Winemaker Spotlight: Philip Togni

“Life is chance,” Philip Togni says. It’s a misty, foggy morning at the top of Spring Mountain. The winery at Togni’s eponymous vineyard is sparse: wooden ceiling, concrete walls and floors, occupied only by a few rows of barrels. It’s a simple operation. The family of three—Philip, wife Birgitta and daughter Lisa, who will take over the winery from her father—make about 2,000 cases a year from the 25-acre estate. 

Philip, who will celebrate his 93rd birthday and 66th vintage this year, has been making wine in Napa since the 1950s. Before founding his own winery in 1981, he worked for some of the valley’s top wineries, crafting wines like the 1969 Chappellet, widely considered one of the greatest wines ever made in California. Winemakers often come to the craft via circuitous routes, so I ask Philip how it all started. 

“In 1954 I was working for Shell, looking for oil in South America,” he recalls. In his early 20s, he needed a way to make a living, but quickly realized Shell wasn’t it. “First of all, it was in disagreeable places in the tropics—swamps. Secondly, it didn’t look as if it would last. A pamphlet at Shell listed the retirement age as 55.” He began considering other lines of work, like farming or running cattle. But wine caught his attention. “I thought growing something would be nice. It seemed that if you could grow something and turn it into wine that would be permanent, unlike a crop of cabbages, you’d be making a little mark in history.” 

From the swamps of South America, Philip traveled back to Europe. “More or less by chance I was in Spain and saw these grape vines stretching to the horizon. It seemed very appealing.” Winemaking was calling him again. “I had a great stroke of luck. I was introduced to Maynard Amarine, who happened to be in Madrid at the time.” Amarine encouraged him to go to school for oenology if he wished to become a winegrower. As luck—or as Philip would call it, chance—would have it, the University of Bordeaux had just instituted its national diploma in oenology. “Chance is everything,” Philip emphasizes again. “I just walked in.” Along with four other students, Philip graduated with the university’s first Diplôme National d’Oenologie, having studied under Émile Peynaud. During that time, he also worked with Alexis Lichine as assistant régisseur at Château Lascombes in Margaux. 

Although the 1956 vintage at Lascombes wasn’t his best—“a terrible vintage, a terrible wine,” he says, shaking his head—that same year the château was hosting a visiting American journalist. “In his honor they opened a bottle of 1896 Lascombes. It was 60 years old but still alive. It was quite a revelation and it set me thinking.” Philip wanted to start his own winery and grow his own grapes, but he didn’t yet have the resources to purchase property. “In the meantime, I had to work for other people,” he says. After spending a year making wine in Chile, Amarine suggested he place a want ad for a job as a winemaker in California. Philip was answered by Jack and Mary Taylor, who had purchased the Mayacamas winery. He traveled to California. “I was making pink wine out of three varieties: Gamay, Zinfandel and Cabernet,” he says about those early days at Mayacamas. “Bucolic was the word for Napa back then. I didn’t have a car, so I wouldn’t go down there very much. I’d look down from the mountain in the dark and see the lights.” 

Philip moved around the valley, working for wineries like Gallo, Inglenook and Chalone. In the 1960s, he was introduced to Donn Chappellet. “He wanted to get into the wine business and asked if I would help,” he says of the encounter. “He had one original notion of staying off the valley floor. There wasn’t much on Pritchard Hill.” He helped Donn establish Chappellet, one of the first high-elevation wineries in Napa. He also made the 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been heralded as one of the greatest California wines ever made (and given a 100-point score by The Wine Advocate). Nearly 50 years later, Philip is humble about his accomplishments. “The miracle of the 1969 Chappellet I can’t explain,” he says simply.
Philip Togni vineyard is located at the top of Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley.

In 1975, Philip and Birgitta discovered a property for sale at the top of Spring Mountain. “I was working at Cuvaison as winemaker. We needed somewhere to live, and this was within reach.” Ironically it was, and still is, an isolated spot. “The realtor couldn’t find where it was,” Philip remembers. “He parked down the road and gave us a sketch map and compass and said, ‘it’s somewhere up there.’” The property encompassed 25 acres, but the Tognis didn’t know if the land was viable for grapes. “We didn’t really know if the land was plantable,” Philip says, “but my wife was very persuasive that we should get vines in the ground.” In 1981 the couple planted four-and-a-half acres, the beginning of their eponymous winery. 

Having their own estate, including growing their own fruit, was key for the Tognis. “If you can control all the variables as far as possible, like ownership of the land and the grapes, you rule out a lot of problems,” Philip explains. “Those who live by the bought grape are vulnerable to a whole host of potential problems: divorce, marriage, death, change, this and that. If you can, keep it in the family and keep it small.” 

Togni and his daughter Lisa make only three wines: the flagship Philip Togni Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bordeaux-inspired blend; the Cabernet Sauvignon Tanbark Hill, from young vines; and tiny amounts of Ca’Togni, a sweet red inspired by Constantia. “It’s rather un-American, the idea that you don’t need to grow,” he says of the winery’s small scale. The winery itself is hidden away, tucked at the end of a small, unmarked road behind a chain link fence. “Personally, I think we can get by without tourism,” he says. “The idea that if you start up a small wine operation you begin by building a tasting room—that’s not our idea. But a vineyard is essential, for control and continuity.”
“I’m a great believer in keeping it simple,” Philip says of his winemaking style.

His winemaking follows the same simplistic philosophy and he adheres to the techniques he learned in Bordeaux. “Life’s too short to try everything, so we copied a lot of stuff from Bordeaux, particularly Margaux,” he says. The vineyards are planted to about 82% Cabernet Sauvignon with smaller portions of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. “I’m a great believer in keeping it simple. Cleanliness of course is the first key. The way you keep a barrel clean is to sell it off and buy another one. We get two vintages out of a barrel. Our press is very simple, it’s a manual bladder press. We try and get the longest possible ripening period. Making wine can’t be all that complicated if you have the right ingredients.”  

The Bordeaux-style blends he and Lisa craft from his perch on Spring Mountain are savory, perfumed and muscular and have proven to be extremely long-lived. If the winemaking is so simple, why are the wines able to improve in bottle for so many decades? “If we knew, we’d sell you the idea,” he says, smiling. “We do massive aeration. We’ve experimented with hotter fermentations, getting a lot of extraction. When we fill a barrel, one of the frequent practices in Napa is to fill from the bottom up. We splash it in from the top. The yields are restricted. We thin quite heavily on occasion. Putting in a decent cork is important, that must help. But beyond that, I don’t have a guess.” 

Despite having so many decades of experience, Philip still uses each harvest as a chance to learn and improve the wines. “It’s empiricism, but not blind empiricism,” he says. “Using scientific knowledge as a way of guiding, rather than controlling, our practices. We’re still fine tuning without doing a lot of lavish experiments. The amplitude of our experimentation is small. We’re trying to do what we’ve done before but with a little more understanding. The ultimate test is the wine glass, not the microscope.” 

Photos by Erin Brooks.

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