Philip Togni: A Living Legend of Napa Valley

3/2/17 -

Philip Togni's winemaking career spans nearly the entire history of Napa Valley's relevance in the second half of the 20th century. A cursory examination of his winemaking resume drops several of the greatest names to produce wines here: Mayacamas, Inglenook, and Chappelet, as well as legendary Chalone in Monterey. Now at the age of 90, Togni has handed of the winemaking reins to his daugher Lisa (who herself is no slouch, with an MBA and winemaking stints in Australia and Bordeaux at Chateau Leoville-Barton).

Philip Togni (British born) was trained in geology but became more intrigued by wine after a visit to Jerez while on leave from working at Shell Petroleum. He applied to wine school in Montpellier, France, and went there before heading north to Bordeaux to enroll at the local university under Emile Peynaud, the great French enologist. While in school, he worked as assistant winemaker at Château Lascombes, eventually making the 1956 vintage.

Togni followed a journeyman's career, working his way through several other wine regions, including Chile and California. He made the wine at Mayacamas in 1959; became the founding winemaker for Chalone; worked at Inglenook for a year; and then was hired by then-recent Napa Valley arriviste Donn Chappellet, who had acquired land on Pritchard Hill above Rutherford. At Chappellet, he made the wines from 1968 through 1973, and later moved to Cuvaison, where he was the winemaker from 1975 to 1981. While still employed at Cuvaison, he and his wife Birgitta found 25 acres on Spring Mountain, a spot abandoned during Prohibition, in the northwest part of Napa Valley near St. Helena. Initially, they called it home, but in 1981 they began to plant vines. Philip's and Brigitta's first harvest came in 1983.

The small ten-acre vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (82%), Merlot (15%), Cabernet Franc (2%), and Petit Verdot (1%). Togni produces an ageworthy Bordeaux-style blend from these varieties, and true to Bordeaux fashion, he fashions a second wine, Tanbark Hill, from a 3 1/2-acre parcel of younger vines. All fruit is matured for 20 months in 40% new French oak, at which point selected lots are blended into each wine. Production runs about 2,000 cases. Togni also makes Ca' Togni, a sweet red wine inspired by his fondness for Constantia, South Africa's great sweet wine. Made from Black Hamburgh, it's the only one plot known in Napa County. Annual production rarely exceeds a single barrel of 500 half bottles.

Like the traditionally styled California wines of the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, Philip Togni's tightly-knit Cabernets are slow to develop. Nevertheless, the 2014 vintage is a stunner; with patience and time, they unfurl and reward with majestic expressions of Napa Valley's history and terroir. -Jonas Mendoza

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