Life and Wine Done Right

Koerner Rombauer

Readers of Good Vitis know that I’m a fan of Rombauer Vineyards in Napa Valley. I’ve written glowing things about the wine and the winemaker, yet I’ve not written about the man, the visionary, behind the business: Koerner Rombauer. I never had a chance to meet him prior to his death earlier this month at the age of 83, which comes as a great disappointment knowing what I know about him through the grapevine. The major publications have written stories about him in the last week, and I have nothing to add to those other than my appreciation for the winery he created, the way he enabled his talented staff to make great wine, and the philanthropic penchant that ran through his veins.

The most direct knowledge I have of Rombauer comes from his winemaker, Richie Allen. I’ve spoken with Richie a number of times over the last year, and several times he referred to his gratitude for the enormous support Rombauer gave Richie and his team to make better wine year after year. I tried to capture this support in a post from last summer called “Doing big things quietly: Rombauer delivers” in which I wrote that “I’ve come to understand that (nearly) no cost is too much to improve quality for the Rombauer family.” Richie is obsessed with improving quality in the vineyards and winery, and the zeal with which he offers evidence of that obsession, and the magnitude of evidence, are unmatched by any other winemaker I’ve met. It takes an owner of at least equal enthusiasm, and not a small amount of trust and vision, to enable Richie to do all that he’s done, and I got the feeling that more than a few times Rombauer said yes to a Richie hunch when other owners would’ve said no. We, the consumers, are the beneficiaries.

The other aspect of Rombauer that I’ve always admired is his philanthropy. It’s one thing to give to charity, and Americans do that in globally high numbers. But Koerner was a real philanthropist, not just giving to charity but starting his own as well. As someone who deals a good bit with philanthropy, the magnitude and breadth of Rombauer’s work is impressive. I joke with people that “you don’t get into winemaking to make money,” but some end up making a good amount, and Rombauer was one of them. Yet, to turn around and give a good chunk of it away, while relying on the low margin and inconsistent revenue source that is wine, is admirable. That he was able to give millions of dollars made in the wine production away suggests he was a very good businessman as well.

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Wine has a way of finding great people and then captivating them for the remainder of their life. We’ve lost one of those in Rombauer, and his passing was sad news for me. Thankfully, his spirit and passion live on through his winery. It’s that love of life that Kayce and I toast tonight with a bottle of Rombauer Proprietor Selection chardonnay, which has a special place in our relationship as a wine that early on paralleled the spirit and passion we share for each other and the life we’re making together.

From the Rombauer website:

KOERNER ROMBAUER, FOUNDER OF ROMBAUER VINEYARDS, PASSES AWAY AT 83

Napa Valley, California, May 17, 2018 —- Koerner Rombauer, the founder of Rombauer Vineyards and a beloved figure in the Napa Valley over the last four decades, died on May 10. He was 83.

Koerner is survived by his wife, Sandy, children Sheana Rombauer and K.R. Rombauer III, grandchildren Reagan, Drew, Seth, Lane, Ransome and sister Kay Thornton.

Koerner was born and raised in Escondido, California where he married Joan Ransome, his wife of 43 years. He served in the California Air National Guard as a pilot from 1956 to 1965, beginning his lifelong love of flying. Koerner and Joan had two children, Sheana and KR, who were born in Escondido and then later moved to Texas where Koerner began his commercial airline pilot career flying for Braniff International Airways in 1965.

The family relocated to the Napa Valley in 1972 where they settled in a hilltop property north of St. Helena on the Silverado Trail. In between his commitments with Braniff, Koerner began spending time learning about winemaking at Conn Creek Winery. In 1980 they founded Rombauer Vineyards. They harvested their first grapes—-Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District—-in 1980 followed by their first vintage of Chardonnay in 1982. Joan died of pancreatic cancer after a three-year battle in 2002.

Rombauer wines, especially the Chardonnay, are beloved around the world. Such uncommon affection from the public grew partly out of Koerner’s outgoing personality, his contagious sense of pleasure for wine and gusto. Koerner was the kind of person you could recognize from a mile away. There would be no mistaking his optimistic and sunny personality, and the confidence and pride with which he wore his signature stars and stripes jacket. He was red, white and blue, through and through. From the time he first came to Napa as a commercial pilot, he would always share his personal love of life in everything he did. His habit of including everyone around him in his enjoyment carried through into a passion for the Napa Valley, and became one of the cornerstones of Rombauer Vineyards.

The connection with the legacy of his great-aunt, Irma Rombauer, and her American classic, The Joy of Cooking, often provided Koerner with an introduction to his customers and accounts. He explains that Joy, as the book is affectionately known around Rombauer Vineyards, helped him be perceived as someone with whom people were already familiar; he wasn’t a stranger, he was Irma’s grand-nephew. This emphasis on helping people feel at ease and like family is no small detail. It sums up the way he lived his life. The sense of graciousness and hospitality infused his decisions and his vision and became synonymous with the Rombauer Vineyards style—distinctive and inviting.

Koerner was known as an extremely generous philanthropist. Before Joan passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2002, they started the Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at University of California, San Francisco. The Rombauer Family has continued to be involved in fighting cancer and in 2010 established a $4 million endowment, the Joan Rombauer UCSF Endowed Fellowship. Other causes he supported included V Foundation for Cancer Research, Collabria Care (formerly known as Napa Valley Hospice and Adult Day Services), Napa Valley Land Trust and the St. Helena Montessori School.

Koerner’s community involvement has included serving on the boards of Napa Airport Advisory Board Committee and Tower Road Co-Op as well as being the 2011 Auction Napa Valley Chair. He was a long-time supporter of the St. Helena High School FFA and Agriculture Program and a recurring purchaser of livestock at the Napa Town and Country Fair.  For many years, Koerner was a familiar face at the Calistoga Fourth of July parade driving Congressman Mike Thompson.

His love for flying took him many places, allowing him to share his passion for life and generous spirit with countless people.  When Koerner was once asked to explain why both flying airplanes and making wine were so important to him, he answered that “Flying and winemaking are both mystical, magical things. The magic of flying is that it allows you to leave behind all that binds you to the earth. The magic of winemaking is that you create something with your own hands, from your own piece of earth, that lasts for years. If you turn out a wine that can score the highest points, or highest bid, it’s like breaking out at minimums, right over the runway numbers, knowing you’ve nailed the approach.”

Memorial church services will be held at 11:00 a.m. on June 5 at Grace Church in St. Helena, followed by a public Celebration of Life from 12:00 until 4:00 p.m. at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Interment will be private.

The family suggests donations can be made in Koerner’s honor to Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at the University of California, San Francisco, V Foundation for Cancer Research or Collabria Care. Details: https://www.rombauer.com/memorial-donations/.

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