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History and progress: Freemark Abbey’s balancing act

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For this classic Napa Valley Cabernet house, preserving a legacy means embracing the progress that lives at the heart of its history.

With 135 years of history in the Napa Valley, it would be easy for Freemark Abbey to rest on its laurels. Few estates can measure the winery’s distance in years while preserving the same consistency of style and quality. But “nature doesn’t stand still and neither does our winemaking,” says Freemark Abbey’s head winemaker Kristy Melton.

Following the 40-year tenure of winemaker emeritus Ted Edwards, Melton is only the eighth winemaker in the estate’s history. The original winery was established in 1886 by California’s first female vintner, Josephine Tychson, and emerged from Prohibition as a benchmark for classically styled Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in the Napa Valley.

Kristy Melton, Freemark Abbey’s head winemaker

“People recognize Freemark Abbey as historic, but don’t always see the progress,” says Melton. In the 1970s, the winery was one of the first in the Napa Valley to open a tasting room, establish a wine library, and experiment with single varietal wines. Global awareness of Freemark Abbey’s leadership in the region garnered the winery an invitation to the 1976 Judgement of Paris, making it one of only 12 producers invited to participate, and notably the only one invited to submit both a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon.

“What we were known for in the 1930s is still true today and that is rare,” says Melton, speaking of the consistency and reliability of the winery’s reputation for quality. Unlike many of its historic counterparts, whose styles have varied through changes in winemaking and ownership, Freemark Abbey has persevered and remained true to itself. “There’s a sense of timelessness in what the Freemark Abbey name stands for,” says Melton, “but we must constantly be learning and that’s where I find the greatest inspiration.”

As a custodian of the legacy, Melton says change at Freemark Abbey is gradual and methodical with deference to history. Her approach is forward-thinking without losing sight of what Freemark Abbey is known for: enduring quality. “There’s 135 years of history riding on the decisions I make every day, so I take it very seriously,” says Melton, acknowledging the weight of her choices. “At the same time, there’s always room to push the boundaries, and experimentation is at the heart and soul of winemaking.”

For Melton, the path forward is a vision for quality that pursues the “truest expression” of Freemark Abbey. The approach means embracing the history of the style by digging deeper into the beauty of the estate’s existing vineyards, namely the iconic Sycamore and Bosché plots, while celebrating its identity as a pioneer by continuously seeking new sites.

Bosché vineyard

The estate’s longevity is built upon the perseverance of those who came before her. “When I think of all the people who passed through these doors in 135 years, the goal every day is to make them proud,” says Melton. “We form part of a collective history and share a dream to ensure the legacy persists for the next two-hundred years.”

Discover more about Freemark Abbey here

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