French Impression: The Wines of Philip Togni
The wines of Napa’s legendary Philip Togni.
By Louis Marmon
Washington DC Examiner November 9, 2010
It is likely that you have never heard of Philip Togni. Yet he is responsible for some of the world’s most exquisitely flavored and beautifully structured wines since he began working in California over 50 years ago. And Togni (pronounced Tonne-yee) is still at it, working alongside his daughter Lisa at his eponymous winery located at an unmarked property near the summit of Napa’s Spring Mountain.
Togni’s journey into winemaking began in 1946 at England’s Imperial College, where he studied petroleum geology. While traveling in Spain, a fellow student introduced him to wine that caused his life to “end up a bit less deeply in the ground.” Rather fortuitously, he met Manuel Gonzalez, the scion of a sherry producing family who was at the time the only Spaniard to have visited UC Davis. Gonzalez introduced him to the noted American oenologist Dr. Maynard Amerine, who recommended that Togni study winemaking at the School of Montpellier. After a year, Togni was off to make wine in Algeria (in the middle of their Civil War) and eventually Amerine got him a position with Alexis Lichine at Bordeaux’s Chateau Lascombes. He worked a few vintages in France while simultaneously completing his degree at the University of Bordeaux under the legendary Emile Peynaud.
A sojourn in Chile led to California, where he made the 1959 vintage of Mayacamas. His next step was to the wilds of Monterey to create wines for Chalone Vineyard, followed by a stint with Gallo, and then Ingelnook, until heading to Napa’s Chappellet for 6 vintages and then to Cuvaison for 8 more. During those last 15 years, Togni’s wines became renowned for their depth, complexity and harmonious flavors.
In the late 1970s, Togni and his wife Birgitta bought an old vineyard property on Spring Mountain. They planted their own grapes in 1981, releasing their first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1983. They initially also made a Sauvignon Blanc, but are now only creating a Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Petit Verdot blend as well as a unique sweet red dessert wine called Ca’Togni.
Based upon Togni’s very French winemaking foundation, the Margaux-style red wine is understandable. But where does the sweet wine come from? “I was hitchhiking back home from Venice with a 2-liter flask of a sweet Muscat wine in my backpack,” he recalled, “Eating salami and thinking that nothing could match better than this. When we were planting out our vineyard we had room for 39 vines in a small triangle at the edge of the property. I remembered my hitchhiking Muscat and decided to make a wine like the great South African sweet wine Constantia. I was fortunate enough to find some Black Hamburgh Muscat and it is doing very well for us up here.” Ca’Togni spends one year in barrel and Togni says “it is best after 4 years in bottle with a characteristic rose-petal aroma. After that, it loses some of its freshness but it is still very good. But different from when young.”
Togni’s wines are known for their restraint and seem more “old-world” rather than California in origin. “That is not an accident,” he said, “I worked at Lacombes and follow that style. We pick reasonably late, blend deliberately and age exclusively in French oak with 40% new barrels each year.” Togni averages 2,000 cases of Cabernet blend annually, but “there will be a bit less for ’08. We will be lucky to get 1,600.” The Ca’Togni is even more limited with around 1,200 half-bottles per year.
Togni ships his flagship wine without bottle age and recommends that “it will need several years. It is designed to be a long-lived claret.” Their second label, Tanbark Hill, is named for a location of their property that grew trees whose bark was used for tanning hides. “We taste each barrel and select the ones that we think have longevity versus the ones that are more accessible with more immediate charm. Tanbark Hill is our ‘restaurant wine.'”
Togni says that they never pressured their daughter to make wine. “Lisa was a history major and got her MBA. I expected her to be a world traveler, not a winemaker.” She was doing importing work in San Francisco for Boisset, the French winemaking firm, and came home one day and told her parents “she would like to join us.” Based on the continued success of the recent wines, the arrangement has been good for them. “Lisa worked 2 vintages in Australia and came home with some “good down-to-earth ideas like solar panels and air-conditioning.” But what really impressed Togni was what Lisa said after she spent some time at the Bordeaux second-growth property at Leoville-Barton: “making wine in California is a way of life, but in France it is a religion.”