Beringer – a piece of California wine history

Beringer is a place to visit for a piece of California winemaking history. Pictured above: the beautiful Rhine House.

“Over two million Germans came to the United States between 1868 and 1888, more than five times the number of Italians. […] There were not many of this huge number who came to Napa Valley, but those who did had a profound effect on society here”, writes Charles Sullivan, a wine historian, in his ‘Napa Wine: a History’ book.

The Beringer brothers, Jacob and Frederick, were among those Germans. Jacob had worked at wineries and cooperages in German Mainz and was the first of the brothers to move to California from New York in 1869. He got a job as a foreman at another German winery in Napa, Charles Krug, while dreaming of his own estate. Not before long, in 1875, he and his brother were able to pay $14,500 for their own 97-acre property across from Charles Krug.

The brothers had an obvious business talent. In just two years, Jacob excavated spacious limestone ageing tunnels under Spring Mountain with the help of Chinese workers, and could produce 40,000 gallons of wine (counted in modern bottles, it’s handsome 202,000). A year later, he further expanded the caves and increased the production to 100,000 gallons.

Beringer cave in Napa Valley

The caves still exist today, though they haven’t been used for production since 1979. They are open for visits, as is the beautiful Victorian Rhine House.

The Rhine House was brother Frederick’s contribution to the property. He joined Jacob in 1884 and helped expand the company business thanks to strong connections in the East Coast.

The brothers weathered the phylloxera epidemic at the end of the 19th century, and replanted the vineyards. Frederick died in 1901, and Jacob in 1915.

“Unlike most Napa wineries Beringer stayed in family hands through Prohibition, Repeal, World War II”, narrates Charles Sullivan. The winery was considered to be one of the Big Five Napa Valley wineries in 1950s, along with Beaulieu, Inglenook, Louis Martini, and Charles Krug.

In the 1960s, Beringer was losing its focus and glow and, as some commentators have said, was lacking resources to meet the demands of modern winemaking. In 1970, the family sold the winery to Swiss Nestlé, which managed the operations until 1995. A succession of corporate ownerships followed, until in 2011 it became part of Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates.

In 2015, the family connection was re-established when Mark Beringer, a direct descendant of Jacob, was hired as chief winemaker.

Beringer, Napa Valley, the Rhine House, stained glass
Beautiful stained glass windows in the Rhine House

Today Beringer Brothers Winery is on the National Register of Historic Places and on the list of California Historical Landmarks, specifically for “the unique distinction of never having ceased operations since its founding in 1876.” The Rhine House displays original stained glass windows and woodwork.

I wish my ‘Taste of Beringer’ tour of the estate provided more historical information and colorful details – instead, I read a book. Beringer history would have been far more interesting, in my opinion, than talking about grape varieties or learning how to taste wine – something any winery in Napa Valley can do. Beringer has such a unique story and it’s a shame to not hear it while touring its historic cave or the beautiful Victorian building.

The tasting at the Rhine House, which was part of our tour, was meant to be an educational wine and food activity. We tasted three wines alongside a wedge of lemon, a pinch of salt, a table grape, and a sweet candy. The idea was to see how salty, tart or sweet foods changed the perception of wines.

We tasted a white, a red, and a dessert wine made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes sprayed (!) with Botrytis spores after picking.

The white, 2013 Private Reserve Chardonnay, was a big, round Californian Chardonnay with fruity (lemon, cantaloupe) and floral aromas, along with buttery, yeasty and vanilla notes. The wine was barrel-fermented and spent 7 months on the lees in French oak barrels.

The red, 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, had a complex bouquet of raspberry, blueberry jam, cocoa, prune liquor, and cinnamon stick and tasted a little young and tannic.

Address: 2000 Main Street St. Helena. Opening hours 10:00 am – 5:00 pm. A variety of tastings and tours are offered, ranging from $25 to  $175.