes me,” he says. Maybe that’s okay; he’s already scaled heights few
others can imagine.

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