History & Commitment to Quality
Jacob Beringer left his home in Mainz, Germany, in 1868 to start a new life in the U.S., enticed by his brother, Frederick, who had sailed to New York five years earlier and wrote home constantly of the grand opportunities to be found in the vast new world. New York did not appeal to Jacob, however. He had enjoyed working in wine cellars in Germany when he was younger and had heard that the warm, sunny climate of California was ideal for growing wine grapes. So in 1870 he traveled by train from the East Coast, first to San Francisco and then on to Napa Valley. To his delight, he discovered rocky, well-drained soils similar to those in his native Rhine Valley.
The volcanic soil was ideal for growing the same grapes found in Europe 's great winemaking regions. Best of all, the hills could be dug out to provide storage and aging tunnels that would maintain the constant temperature needed to produce fine wines. Jacob and Frederick together bought land in 1875 and set about making wines that compared to the best in Europe . In 1876, they founded the Beringer Winery.
The tough task of hand-chiseling the tunnels in the mountainside behind the winery fell to Chinese workers who had returned to the Bay Area after helping build the Trans-Continental Railroad. The tunnels took several years to complete but were the perfect place to age and store fine wine.
Even today, the average 58°F temperature inside the tunnels makes them the ideal place for Beringer Vineyards to age fine wines and the newly restored Old Stone Winery, a popular focus for visitors, marks the entrance to this cool, subterranean world.
While the winery was being built, Jacob took up residence in a farmhouse on the property built in 1848, now referred to as the “Hudson House.” Meticulously restored and expanded, the Hudson House serves today as Beringer Vineyards ' Culinary Arts Center . In 1883, Frederick permanently moved to the Napa Valley and began construction of a 17-room mansion that was to be his home—a re-creation of the Beringer family home located on the Rhine River in Germany . This unique “Rhine House” is the center of Beringer's reserve and library tastings. It is a place where guests can enjoy a glass of wine while relaxing in the old library or on the same porch that Frederick once sat, overlooking the expansive lawns, lush gardens, and out across the Napa Valley.
Beringer Vineyards is the oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley. In 2001, the estate was placed on the National Register for Historic Places as a Historic District. Jacob Beringer's foresight in recognizing the quality and potential of grape growing in the Napa Valley is part of the living heritage of Beringer Vineyards . With the present use of state-of-the-art technology applied to age-old traditions, Beringer Vineyards ' wines continue to reflect a single-minded dedication to the making of memorable wines from great Napa Valley vineyards.
Growing up in Sacramento , California , Laurie Hook never dreamed of becoming a winemaker. “I didn't even know the job existed,” she explains. “But then I found out that my family had owned a French Chateau (Chateau Olivier) before the revolution and it piqued my interest. Also, I loved history, science and agriculture, and the idea of doing something that connected you to the earth. And when I started tasting and reading about wine in college, I realized that winemaking brings all three disciplines together.”
Laurie transferred to the winemaking program at the University of California at Davis , training ground for noted winemakers in California and around the world. After graduation in 1984, she traveled to Australia to work in a small Melbourne-area winery for six months. “I did everything from pruning the vines, driving a tractor and harvesting the grapes to making and bottling the wine and even selling it. I got a real hands-on education as well as great travel. And I had the irreplaceable experience of looking up while pruning one day and seeing a kangaroo in the vineyard.” A harvest at a Sonoma County winery followed.
In 1986, Laurie came to Beringer as an enologist, a job that allowed her to solidify the scientific side of her training. In 1997, she was named Assistant Winemaker to Winemaster Ed Sbragia, and in 2000 was promoted to Winemaker for Beringer Vineyards.
“You can't make wine only through science,” says Laurie. “ California winemakers learned that in the 1970s and early 1980s, when a highly scientific approach resulted in very clean wines but not necessarily very interesting ones. Of course you need to understand the process by which wines are made, but now we've learned to trust our intuition as well. And I've learned from Ed that making great wines—wines that are unique—means taking risks.”
While Ed developed the styles for most of Beringer's wines over his 25-plus years at the winery, they continue to evolve as a result of the teamwork between the two winemakers. “When you've worked next to someone for almost 20 years, there's a trust that builds and our wines benefit from that,” explains Laurie.
Laurie is a member of the American Society of Viticulture and Enology, the Trellis Alliance, and the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group. Outside of the winery, Laurie has a myriad of interests and hobbies revolving around travel, gardening, the study of history, collecting antique and regional cookbooks and funny quotes about wine. She's also a passionate animal lover.
When Ed Sbragia was growing up, wine meant both livelihood and quality of life to his family. Ed's grandfather, an immigrant from Tuscany , had naturally gravitated to the wineries that flourished in California at the turn of the century. According to family lore, he was standing at the top of a ladder topping off a tank of wine when the 1906 earthquake hit. "Stop shaking the ladder," he yelled to his coworker on the ground.
Ed's father acquired his own vineyards near Healdsburg and grew Zinfandel grapes for sale and home winemaking. "He made excellent wine," says Ed, "and he taught me that making wine is a very natural process— that good grapes and good techniques will make good red wine."
In the Tuscan tradition, good red wine was a part of every family dinner. "I thought of it as a bitter liquid until I was about 14," Ed recalls. "But it was a natural part of our meals and our life. My mom was a great cook, and we would sit for hours having long philosophical discussions."
The vineyards meant hard work for young Ed—pruning, thinning, harvesting and crushing. "By the time I went to college, I wanted to get away from vineyards. The rows were too long, and I had hoed too many vines."
Ed majored in chemistry at the University of California at Davis , headed for a career in science. But his family background made him the top candidate for a job in a winery laboratory upon graduation. Quickly realizing that the winemaker's job was the one he wanted, he returned to California State University at Fresno for a master's degree in enology. After a year working at a Sonoma County winery, he learned about an opening as the assistant to legendary Napa Valley winemaker Myron Nightingale at Beringer.
"I just called Myron up and asked if I might be qualified for the position. I started on August 9, 1976 . Myron was a great teacher. He was the most intuitive winemaker I've ever known. He understood that winemaking requires subjective input—a feeling, a major preference—just like painting or sculpture or any work to which you dedicate yourself."
Ed was named Beringer's chief winemaker on Myron's retirement in 1984 and has been, along with vineyard consultant Bob Steinhauer, the keystone of Beringer's Private Reserve program. He is proud of the partnership that he and Bob have formed—"Bob always says he gives me diamonds, and it's up to me to polish them," says Ed.