Rombauer Vineyards Founder Dies

Koerner Rombauer who launched iconic Chardonnay brand, dies at 83

by Wines & Vines staff
Koerner Rombauer, who was a former pilot, founded Rombauer Vineyards in 1980 and produced the first vintage of Chardonnay in 1982.

Napa, Calif.—Koerner Rombauer, the founder of Rombauer Vineyards, died on May 10. He was 83. Rombauer is survived by his wife, Sandy; children Sheana Rombauer and K.R. Rombauer III; grandchildren Reagan, Drew, Seth, Lane and Ransome and sister Kay Thornton

According to an obituary released by the winery, Rombauer was born and raised in Escondido, Calif., where he married Joan Ransome, his wife of 43 years. He served in the California Air National Guard as a pilot from 1956 to 1965, beginning his lifelong love of flying. The couple had two children, Sheana and K.R., who were born in Escondido and then later moved to Texas where Rombauer began his commercial airline pilot career flying for Braniff International Airways in 1965.

The family relocated to the Napa Valley in 1972 and settled in a hilltop property north of St. Helena on the Silverado Trail. In between his commitments with Braniff, Rombauer began spending time learning about winemaking at Conn Creek Winery. In 1980, the family founded Rombauer Vineyards, and harvested the first grapes — Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District — in 1980 followed by the first vintage of Chardonnay in 1982. 

Rombauer Vineyards is still family owned, and now produces 75,000 cases per year and much of that is Chardonnay, which continues to be a strong performer in the on-premise and off-premise sectors with a devoted following. The Chardonnay is produced at a separate winery in American Canyon, Calif., and in recent years the Rombauers have invested in upgrading the facilities of the St. Helena estate winery to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and bolstering direct-to-consumer sales.

Rombauer’s great-aunt, Irma Rombauer, and her American classic, The Joy of Cooking, often provided an introduction to his customers and accounts. Rombauer would say that Joy, as the book is affectionately known around Rombauer Vineyards, helped him be perceived as someone with whom people were already familiar; he wasn’t a stranger, he was Irma’s grand-nephew.

Koerner Rombauer was preceded in death by Joan Ransome who died of pancreatic cancer after a three-year battle in 2002. Before her death, the couple launched the Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at University of California, San Francisco. The Rombauer family has continued to be involved in fighting cancer and in 2010 established a $4 million endowment, the Joan Rombauer UCSF Endowed Fellowship. Other causes he supported included V Foundation for Cancer Research, Collabria Care (formerly known as Napa Valley Hospice and Adult Day Services), Napa Valley Land Trust and the St. Helena Montessori School.

Rombauer’s community involvement has included serving on the boards of Napa Airport Advisory Board Committee and Tower Road Co-Op as well as being the 2011 Auction Napa Valley Chair. He was a long-time supporter of the St. Helena High School FFA and Agriculture Program and a recurring purchaser of livestock at the Napa Town and Country Fair. For many years, Rombauer was a familiar face at the Calistoga Fourth of July parade driving Congressman Mike Thompson.

When Rombauer was once asked to explain why both flying airplanes and making wine were so important to him, he answered: “Flying and winemaking are both mystical, magical things. The magic of flying is that it allows you to leave behind all that binds you to the earth. The magic of winemaking is that you create something with your own hands, from your own piece of earth, that lasts for years. If you turn out a wine that can score the highest points, or highest bid, it’s like breaking out at minimums, right over the runway numbers, knowing you’ve nailed the approach.”

A memorial is pending and will be announced at a later date.

Posted on 05.19.2018 - 11:22:15 PST
To the Rombauer family:
On behalf of my family and employees of Old Fisherman's Grotto, The Fish Hopper and Scales in Monterey, please accept our deepest sympathy and condolences and know that our thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time.
Chris Shake