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Koerner Rombauer, Founder of Rombauer Vineyards, Dies at 83

Pilot turned vintner helped define California’s rich style of Chardonnay
Koerner Rombauer moved to Napa Valley for the quiet, but soon fell in love with the wine industry.
Photo by: Courtesy Rombauer Vineyards
Koerner Rombauer moved to Napa Valley for the quiet, but soon fell in love with the wine industry.

Aaron Romano
Posted: May 14, 2018

Koerner Rombauer spent 30 years as a military and commercial airline pilot, then found a second act in Napa Valley, establishing Rombauer Vineyards and helping create one of the world’s most popular Chardonnays. He died May 10 in Santa Rosa at age 83.

Asked in 2000 to explain why he loved both piloting airplanes and making wine, Rombauer told Flying magazine, “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.”

Born in Escondido, Calif., in 1934, Koerner Rombauer II began his career in the skies with the California Air National Guard in 1956. Three years later he married his first wife, Joan. They had two children together, Sheana and Koerner III, nicknamed K.R.

Rombauer left the service in 1965 and moved his family to Dallas to become a commercial pilot for Braniff International. In 1972, seeking a small-town farming atmosphere, the Rombauers relocated to Napa Valley's St. Helena.

Rombauer still worked for Braniff, but in his spare time he found himself learning about wine at nearby Conn Creek Winery. He became a partner in 1976. He learned all facets of the wine business, from winemaking to winery operations. In 1980, he sold his stake in Conn Creek and struck out on his own, establishing Rombauer Vineyards.

The first wines were released in 1984, a 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1982 Chardonnay. The wines were made at Shafer Vineyards and stored at Carl Doumani’s Stag’s Leap Winery. When Rombauer built his own winery, he and his team designed the facility with a capacity beyond their own needs, allowing them to also function as a custom-crush business. The winery served as a nursery for several emerging producers, including Dominus, Neyers, Spottswoode and Duckhorn.

“He was one of the first in Napa that started the custom-crush business model,” recalled Stuart Smith, partner at Smith-Madrone and a friend of Rombauer’s for 35 years. “That was perhaps an overlooked area, but he validated the business model.”

In 1988 Rombauer purchased his first vineyard, 7 acres of Zinfandel that surrounded his family’s house. But it wasn’t until 2002 that he would buy his first Chardonnay vineyard, Buchli Station in Carneros, which would become the cornerstone to their Chardonnay growth.

Rombauer was already synonymous with Chardonnay. Wine lovers know the wine for its opulent style: fruit-forward with a signature creamy texture and buttery finish. The Carneros Chardonnay has been a repeat selection for Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the Year.

Koerner will be remembered for his sociable personality and gracious demeanor. “He was a wonderful person for Napa Valley,” said Smith. “He gave people what they wanted in wine, and was always generous with his time.”

When Joan died in 2002, Rombauer established the Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at the University of California at San Francisco. His philanthropic efforts also included supporting the V Foundation for Cancer Research, Collabria Care, Napa Valley Land Trust and the St. Helena Montessori School. He was also a longtime supporter of the St. Helena High School Future Farmers of America and Agriculture Program.

He is survived by his second wife, Sandy, along with children Sheana and K.R., grandchildren Reagan, Drew, Seth, Lane and Ransome, and sister Kay Thornton.

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