A most remarkable thing happened during my August visit to Philip Togni Vineyard on Spring Mountain Rd. not far from the western border of Napa County.
“Buona sera!” exclaimed dottor Togni when a Slow Wine editor stepped out of his truck.
“Buona sera,” replied said editor. “Come sta?”
“Bene, grazie. Benvenuto!” answered the iconic St. Helena grape grower and winemaker, whose family produces one of Napa Valley’s most coveted wines.
It should have come as no surprise: before settling with his family in the mountains to the west of St. Helena, the polyglot Philip Togni studied winemaking and made wine all over the world, including France, Chile, and Algeria. He had already mastered many languages before reaching California in the 1970s. But it was his Ticinese heritage that prompted him to study the language of Dante at Napa Valley College, he told the editor — in impeccable, seamless Italian.
(See Frank Prial’s wonderful 1990 profile of Togni for the Times.)
Over the course of our late afternoon visit, dottor Togni and I spoke almost exclusively in Italian.
But when it was time for a walk around the vineyard and tasting, his daughter Lisa, the current winemaker, switched to English as our lingua franca.
After three seasons of working with the Slow Wine guide, I’ve had the chance to experience their extraordinary wines on a number of occasions. And I have to say, they entirely reshaped my understanding of what Napa Valley can be.
They only make two Philip Togni wines: an “ageworthy Margaux-type” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, their flagship; and a sweet wine made from Black Hamburgh, a rare table grape evidently not found elsewhere in Napa. Wines not deemed worthy of their top label are sold under a separate label.
There are few wines from Napa that achieve the elegance, balance, and clarity of the Philip Togni blend, made from the same vineyard each year. As for many Napa icons, Bordeaux is clearly the model, as they acknowledge. But the freshness and the vibrant acidity of the wines make them stand apart from the crowded field of predictable valley floor offerings.
Some would ascribe the brilliance and deliciousness of the wine to the altitude and exposure of the site. But when you stroll through the vines, planted on rocky volcanic-origin soils and surrounded by forest and wildlife (not far from the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, where some of California’s most inland redwoods breathe), you begin to wrap your mind around what an exceptional site this is.
The gently spicy oak was present but very much in balance on the 2016 Philip Togni poured me in their cellar. It had been open for two days, she said, and the slightly underripe red and black fruit was showing gorgeously.
In another era, a less experienced taster might have dismissed this wine because of the presence of oak. After all, many young wine trade observers still believe — wrongly — that oak is by its very nature “bad.” In fact, oak aging, in the classic French style, is what gives this wine its extreme finesse without compromising its lean character.
Sadly for me, the wines land above my price ceiling and I’ll probably only ever get to taste a properly aged Togni wine when and if a generous collector takes pity on me.
In the meantime, I’ll feel glad that the Togni family has shown me the true potential of Napa Valley viticulture — the appellation’s apotheosis.
La ringrazio, dottor Togni, per la visita, davvero eccezionale. Arrivederci.