Sitting at a shaded picnic table on the edge of Julie Johnson’s estate vineyard on an early September morning, I can feel the temperature rising, smell the late-summer dust in the air and hear a symphony of birds and bugs. All in all, it’s a pretty idyllic scene...until she tells this story:
“We had a rattlesnake under our couch the other day. We have open doors, because the dogs go in and out throughout the day, but this was startling! I mean, I’ve heard about rattlesnakes on doorsteps—especially from my friends who live up the Stag’s Leap area—and I guess we should expect it. But my husband [Jon Engelskirger, former winemaker for Turnbull Wine Cellars] and I both decided that’s not something we’d like to repeat.”
Looking around again, I’m suddenly struck by just how pastoral the setting is. In addition to the acres of vines and the giant olive, oak and walnut trees, Johnson points out pomegranates, Meyer lemons, various sages and roses, echinacea, buckwheat and a number of other peripheral plantings, all intended to draw in “beneficial” insects and native critters. (And hey: What’s that rustling under the bushes?! Phew—a lizard.)
“We’ve been certified organic since 1990,” says Johnson. “I think we were one of the very first to be certified in Napa County. Last year, I took over vineyard management, because I really wanted to do more to farm by the lunar calendar. I’m very committed to habitat and biodiversity.
“I’m moving toward what feels right for this farm,” she continues. “To me, that means continuing to work to make it as self-sustaining as possible. One of my goals is to have year-round crops—or at least year-round plantings—that keep the bugs here. No self-respecting spider is going to crawl across something that looks like a dinner plate! And yet the spiders, as nocturnal predators, are vital to the system. I feel, in the end, all of that work contributes to the health of the vines.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Tres Sabores story has its roots at another Napa winery known for its environmental consciousness. “My first husband and I started Frog’s Leap in 1981,” says Johnson. “We bought this ranch in 1987—the vines had been planted in 1972—and, back then, all the grapes went to Frog’s Leap.
“In 1999, I decided I was interested in taking the vineyard away from being part of a blend and seeing what it could be on its own. At the same time, I was really interested in doing something that hadn’t been done before.
“I came up with this crazy idea to hire three winemakers, Rudy Zuidema, Ken Bernards and Karen Culler. Then I divided the Zinfandel part of the vineyard into three parcels and gave each of them carte blanche to go ahead and make their own Cuvée. I called it, ‘the Tres Sabores project.’ The idea was to see what the potential was. So for several years, I had three Cuvées in three separate bottlings.
“‘Tres Sabores’ means ‘three savory flavors,’ but the double-meaning was that I had three winemakers as well. It’s really the taste of the terroir and the taste of the vine, and then it’s what the winemaker brings to it—their personal style and taste.”
In 2003, the three separate parcels were combined to a single Zinfandel, and in 2004, Johnson, a public health nurse who practiced in the Napa Valley during the early 1980s and had fallen into the wine industry by happenstance, became one-third of the winemaking team. “By then, Jon and I had married,” she says, “and he was encouraging me to make wine. I’d started making a Cabernet Sauvignon from here in 2001, and I was also making a small amount of Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot. Now I make everything. It continues to be a very steep learning curve!”
Despite her obvious enthusiasm, Johnson’s winemaking foray almost ended with the Vallejo wine warehouse fire. “I lost a vintage and a half—and all my library,” she remembers. “I had saved enough wine to offer cases of the three winemakers’ Cuvées over four years to special customers, so it was a horizontal-vertical. But that was all lost.”
Johnson salvaged what she could by creating the Tres Sabores 2004 Fire Roasted Zinfandel Sauce, a hearty meat marinade and glaze available in limited quantities through the Tres Sabores website. “I had to do something,” she says. “Many wineries lost their production entirely—and there are a lot of wineries you’ll never hear of because they never got going.”
Having survived the devastation, Johnson became even more determined to succeed in her vineyard and winemaking venture. It helps when you can learn from the best. Zuidema, Bernards, Culler and Ashley Heisey (who briefly stepped into Bernards’ slot in the original trio) are certainly no slouches, as Johnson is quick to point out. And now Engelskirger will join his wife in the cellar this harvest, as he begins to carve a new niche as a consulting winemaker (as JonEVino). “Now we get to work in partnership,” Johnson enthuses. “Until now, Tres Sabores has mainly just been my pursuit. But when you have a winemaker husband, you always have someone who’s willing to taste or look over your shoulder.
“I’m looking forward to having him in the cellar. He’s already making a little bit of wine for some of his clients here, and we co-make the Sauvignon Blanc.”
In addition to Sonoma Mountain Sauvignon Blanc, Tres Sabores now produces estate Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon (called Rutherford Perspective), as well as a delightful Zin/Cab/Petite Sirah/Petit Verdot blend called ¿Porqué No? (which translates to “Why not?”). Johnson has also begun sourcing grapes from Zinfandel and Cabernet vineyards near Calistoga.
But Johnson’s heart, it seems, remains where Tres Sabores started. “I’ve just departed from the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers [ZAP] board. I got to the point where I was president for a little while and on the board for quite a while. But now it’s time to work on this [she gestures to the vineyards] for a while.
“They used to say Sauvignon Blanc was a grape for all seasons—and all seasonings—but I think Zinfandel really is. It’s so bright and lively, and it has the ability to go with such a great variety of food, depending on the style of Zin.”
Tres Sabores is open to the public by appointment only, but Johnson is a truly gracious hostess who’s eager to welcome visitors. Her small crushpad and wine cave facility even includes a small guest room (you’ll have to ask her the details about staying). She’s particularly happy when the guests do more than taste the wine. “Many people bring picnic lunches,” she says, “which is the best, because quite often people taste wine out of context. Really, it’s all about the full experience. We’re all members of the Living Club, and wine is so much a part of that.”
Ultimately, she says, it’s all about bringing people together and making connections: “I like the idea of bringing someone here and putting a glass of wine in their hand that came from these vines that they can reach out and touch. When they’re standing in the vineyard, there’s a connectivity I can’t really explain.
“But I think that’s what keeps us going: that there’s always another glass of wine to be poured.”
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