Napa Valley History: The Trefethen Family & Their Historic Winery

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Constructed in 1886 by a Scottish sea captain, Hamden McIntyre, the Trefethen Family winery was originally known as Eshcol. McIntyre designed it as a gravity-flow system: a horse-drawn winch brought grapes to the third floor of the three-story structure for crushing; gravity carried the juice to the second floor for fermenting; and, eventually, the wine descended to the first floor for aging. Eshcol was among a number of wineries McIntyre designed during this period; the others were Greystone (now The Culinary Institute of America), Far Niente and Inglenook.

Villa Trefethen

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Napa Valley was a thriving viticultural community with nearly 140 wineries. However, in the late 1890s, phylloxera, a root louse that destroys grapevines, brought wine production in Napa to a crashing halt. Growers soon recovered with re-planted vines, but in 1920, Prohibition arrived, driving a stake through the heart of the wine business. The old Eshcol facility survived by making sacramental wines, but by 1940 was dormant. When the Trefethen family purchased the property in 1968, the winery had fallen into serious disrepair. John and Janet Trefethen committed themselves to restoring the building to its former glory.

They carefully researched the winery’s past and worked for years to restore it. Aside from replacing the dirt floor on the first level with concrete, they made no significant structural changes. The Trefethens’ restoration efforts were recognized in 1988 by the Department of the Interior, which placed the winery on the National Register of Historic Places as the only 19th-century, wooden, gravity-flow winery surviving in Napa County.

Sadly, the building was damaged by the 2014 earthquake and is currently closed to the public. It is expected to re-open in May 2017, after a full restoration. While under renovation, the family is now welcoming guests in the Villa Trefethen.  This former residence built in the early 1900s is surrounded by beautiful gardens and is a gorgeous example of the Arts and Crafts Movement in California. 

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A tasting at Trefethen