The Story of Katie’s Acre

March 18, 2021

It all started with a tree. 

A verdant, leafy, and particularly grand Paradox walnut tree to be exact.

Set on an acre of the estate where our finest Chardonnay is grown, today this tree is recognized by the California Big Tree Registry as a “Champion Tree” – the largest known living example of its species. With its far-reaching branches and sheer size, it is truly a sight to behold. 


Yet this wasn’t always the case. In fact, if it were not for a very special lady who cherished this tree, it wouldn’t be here today – and neither would the amazing wine we produce from the surrounding vineyards. This is the story of Katie’s Acre.

The far-reaching branches of the Paradox Walnut Champion Tree – the pride of Katie’s Acre

Katie’s Acre, as seen from a distance in mid-summer


While very much in love, Trefethen’s founders Eugene and Catherine had different approaches to some matters of life. Gene was a legendary businessman at Kaiser Industries where he played a major role in such massive earth-moving projects as the Hoover and Shasta Dams and the San Francisco Bay Bridge. So, when he and Catherine first came to Napa in 1968 and began work on the Trefethen estate, Gene’s first point of action was to set about preparing the land in much the same way he would any project: systematically and efficiently. After all, his vineyard needed to be productive!


In contrast, Catherine (or “Katie” to those who knew her best) was a master gardener, and her approach to the land was aesthetic. Her vision can be experienced in the landscape that still surrounds the Villa to this day. According to her grandson Lorenzo Trefethen, she fastidiously worked those five acres and created a wonderland with her horticulture. “Today, the road up to the Villa where Nana and Granddaddy lived is called ‘Catherine Lane’, and is lined with beautiful orange trees that she planted,” he shares. “They smell incredible when they bloom.”


As Gene went about reshaping the Trefethen estate and transitioning orchards to vineyards, he ran into some unexpected opposition with regard to one specific section of the property. Located in the middle of a hayfield was a massive walnut tree. Shading nearly an entire acre of land, the tree posed an inconvenience for Gene’s vineyard planning and needed to be uprooted. Katie, however, was captivated by the tree’s majesty and came to its rescue. As the story goes, she looked at Gene and said: “Don’t you dare touch that tree!”


In his many years of overcoming bureaucratic naysayers, this was perhaps the first “red tape” that stopped Gene in his tracks. And so with that declaration, Katie’s Acre, an acre of land dedicated to just one tree, came to be.


Both Gene and Katie saw potential in the land, but in their own unique ways. Having agreed to keep the excavators away from that Katie’s Acre, Gene planted new vineyards around the grand walnut tree. In time, the combination of their approaches yielded some very unexpected rewards.


“There was something special happening around the tree, “ Lorenzo explains. “In 2005, we went in there and completed probably the most intensive soil study that we’ve done to this day. At the time, we were trying to understand what was going on underground, what the roots of our vines were experiencing there. Over the past thousands of years, our local Dry Creek has moved across our property, leaving deposits of sand, silt, and gravel – a phenomenon known as an alluvial fan. In this special area of the vineyard, we discovered a stunning example of this influence.”


Katie’s Acre straddles an old creek bed that has left behind an extraordinary mélange of soil types. Within this 26-acre block, there exists both gravel and fertile loam soil types. With this new information, the Trefethen vineyard team selected four unique clones of Chardonnay and planted them on the banks of the creek bed in the loamy soil to which they are best suited. This special block features two Dijon clones, a Chardonnay musqué clone, and a California heritage clone called Hens and Chicks, which has become the star of the vineyard. “To find this special California heritage clone, we actually hand-selected it from Larry Hyde’s vineyards in Carneros,” says Lorenzo. “Back when now CEO Jon Ruel was still Trefethen’s viticulturist, he and our winemakers went and tasted the grapes from certain sections of Larry’s vineyard. They then homed in on individual vines that they thought were producing the best fruit and took plant material from those specific vines.”

From left, John and Janet Trefethen standing with Eugene and Catherine Trefethen

From left, John and Janet Trefethen standing with Eugene and Catherine Trefethen

The story goes that she looked at Gene and said: “Don’t you dare touch that tree!” In his many years of overcoming bureaucratic naysayers, this was perhaps the first “red tape” that stopped Gene in his tracks. And so with that declaration, Katie’s Acre came to be.


Interestingly, the specific clone that the Trefethen viticultural team ended up with – “Hens and Chicks” – is known for having irregular fruit set. The French refer to this as millerandage. Essentially, the berries do not develop into a uniform size as they grow. Rather, some achieve full size while others remain tiny and often seedless. 


While millerandage can be seen as undesirable in red varieties, according to Lorenzo this clone provides the core of the special wine we call Katie’s Acre Chardonnay. He goes on to explain why in the case of Hens and Chicks Chardonnay, it’s a plus: “The ‘chicks’ develop faster than the ‘hens,’ providing really great, ripe, verging-on-tropical fruit flavors. This is perfectly balanced by the ‘hens,’ which have this great intensity of acidity and sourness; very much on the citrus-end of the spectrum.” It is this unique combination, as well as the thoughtfulness of the winegrowing and winemaking, that contribute to a purity of place and exquisite flavor, making Katie’s Acre Chardonnay a truly spectacular wine.

The 2019 Katie’s Acre Chardonnay releases Spring of 2021 and completes the Trefethen Legacy Collection – named after the three generations of Trefethens who continue to inspire the estate. Each wine has a unique story, a specific intention, and an expressive personality. Along with Katie’s Acre Chardonnay, The Cowgirl & The Pilot Merlot, and HāLo Cabernet Sauvignon, these three distinct wines reflect the very best of Trefethen Family Vineyards. The Katie’s Acre Chardonnay label features the broad leaves and expansive trunk of the Paradox walnut tree, playing homage to Katie’s gift to the estate.

Lorenzo making the most memorable entrance on his horse

Melanie and Lorenzo’s wedding day under the beautiful champion tree


The story of Katie’s Acre continues to be written, with the most recent chapter forming a very important moment in Lorenzo’s life: his wedding ceremony! While the acre has been a space dedicated to celebration and community for some time (it’s where we gather to celebrate each harvest as a team), 2019 was a very special time in its history.


Lorenzo reflects back on the big day: “To be completely honest, the only wedding drama ‘freakout’ I had was on the morning of the wedding when I walked out after they had finished setting up all the chairs for people to sit on. I looked around in a panic and asked the planner: ‘Where are the rest of the chairs? There are only like half the number of chairs that we need here!’” Luckily, the wedding planner calmed a slightly panicked Lorenzo, explaining that there were indeed 120 chairs.


Lorenzo laughs: “That’s how big this tree is! Everything just looks so small underneath it. We had all of our family and friends under this tree and there was still space for me to gallop a horse around on my entrance! We chose Katie’s Acre because it is so meaningful to the family. Our wedding weekend was a tour of our favorite places in Napa and this is definitely one of our favorite places.”


At the time of writing, the Paradox walnut tree is at least 150 years old and continues to live in harmony on the Trefethen Family estate.


Trefethen harvest celebrations always take place in the shade of the grand walnut tree

Katie’s Acre playing host to the annual harvest celebrations (Image taken in 2019)

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