The first Rombauer Vineyards wines were a 1980 cabernet sauvignon and a 1982 chardonnay, bottled in Koerner and Joan Rombauer’s garage in St. Helena, California, a small town in the center of Napa Valley. Koerner had been a commercial airline pilot until he and Joan decided to start a family business. The mid-size winery is now 40 years old, and their granddaughter, Reagan Rombauer, says her grandparents’ working-class ethos underlies many of the company’s business decisions.
“Our family has never believed in living lavishly,” says the 30-year-old associate brand manager for Rombauer Vineyards. “We don’t own yachts or chateaus in France. We believe in investing the money back into the business. We’re known for our consistency, vintage to vintage, which is hard when you’re relying on Mother Nature.”
The Rombauers started small and expanded only when they could afford it, purchasing vineyards and increasing their varietals. Rombauer’s mother and uncle run the company now, and she’s the first member of the third generation to work there.
“When I was little, my mom would have me sleeping under her desk when she was working. Growing up, you get some secondhand exposure, you understand about harvest, but you learn more about the business side than the wine. When other girls were saying they wanted to be a vet or a princess [when they grew up], I would say I wanted to be a businesswoman.”
Rombauer spends much of her time traveling to wine festivals and wine dinners, making one-on-one contacts and encouraging wine lovers to continually expand their palates. She’ll be in Santa Fe for the 30th Annual Wine & Chile Fiesta Wednesday, Sept. 22, through Sunday, Sept. 26. Rombauer Vineyards is the honoree of the year. Rombauer leads a seminar about the vineyard’s varietals on Thursday, Sept. 23.
She talked to Pasatiempo about the history of the vineyard and family business, as well as some wine basics.
Pasatiempo: What was it like to grow up in Napa Valley?
Reagan Rombauer: I grew up running around the winery. My mom would take us on what she called “field trip days.” She would take us out of school, and we would get to help out with harvest for the day and ride around on the tractor with my grandfather. So, I grew up with it, but I didn’t really totally understand it until I got out and saw the world and saw how special and cool it was.
Pasa: It sounds like your year was tied to the growing and harvest seasons.
R.R.: In Napa Valley, everybody’s year runs around the wineries, whether it’s harvest or tourist season in the summer. Everybody knows when it’s harvest, when the trucks are coming through and the air just smells of it. We have a big harvest festival in town, as it is with many agricultural communities that really follow the seasons.
Pasa: What brought you to your position at the company?
R.R.: With our family, we’re not allowed to show up after high school or college graduation and start collecting a check. We have to go do other things. It’s only when you have a certain level of experience and can bring something back to the business that you can have the opportunity. I went to school at Boise State [University] and graduated with a business degree, then worked in project management for a government contractor. I ended up in Las Vegas in real estate. It was a slightly flexible career and opened the door to my family asking me to do events and dinners for them. Eventually, I told them I needed to focus on one thing or the other, and they hired me full time. It’s been four years now.
Pasa: What was the first wine you ever tasted?
R.R.: [When we were kids] on very, very special occasions, you would get a little watered-down Rombauer chardonnay. My first “ah-ha” moment with a wine pairing was Thai food with a really good Riesling, shortly after I turned 21. I don’t remember the brand.
Pasa: How has the business fared during the pandemic?
R.R.: We have enough of a presence in retail [to survive]. Wineries that rely solely on people coming to their tasting rooms to sell wines or wineries that only sell to restaurants had a much tougher time. We were in outlets where people were shopping anyway. We made it through pretty well, but the fires had an impact.
Pasa: Did you suffer any damage?
R.R.: We’re on a hillside in St. Helena. The fire burnt all the way around. There was lots of damage and cleanup, but all of our buildings were saved. We’re very grateful to the firefighters.
Pasa: Did the vineyards burn?
R.R.: Because the vineyards are green and alive, and you water them, they act as natural fire blocks. Maybe an outside row gets burned, or the waterlines get burned. The fire will burn plastic before they burn vines.
Pasa: Has climate change affected the vineyards?
R.R.: Some years it feels so much drier than in the past, but you look back and see drought years and rainy years. We have noticed a trend of harvest starting a teensy bit earlier every year. But we’re thinking long term, taking care of the lands and the vineyards, so we can pass them down generation to generation. We have special drip-line systems that water only where it’s needed. When the fruit comes into the winery, the typical process would be using water with chemicals in it to clean your lines, your intakes, and your barrels. We use steam. It uses less water, you don’t need chemicals, and it’s more sanitary. The industry average is about six to 14 gallons of water to make a gallon of wine. We use about 2.4 gallons. Our goal is to be 1-to-1.
Pasa: Rombauer is known for making very consistent wines. Is there pressure to change things up?
R.R.: Our newest varietal that we added, in 2014, is sauvignon blanc. That’s quickly grown into our third-most-popular varietal, after chardonnay and zinfandel. Our philosophy is to take the best care of the grapes. If you have the best quality of fruit, then when you bring it in, you can do the least to it. We want to understand it on the vine and, when it comes in, have the softest touch.
Reagan Rombauer answers questions for wine newbies
Specialized wineglasses: Necessary or nonsense?
They actually make a really big difference in the aromas you can get out of the wine, because of the shape of the glass, and they’re designed to drop the wine at the optimized part of your palate. But I find myself packing those glasses away, bringing them out for special occasions. Wine tastes great out of day-to-day glasses. The bigger thing is making sure your glass doesn’t have any sort of residue in it. Giving it a light rinse first, with water and unscented soap, will help you fully enjoy the taste and smell of your wine.
Merlot: Versatile or boring?
In the 1990s, merlot was an extremely popular varietal. Wines go in and out of trend, and what happens when anything gets popular is that too many people start making it. People were making very bad merlots, planting vines in the wrong climates, and the varietal got labeled a junk wine. It started going out of style at the same time the movie Sideways  came out. People love to call that movie the downfall of merlot, but it was already happening. The movie jumped on the trend of people bashing the varietal. Our merlot is a beautiful, medium-bodied wine that’s extremely food-friendly. It’s more versatile than a big, bold cabernet, and you can buy a better-quality merlot than a cabernet at certain price points.
Shelf-life: How long can you keep an open bottle of wine?
You can refrigerate white wine once it’s opened, but the more aromatic it is, the faster you’re going to notice it losing a little something. Sometimes red wines taste better the next day. I prefer a three-day window for drinking wine, but you can go up to a week. There are different enclosures you can use to preserve a bottle, like a Coravin [wine aerator]. That’s a great option for higher-end bottles where you might want to have a glass and then keep it for a few weeks.
Cost: What’s the minimum price for a good bottle of wine?
There’s no real rule. If I’m looking at a list, I’m not going to get the least expensive or the most expensive. Over $25 is what the industry considers the premium category for wines, but that varies for every varietal. For cabernets, $60 is a more average price point. It also depends on which region the wine comes from. Different regions have different price points. But you can have a $5 bottle that you like as an everyday wine and a $25 bottle once a year. Other people, $25 might be their everyday price point. We just want people to find wines they enjoy and keep trying new things.
Winemaking: Science or art?
It’s a balance between science and art. There’s lots of testing you can do — testing sugars, color accumulation, water neutron probes in the vineyards, aerial mapping so that you understand if a particular vine needs more water or more shade, whereas the vine next to it needs less of that. Each vine can get taken care of and treated separately. All of that information is compiled and used, but at the end of the day, it’s the winemakers in the vineyards, tasting the grapes the week leading up to harvest. There’s a gut instinct that it takes to make the call if that’s the best the fruit’s going to get that year.