Flora Springs: 40 years of stories in the Napa Valley
by Sasha Paulsen, The Napa Valley Register
Say “Flora Springs Winery,” and many people will think of the distinctive tasting room on Highway 29, just south of St. Helena, the one inspired by the imaginative Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí that looks a bit like a soft-swirl ice cream cone, chocolate and vanilla.
But there’s a story behind the unusual tasting room — about a mile behind it, at the end of West Zinfandel lane in a stone ghost winery that is, literally, the roots of Flora Springs, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, as well as the 30th anniversary of its celebrated red wine, Trilogy.
Travel down this road to taste a few wines. And if you chance to meet John Komes, proprietor, you will hear stories about everything from how each wine in the Flora Springs portfolio got its name to why there is a statue of a wild boar greeting visitors on the grounds.
“Some people say I saved this property,” Komes remarked with chuckle as he surveyed the vineyards in front of the winery. “My dad was a gin drinker. If we’d left it to him, he’d have replanted everything in juniper.”
That was in 1977 when his parents, Jerome and Flora Komes, were looking for a place to retire after Jerome’s long, successful career with Bechtel Corporation. “He wasn’t that interested in wine,” Komes said. “A lot of his friends were retiring up here, just for the climate and the life. I think he thought he’d be a gentleman farmer.”
It’s well documented what happens to people who purchase land in Napa Valley, intending to retire. It this case, however, it was son John Komes who inspired — and took the lead on turning his dad into a vintner.
This was because just a few years earlier, John Komes’ wife, Carrie, had signed them up for a wine appreciation class. “I said ‘OK, I’ll do my social duty and go with you.’” They were living in Lafayette at the time, where John was a building contractor. He was in for a surprise.
“I loved the stuff. I’d never really tasted wine,” he said. “I was the kind of guy who went three times to the buffet and said that’s dinner. But I loved this. We tasted Burgundy, Bordeaux, Italian wines.”
Then came the real coup de foudre. He said, “A couple of people in the class said, ‘Wow, you are really enthusiastic. Would you be interested in joining our home-winemakers’ group?’”
He joined. “We really had fun making the wine. And it served a good purpose: I gave it to family and friends, and they never bothered me again.”
But when John Komes saw the property his father was going to buy, he decided they had to take it back to its original purpose — a winery.
The stone winery on the grounds had been built in 1885 by two brothers, James and William Rennie, immigrants from Scotland. “They were in the building trade too,” Komes said. “They built the winery and planted 60 acres of grapes.”
Then the brothers hit a patch of bad luck: phylloxera in the vines, and a fire in 1900 destroyed their wine press and cooperage. In 1904, they sold the winery, and 15 years later it was hit by an even greater calamity: Prohibition. The winery was closed until 1933. That year, Louis Martini, one of the valley’s wine-making legends, sensed the approaching collapse of the government’s experiment in teetotalism and bought the Rennie property. He built a new stone house, and made a reserve wine from the hillside vineyards but the old winery remained a ghost until the Komes bought the property, 325 acres, an old farm house, the newer stone house, and 60 acres of vineyards.
Komes said he originally thought he’d persuade his dad to restore the old winery by proposing to name it Chateau Jerome; but although it had been designed by Hamden McIntyre, the architect of other classic 19th-century Napa wineries, by 1977, the fire-scarred ghost was in all but a wreck. “The tin roof of the building had a million holes in it,” Komes said; “so many we called it the starlight roof. My dad looked at it and said, ‘ I’ve worked all my life for my good name. I don’t want to squander it now.’”
John’s mother, Flora, however, sided with her son on the potential of the property. And Carrie Komes suggested they could name the winery for her mother-in-law. Combined with the abundant springs on the land, they decided the name would be Flora Springs.
“That was the sure way to my mom’s heart and my dad’s pocketbook,” Komes said. Flora Komes, born and raised in Hawaii, had come to San Francisco during the Depression to study nursing at St. Mary’s College. There, she met Jerome. “He was a Fresno boy,” Komes said. “My dad was a tough old German. My mom was perfect, a great lady. My dad traveled a lot for his work, so she was the one who really raised us. We were a really happy family.”
Komes put his construction expertise to work to renovate the old winery, which still had scorch marks on the walls. So skeptical was his father about his son’s wine-making project, they divided the winery building and John rented half where he put his first fermenting tank, which he named R2D2.
He invited a couple of friends from his wine-making class to help make wine at the new place. He also hired MaryAnn Graf, who in 1965 had been the first woman to graduate from the viticulture and enology department at UC Davis to help manage the project. “She told me, John, if you don’t hire a winemaker, I’ll quit.” He did, and the 1979 Flora Springs chardonnay won a gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair.
“In those days, it was fairs, not ratings, that made the difference,” Komes said. “This was my first lesson in marketing. We’d sold the wine before we won the medal.”
Their 1981 cab they submitted to eight fairs and won seven gold medals.
From there, the winery just kept growing. “We were the 67th winery in the county,” Komes said. “My sister, Julie, was a big part of building the winery. Later she left to go religious school, but I like to say she’s still in the spirits business.”
Julie Komes Garvey earned a degree in spiritual studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Franciscan School of Theology and now works in St. Helena. Her husband, Pat Garvey, and son, Sean, are the vineyard managers for the Flora Springs vineyards.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Komes said. “But we kept growing. We started small, but kept moving ahead. We were pretty much self-schooled.”
One highlight was the creation of Trilogy, one of the first meritage blends in the valley. By 1984, Komes said, they’d planted the Bordeaux varietals, malbec, merlot, cab franc, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot. They wanted to create a blend “by taste, not by formula for a nice smooth wine that goes deep into the palate.” he said. “We want a little of this, a little of that. What God forgot, we added.”
The first Trilogy was cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cab franc was soon dubbed “velvet in the mouth. A lot of what we do is ‘taming the tanins,’ Komes said. ‘One man who buys Trilogy by the case said it’s the only red wine his wife will drink young.” From the “leftovers,” they began making single-varietal estate wines.
Another highlight was the discovery of a unique clone of sauvignon blanc in vineyards his dad bought in Oakville. UC Davis could identify nothing like in in their vast library of clones. “We were a bit ahead of the times, but this clone showed us what sauvignon blanc could be. It takes all the grassiness out of sauvignon blanc.”
Flora Springs winery near St. Helena wins increased visitation
by Barry Eberling, St. Helena Star
Flora Springs winery near St. Helena won Napa County permission to entertain more visitors, though the request reopened a periodic discussion among planners on how to set these visitor caps in general.
The county Planning Commission last week approved allowing the winery to increase maximum weekly tasting room visitation from 455 people to 700. It also increased the number of marketing events and granted various other changes.
Flora Springs winery was founded by the Komes family in 1978 at 1978 West Zinfandel Lane.
“This is a very well-known, well-operated and respected family in the Napa Valley,” Planning Commissioner Terry Scott said. “I want to see them continue to grow and represent the best of winery operations in the Napa Valley – which I believe they do.”
A neighbor expressed fear that more visitors will mean more traffic that will change this area’s rural character.
John Komes of the winery said one way the winery has tried to help neighbors is by letting them walk and bike on the property. He called the property the “Zinfandel Ag Park.”
“Any problem we might cause on the street itself is solved, I think, by our open gate policy,” Komes said.
Commissioners encouraged the Komes to keep working with the neighbors. They didn’t see any major transformation coming to West Zinfandel Lane with the increased visitation.
Commissioner Joelle Gallagher, only recently appointed to the commission, wanted more direction on how to decide what kind of visitation is reasonable for new wineries.
The commission’s recent practice has been to look at comparison charts showing visitation at similar-sized wineries for context. But this isn’t a hard-and-fast formula that spits out a number for a proposed winery.
“I just have to say it would be great to have more guidance,” Gallagher said.
Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said there is no hard-and-fast ordinance, rule or even guideline on setting visitation caps. The comparison table is solely to provide context, he said.
“Excessive” visitation for any particular winery has to be defined by each commissioner, he said.
“We do have to look at each project on a case-by-case basis,” Morrison said. “Some wineries come in here and ask for no visitation. Some ask for a great deal, each according to their own business plan, their own site location, their own production needs … there isn’t any one-size-fits-all.”
Commissioner Anne Cottrell said doing case-by-case analysis is difficult. Wineries are seeking more visitors because of a direct-to-consumer sales model that has increased since the 2008 Napa County general plan and its environmental study were completed, she said.
“I am feeling the need for more policy direction because a case-by-case basis is sort of a policy in itself and I’m not sure we have clear direction from the Board of Supervisors on that,” she said.
Morrison said the Board of Supervisors has not directed staff to provide any visitation formula.
“I think the case-by-case basis is the policy of the Board,” Morrison said.
Commission Chairwoman Jeri Gill then steered the conversation back to Flora Springs winery. She said the commission might want to decide to continue the discussion on visitation caps in general at another time.
Victims of Volstead
by Stephen Fay of The Ellsworth American
If you thought Prohibition was tough on wine drinkers, imagine what it did to wine makers.
The 13-year stretch from 1920 to 1933 just about killed the California wine industry. The Volstead Act’s ruinous disregard for a good time was especially disastrous for the Napa Valley, which had weathered the phylloxera blight of the late 19th century and the great earthquake of 1906 that flattened its warehouses only to be crushed like one of its own grapes when the “drys” prevailed.
As with any prohibition, the initial reaction was to cheat. Medicinal wines that could cure only sobriety became a hot item. But so many permits were sought for the manufacture of patent medicines that the federal authorities cracked down.
Some found religion in the Volstead Act, noting that it allowed an exclusion for sacramental wine. Religious leaders, in particular, managed to secure a steady supply with the result that attendance at Mass and temple took off. Suddenly, sacramental champagne, crème de menthe and brandy became instrumental in communing with God.
A federal judge was asked to rule on whether these alcoholic offshoots qualified for the sacramental wine exception. He ruled it was OK, saying “it is not the content of the beverage, but the purpose for which it will be used that determines whether or not it is sacramental wine.”
The Beaulieu Vineyards of Northern California sent sacramental wine to churches across the country. Wente Vineyards, Beringer and Martini also remained afloat by selling to the church. But only barely.
Because it wasn’t the same. The Napa Valley wine industry had been the finest in the nation, supplementing perfect terroir and weather with technical advice and advances from the oenological studies department at the University of California at Davis. But enforcement ramped up and production ramped down. According to an Aug. 16, 1923, story in the Napa Valley Register, the county treasury had been “enriched by $7,100 in bootleg fines from raids conducted in one day in St. Helena, Calistoga and other points in the valley.”
The result? Napa Valley wineries built between 1860 and 1900 were abandoned. Sitting empty, they were known in the valley as “ghost wineries.”
And there the story might have ended, might never have been known, were it not for the efforts of Flora Springs, arguably the source of the best reds in Northern California. A limited label — Flora Springs Ghost Winery — honors the history with an estate-grown malbec for which the adjective has not yet been invented.
It’s bull’s blood black with deep, dark fruit. The flavors of black cherry and plums join to create a single, joyous note from first sip to final swallow. This is but one of the products Prohibition sought to eradicate. And it took years before the Napa Valley recovered and restored itself to the pantheon of best wineries.
The vineyards have survived blight, earthquake, the Volstead Act and the Depression, overcoming adversity and offering a fresh take on Hemingway’s observation that “the world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong in the broken places.”
Celebrating April with new art at Flora Springs – Napa Valley Register
In celebration of Arts in April throughout the Napa Valley, the tasting room at Flora Springs Winery has a new art installation by local artists, The Baker Sisters.
With an installation that celebrates the Hawaiian heritage of Flora Komes, the woman who inspired the founding of Flora Springs Winery 40 years ago, St. Helena’s Baker Sisters have worked their magic again at The Room, the winery’s tasting room in St. Helena.
In conjunction with Arts Council Napa Valley’s annual Arts in April, the creative duo has transformed the exterior of The Room with a living art piece that features a young lei-bedecked woman playfully tossing flowers into the air. Wearing a skirt composed of hundreds of live flowers, the woman echoes the classicized image of “Flora” that appears on each label of Flora Springs wine.
The art installation will be up through mid-May. Each weekend in April the tasting room will feature a mix of live music, live painting sessions, a barbershop quartet, and spontaneous songs courtesy of Serf & James, featured artists at BottleRock.
On Friday, April 21, the winery will recognize Earth Day with Flora’s Social, an after-hours event from 5 to 8 p.m., including an art show curated by the Baker Sisters, live music, a DJ and plenty of wine and food. More information is available at florasprings.com or by calling (707) 967-8032 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
St. Helena’s Flora Springs to pour library wines in celebration of National Library Week
In recognition of National Library Week, Flora Springs Winery & Vineyard, a family-owned, Napa Valley wine estate established in 1977, will pour selected library wines at both The Estate and The Room next week from Saturday, April 8, to Saturday, April 15. Featured wines, also available for sale, will include the 1989, 1995, and 2011 vintages of Flora Springs Trilogy, a Bordeaux-style red blend that the winery has produced for 30 years.
“As we celebrate our 40th year of making wine in Napa Valley, it seems appropriate to offer these beautifully-aged Trilogy vintages that people rarely have an opportunity to taste,” said Nat Komes, third generation vintner and general manager of Flora Springs. “And it seemed fun and fitting to coincide with National Library Week, especially since the theme this year is “Libraries Transform.”
The Room, Flora Springs’ tasting room located at 677 St. Helena Highway in St. Helena, will feature live music on both Saturdays, April 8 and 15. Both The Room and The Estate, located at 1978 West Zinfandel Lane in St. Helena, are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Reservations are required to visit The Estate. Additional tasting fees for the library wines may apply.
In addition to offering library vintages of Trilogy, Flora Springs also will offer a special release of two of its single vineyard cabernet sauvignons, via its website, florasprings.com.
Flora Springs Named one of the Best Napa Valley Wineries to Visit by Food & Wine Magazine
Out of over 400 wineries in Napa Valley, Food & Wine Magazine chose just 54, including Flora Springs, as the “Best to Visit.”
2014 Trilogy Awarded 93 points by The Wine Advocate
Robert M. Parker, Jr. notes, “Their 2014 Trilogy…is a wine of suppleness, complexity and loads of licorice, tobacco leaf, blackcurrants, spice and some background oak and espresso. Medium to full-bodied, with gorgeous fruit, texture and length, this is a beauty to drink over the next 10-15 or so years, although it is already displaying its undeniable charm and lusciousness.
One of the more historic and long-term producers of Napa Valley wine (particularly their bevy of Cabernet Sauvignons), Flora Springs Winery and Vineyards sits on the west side of Highway 29 in Rutherford. Along with Joseph Phelps, they were one of the first to produce a proprietary Bordeaux blend from various grapes.”
Flora Springs Celebrates the 30th Release of Trilogy
On February 4, 2017, Flora Springs will celebrate the 30th release of the flagship wine Trilogy at the 15th annual Trilogy Release Party. Learn more.
2013 St. Helena Rennie Reserve Named #74/100 Top Napa Valley Reds 2016 by James Suckling
The wine was also awarded 94 points, and the reviewer notes: “Wow. Impressive nose with so much dark and opulent fruit, yet remains floral and precise. Full-bodied palate with lots of licorice, dark chocolate, black currant and toasted oak. Flamboyant yet fresh and lively. Drink now.”
2013 Trilogy Scores 94 in Wine Enthusiast magazine
The reviewer called the 2013 Trilogy a “wow” wine with “grace and plenty of body, smoothly textured and refined.”
Flora Springs Unveils New Website
With improved graphics, rich content and enhanced features such as an interactive historical timeline, the new Flora Springs website was launched in time for the busy fall and holiday seasons.
Flora Springs Partners with BoardRoom magazine & Distinguished Clubs of America
Flora Springs is partnering with Distinguished Clubs of America, providing wine for the organization’s national conference. Proprietor John Komes is featured in the September/October issue of BoardRoom magazine.
Flora Springs to Participate in Premier Napa Valley 2017
Flora Springs is excited to participate in the 2017 Premiere Napa Valley! For over twenty years this annual grand tasting and futures auction for the trade has helped fund the Napa Valley Vintners efforts to promote, protect and enhance the Napa Valley appellation. Like other vintners who participate, we’ll be creating a one-of-a-kind wine lot just for the auction.
Four Flora Springs wines score 92 and above from internationally acclaimed wine critic and journalist James Suckling. Wines and scores include: 2013 Flora’s Legacy Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points), 2013 Rennie Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points), 2013 Rutherford Hillside Reserve (93 points), 2013 Trilogy (92 points).
Flora Springs Announces New Logo, Labels and Packaging
Flora Springs unveiled a new logo, labels and packaging designed to reflect a stronger brand identity and more clearly convey key messages about the Napa Valley estate’s core values. “While critical elements of the original design have been retained, the new package tells the Flora Springs story in a clearer, more compelling way,” said Nat Komes, third generation vintner and general manager of Flora Springs, who noted that this is the first significant package change in several years.