It’s hard to start a conversation about the long history of Freemark Abbey, which began in the 19th century, without skipping ahead to The Judgment of Paris.
That momentous occasion in 1976 helped put California wine on an international stage of recognition when its wines were included in a blind tasting competition against several top red Bordeaux and white Burgundy producers. In fact, Freemark Abbey was the only California winery to have both a white wine and a red wine in the competition.
Along with bottles from ten other California wineries, Freemark Abbey wines were selected for the French-judged tasting by its organizer, the English wine merchant Steven Spurrier. When the results were in, the 1972 Freemark Chardonnay placed ahead of both grand cru and premier cru Burgundy Chardonnays. And Napa Valley reds and white finished a shocking first place in each category.
The rest, as they say, is history. But there was plenty of history that led up to that Paris tasting in the 70s.
Familiar Names, Even Today
Over a century earlier, in the years during and after the Civil War, a handful of winery names that are familiar today in Napa Valley—Charles Krug, Schramsberg, Inglenook, and Beringer—had become established producers in the valley.
The decade of the 1880s saw an increasing number of wineries constructed up and down Napa Valley, including Tychson Cellars, an estate a few miles north of St. Helena. Josephine Tychson, a single-minded, young woman from Philadelphia who had migrated west with her family a few years earlier, was the first woman to own and operate a viticultural estate in California.
Phylloxera forced her to sell the vineyard and cellar in 1894, which soon passed to an Italian immigrant, Antonio Forni. He renamed the estate Lombarda Cellars after his home region in Italy. Forni, in a sense, completed what was likely Josephine’s vision for the property by constructing a winery out of hand-hewn stones from a nearby quarry.
With The Judgment of Paris still more than 75 years away, the groundwork was laid for what thrives today as Freemark Abbey’s Historic Tasting Room and winery.
A St. Helena Tasting Room
At the onset of Prohibition in 1929, the successful Forni was forced to cease Lombarda Cellars’ operations, except for the production of sacramental wine for the Catholic Church. Josephine, in the meantime, had moved to a little white house across the road from the stone winery and was often seen riding her horse around the estate.
Forni, who never fully recovered from Prohibition, sold the winery and vineyard to three southern California real estate developers, Charles Freeman, Mark Foster, and Abbey Ahern, in 1939. The partners combined parts of each of their names to form “Freemark Abbey,” the name of the property ever since. Through the 1940s and 50s, until Ahern’s death in 1959, Freemark Abbey was an established winery in the valley, attracting visitors to an early St. Helena tasting room, which they called a “sampling room.”
Napa Valley Cabernet: a Bookend
The lights at Freemark Abbey went out in 1959—and stayed out until 1966. That year, a new partnership of seven businessmen led by Charles “Chuck” Carpy, purchased the old Freemark Abbey property and immediately ramped up both its production and reputation, via its Napa Valley Cabernet. The partners’ first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon, the ’67, is a prized museum piece today in the Freemark Abbey wine library.
Just two vintages later, another legendary Freemark Abbey wine would come along: the ’69 Cabernet Sauvignon that Steven Spurrier eventually selected as part of his California lineup to take on the grands vins of Bordeaux in Paris in 1976.
In a century bookended by the arrival of Josephine Tychson in St. Helena and the arrival of California wine on an international stage at The Judgment of Paris—followed soon thereafter by the arrival of a young assistant winemaker named Ted Edwards— Freemark Abbey has been party to its share of Napa Valley history. Going strong at 135 years, there’s lots more of it to be written.