The three oldest wineries in Napa Valley were started by entrepreneurial and innovative German immigrants. Today, all three are owned by others:
1861 Charles Krug Winery by Charles (“Karl”) Krug; owned by Peter Mondavi, Jr., and his family
1862 Schramsberg Vineyards by Jacob Schram; owned by Hugh Davies
1876 Beringer Brothers Winery by Jacob & Frederick Beringer; owned by Treasury Wine Estates
Only Beringer, as it is called today, has operated continuously since 1876 throughout family transitions, bouts of phylloxera and other vineyard diseases, World War I, Prohibition, and multiple corporate acquisitions. And only Beringer is a true family dynasty story, rejuvenated by great-great grandson Mark Beringer’s hiring in 2015 as the winery’s 8th winemaker in 140 years. Mark’s story follows this introduction, an important chapter in American wine history born at Beringer Brothers Winery.
The Oldest Continuously Operating Winery in Napa Valley
In 1875, German immigrants Jacob and Frederick Beringer bought 215 acres of prime land in Napa Valley for $14,500. The massive property included a small vineyard, two-story farmhouse, and plenty of arable land to plant more vines. At today’s prices, the property could have cost as much $64 million!
Jacob had arrived in New York from Mainz, Germany, in 1868 at age 23 to join his brother Frederick. He came to America experienced as a cellar master. Entrepreneurial “Fritz” was already established as a malt dealer in New York’s growing alcoholic beverage industry. Jacob opened a wine shop, quickly parlaying Fritz’s business connections.
But pioneering Jacob had an itch. Two years later, he headed to California, sight unseen, in a confident search for a favorable climate, fewer restrictions on inheritance (than in Germany), and a well-established German community of winemakers. (Of the nearly 2 million immigrants who came to the United States between 1850 and 1869, the largest group settled in Napa County.)
“When others joined the rush to California and were blinded by gold, the Beringer brothers saw something more fruitful. They laid down roots and put in the time and hard work it takes to turn a dream into something more meaningful. Something better.” (Treasury Wine Estates)
This Napa kinship network propelled Jacob Beringer to quick success. For about five years, Jacob worked as cellar superintendent for Charles Krug, who started the first commercial winery in Napa Valley. In 1875, the Beringer brothers bought the property next door to Krug. Locals called it “Los Hermanos.” Jacob continued working at Krug a few more years until the demands of winery and cave construction at Beringer Brothers Winery required his full attention.
Eager to produce wine right away from the White Riesling, Chappelt, and Cabernet Sauvignon vines already planted on 28 acres of the property, Jacob’s first crush in 1876 produced 18,000 cases. At the ripe old age of 143, with no breaks in production – even during Prohibition (1920-33) when selling grapes was permitted for sacramental wine for the Catholic Church – Beringer is California’s oldest continuously operating winery. Today, Beringer is a global brand sold world-wide, ranked among the Top 10 producers.
Nota bene: 1876 is often used as the official start date of Beringer Brothers Winery, pegged to the first crush.
California was not the first place in the United States where grapevines were planted. What if a twist of fate had led Jacob Beringer to Cincinnati in 1868 instead of to New York and California?
Cincinnati’s most famous wine story harkens back to the day in 1804 when 21-year-old Nicholas Longworth moved to the Queen City. After a successful career as an attorney, real estate investor, and philanthropist, the enterprising Mr. Longworth decided in 1828 to start growing grapes along the Ohio River. According to one account of this new venture, Longworth hired vineyard workers from the “army of German immigrants” who had come to Cincinnati for jobs building canals (including the one that bordered the aptly named Over The Rhine neighborhood).
Longworth is credited with establishing the first large-scale commercial winery in the New World – more than 30 years before Charles Krug was started in Napa. Initially, Longworth’s wines were dry, still, and “foxy” in aroma. Sweet, sparkling Catawba wine (“pink bubbles”) was introduced in 1842 and achieved a degree of international renown. However, issues with powdery mildew and black rot plagued the vines.
Cincinnati reached its peak of local wine production in 1859. But even at his death at age 81 in 1863, Longworth was still producing about 12,500 cases of wine a year.
Though Jacob Beringer was only a teenager at that time, might he have heard of Longworth’s achievement in the United States, and of the German kinship opportunities in Cincinnati, changing the course of Cincinnati’s role in the wine economy and Jacob’s own career? It’s a delicious thought…
Survival of the Fittest: 5 generations of Beringers 1875 – 2018
When Jacob Beringer died in 1915, his six children and Frederick’s surviving family exercised a family succession plan. Of nine eligible children, Jacob’s son Charles and daughter Bertha were tapped to lead and manage the winery. (Three other siblings – Jacob Jr., Otto, and Martha – also worked in various wine production roles.) Frederick’s family sold its shares to the rest of the Beringer clan.
Bertha became president of the family business when Charles died in 1954. Younger sister Martha became vice president. It is possible that Bertha was Napa’s first female winemaker! In all, great aunt Bertha managed the winery for 50 years – nearly 40 of them with Charles, about 10 with Martha – weathering many challenges, in particular leveraging the winery’s reputation to protect its right to continuously operate by selling grapes for sacramental wine during Prohibition. In anticipation of the end of Prohibition, Charles and Bertha hired non-family-member Fred Abruzzini as general manager in 1932. Abruzzini introduced many innovative features (see next section), and was succeeded by Roy Raymond in 1956. Roy was related by marriage to Mary Jane Beringer, Jacob’s granddaughter. (Roy’s name may be familiar to Napa lovers as the founder of Raymond Vineyards.)
Taking over leadership duties for great aunt Bertha in 1966, Jacob’s grandson Otto Jr. became president. The property was faltering at the time, so in 1971 the family decided to sell to Swiss food and beverage conglomerate Nestlé. An infusion of capital and business expertise made it possible to hire Myron Nightingale as winemaker, modernize equipment, and streamline product lines.
Over the next two decades, the Beringer growth strategy included acquiring several other wineries. In 1996, Beringer Wine Estates caught the attention of a group of private investment bankers (Texas Pacific Group) who took the company public. Four years later, Foster’s Brewing Company Ltd. of Australia bought Beringer and integrated it into the Australian Wolf Blass brand to create Beringer Blass Wine Estates. (That didn’t work out as planned…) In 2011, Foster’s spun out its wine division, which became Treasury Wine Estates, the current owner of Beringer.
Hallmark of Innovation
From the very beginning, innovation has been an important part of Beringer’s success.
In 1877, the family built a state of the art winery facility that relied on the flow of gravity to gently move grapes from crush to fermentation tanks in a two-story building tucked into the hillside. This method was already in use in Germany, but not in the United States. Jacob used steam crushers and a mechanized track system to move vessels in the cellar. A third story was added in the 1880s, along with redwood casks for fermentation and aging. The entire project was a feat of engineering, including the reinforcement needed to bear weight of so much equipment and product, and the use of tongue-and-groove construction to make sure the facility was water-tight.
Construction of tunnels and caves started shortly thereafter – the first in Napa – but took many years to complete because of the scale of the project. Jacob employed many of the talented Chinese immigrants who had worked on cross-continental railroad construction after the gold rush. These innovations, along with the purchase and clearing of additional vineyard areas, increased annual production ten-fold.
Jacob was also very sophisticated about consumer education, relying on German-American connections to make inroads into important east coast wine markets where other California firms had failed to gain presence. In addition to the usual still, sparkling and fortified wines, Beringer Brothers established a distilling side of the business, transporting thousands of tons of grapes to distilleries.
Fred Abruzzini, who became Beringer’s third winemaker in 1932, is also credited with innovations in customer-facing activities. He introduced the concept of tours and sales at the winery, which found a supportive audience among Hollywood’s glitterati. Abruzzini’s successor, Roy Raymond, also introduced “little tastes” to further entice winery sales.
Introducing Beringer’s 8th Winemaker:
Chief Winemaker Mark Beringer
It may be tempting to think that Mark was born with a (Beringer) “silver spoon in his mouth.” To be clear, that isn’t his story. Mark was only four when the Beringer family decided to sell to Nestlé. Family ownership ended in 1971 with Mark’s grandfather, Otto Jr.
In the intervening time, Mark has prepared himself fully and abundantly to take on the important and prestigious role of Chief Winemaker at Beringer. He had to participate in multiple interviews to get the job – it’s true! – despite having the right last name, and being clear in his heart and head that this was the place he was meant to be.
The path to getting there was where passion and preparation met opportunity. Mark made a deliberate choice after high school to continue to love music, but not as a career. While still in high school, he worked as a stock boy at Beringer. Confirming that making wine was in his blood, Mark attended Santa Rosa Junior College and California State University at Fresno, securing a degree in enology (1990) while learning the ropes with uncle Roy Raymond and his cousins during summer breaks. Leaving college already quite skilled in his craft, Mark held a steady succession of interesting, and increasingly responsible, jobs at Benziger (Sonoma), Duckhorn, and Artesa. Then, in 2015, the “big one” came along. Mark was invited to join Beringer as Chief Winemaker, the winery’s 8th winemaker in 140 years.
According to Mark, it is an extraordinary privilege to stand on the big shoulders and amazing legacies of his predecessors. “I take tremendous pride in being part of this unique winemaking legacy and being the 8th winemaker among a hallowed roster of talent.” (Scroll down to the end of this story for a synopsis of winemakers one through seven.)
Mark’s primary role overseeing Beringer is red crush. He defines strategy, fruit intake, and fermentation/aging decisions. He also travels the world to promote Beringer. In Mark’s view, being owned by Treasury is a strong global advantage. It is an Australian company with an international operating structure, so trade policies are, in effect, hedged. One example of the efficiency to be gained by being part of a larger enterprise is the consolidation of expensive facility investment. Cellars at Beringer have been expanded to accommodate winemaking for multiple luxury tiers.
Mark has a unique view of the winemaking process stemming from his early leanings of becoming a musician. “We go from being a farmer, to a scientist, to an artist…A great wine is like ‘hitting all the notes’ in a great piece of music. A great piece of music has a wonderful introduction, it builds to an overture, and you have the finale. A wine should progress across your palate in the same manner.”
Move over Beethoven!! Although Mark doesn’t have time to play or perform at this point in his life, he is quite proud and pleased that all three of his daughters are musically inclined.
Beringer Premium Wines
Beringer offers seven single-vineyard Cabernets, one of which is the 48-acre Home Vineyard that surrounds the original property in St. Helena. When vintage conditions permit, they are bottled as varietal wines. Priority goes to wine club members, on-premise purchasers, and some online direct-to-consumer buys. At other times, these high quality grapes form the basis of Private Reserve Cabernet (along with bits of Merlot and Petit Verdot), a premium style initiated in 1977 by former winemakers Myron Nightingale and Ed Sbragia. The 2015 Private Reserve Cabernet, which was Mark Beringer’s first vintage, garnered a 99-point score from James Suckling.
A “Distinction Series” was introduced by winemaker emeritus Laurie Hook, and has been incorporated into Mark Beringer’s portfolio of innovative wine experiments. An example is the Knights Valley Reserve, a blend of the best vineyard lots from Sonoma County vineyards pioneered by the Beringer family. According to Mark, “only the most expressive (lots) are chosen for this Reserve bottling. Extended maceration creates more dominant tannins, enhancing the lush mouthfeel of the blend while extracting a maximum of color, aromas and flavors.”
In that same vein, Mark is also experimenting with bourbon barrels to age wines. (In Cincinnati, we are familiar with the reverse scenario – wine aging vessels repurposed to age bourbon!!) “Our latest Beringer Brothers wines are aged for sixty days in charred, American oak bourbon barrels. The result: a uniquely rich, warm, and bold flavor.”
Back to the future? Mark is also interested in resurrecting spirits! His family loved brandy, “and I do like a nice spirit after a long day of tasting wine.” Kentucky Bourbon, here we come!
What’s next? You heard it here first!! Stay tuned for the 2019 release of an exciting tribute to Mark which will be called the “8TH Maker.” This limited edition bottling of 1,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon focuses on the Home Ranch that the family has been farming for 143 years. It will be presented in an etched bottle, with a medallion, in a numbered wood box.
Click here to view current wine buying options.
Meet Beringer’s previous winemakers:
- (1875-1911) Jacob Beringer was the founder and patriarch of Beringer Brothers Winery.
- (1916-1933) Two of Jacob’s six children, Charles and Bertha, took over management of the winery after their father’s death. They managed the winery for 50 years – Charles until his death in 1954, and Bertha as president of the family business until 1966.
- (1932-1956) Fred Abruzzini was hired by Charles and Bertha to resume pre-Prohibition production of varietal wines. Fred was also an innovator. Among other things, he initiated guided tours and “cellar door” sales to reintroduce the consumer public to Beringer wines.
- (1956-1971) Roy Raymond Sr. also worked as an assistant at Beringer during Abruzzini’s tenure, which is where he met (and married) Martha Jane Beringer, one of Jacob’s granddaughters. He took over as head winemaker in 1956. Continuing consumer innovations, he introduced “little tastes” at the winery.
- (1971-1984) When Beringer was purchased by Nestlé, Roy started Raymond Vineyards with his sons. Myron Nightingale was hired as head winemaker.
- (1984-2000) Ed Sbragia had joined Beringer as an assistant to Nightingale in 1976, and became Winemaster in 1984. He was named Winemaker Emeritus in 2008. Today, Ed and his son Adam – who also trained at Beringer – run Sbragia Family Vineyards.
- (2000-2015) Laurie Hook joined Beringer in 1986 as enologist, and became head winemaker in 2008. She remains involved as Winemaker Emeritus.
Sources and photo credits
Interview with Mark Beringer November 13, 2018.
Eriksson, Peer. MYPEER YouTube interview. November 9, 2017.
Immigrant Entrepreneurship, “Jacob Beringer.” Retrieved November 13, 2018. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=4
Frazier, Karen. Home & Garden (undated).
Hansen, Marian. “History Timeline of Beringer Brothers Family & Winery,” St. Helen Historical Society, 2016.
Mitchell, Kelly. The Wine Siren. May 18, 2016.
Napa Valley Register (various articles)
Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition. “Nicholas Longworth and the Cincinnati Region.” University of California Press, 1989.
Treasury Wine Estates
Websites: beringer.com; ubernapa.com; geneology.com, thedailybeast.com, cincinnati.com, marketing91.com, speakeasywineandspirits.com, and company websites for Charles Krug and Schramsberg wineries