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Celebrating Family Ties

Robb Talbott was forced to choose between joining the family shirt and tie business and starting his own winery. He toasts his smart decision at a lunch showcasing his award-winning Chardonnays.

Robb Talbott was 34 when he got The Letter. He had a wife and a four-month-old daughter and he'd spent almost $50,000 building two small cabins, two barns and several miles of roads and fences on a hillside overlooking the lush Carmel Valley in central California.

"My dad was an old-fashioned kind of guy," Talbott says. "When he had something important to say, he wrote a letter, even though we lived in the same town. He wrote this one on a Thursday, July 15, 1982. I got it in the next day's mail. It was three pages long, and the gist of it was that it was time I got a full-time job. He basically gave me three options. One, put on a tie and come to work Monday morning at the family shirt and tie company. Two, start the winery we'd been talking about for years. Three, go back to Colorado and find something to do."

Talbott laughs at the recollection and at the choice that was really no choice. "I'd started making cardboard boxes for Talbott ties when I was eight years old, and I had no interest in the tie business. But I loved the Carmel Valley." That next Monday morning, Talbott was out on a tractor on their 24 acres, clearing vineyard land. Says Talbott, "We had nothing. We started from absolute scratch."

When his father died, in 1986, Robb Talbott's winery was still struggling, but the foundation had been laid: Robb had built a winery, put two Talbott Chardonnays on the market and was soon to release two more. Today Talbott Vineyards produces seven wines, has expanded its holdings to more than 700 acres and boasts a modern, 28,000-square-foot facility set amid the terraced Sleepy Hollow and River Road Vineyards in nearby Gonzales, California. With annual sales of about 25,000 cases, the wines, including the flagship Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay, are both highly rated and widely available--unlike those of most of the sought-after California boutique producers.

Talbott Chardonnays are rich and full-bodied, made with ripe fruit and possessed of an oaky, buttery flavor that comes from aging in new barrels. The Talbott style is perhaps best typified by the Chardonnay from the first vineyard Robb cleared, Diamond T Estate, adjacent to the family ranch. (The Diamond T was named after a truck that Robb restored in his prewinery days.) Subsequent Talbott wines have been named for Robb's three children, Sarah Case, Robert Logan and Kalin Hart. Robb and his wife, Cynthia, designed most of the labels, incorporating the family's 350-year-old Scottish coat of arms and using each of his children's favorite color on "their" labels.

Robb's aesthetic sense most likely derives from his mother, Audrey, who took over the shirt and tie company following her husband's death. Robert Talbott, Sr., had been an investment banker living in Connecticut before he moved the family to California in 1950. There they started the tie company and a few years afterward built the Carmel Valley house, where Audrey still lives. For several years, the business was a real mom-and-pop affair, with Audrey sewing bow ties on the back porch and Robert selling them out of his station wagon as he drove up and down the California coast.

In time the business grew, and the Talbotts opened a factory, expanded their line and began making fabric-buying trips to France and Italy. Wine was always on the Talbott dinner table, both in California and Europe, and Robb's father dreamed of starting his own winery. Strangely, the dream began to be realized when an arsonist burned down the family's tie production plant in 1972. "I was in Colorado at the time," Robb says. "I wanted to stay there, but my dad called and asked me to come back and help them find a new place and work on the transition."

Robb did what he was asked to do, as he has since then, but he has never taken an active role in the family business. And yet, despite his casual dress, Robb is proud of the Talbott name and its success in the fashion world, which includes frequent coverage in magazines such as GQ. "The Robert Talbott line is in all the best stores and is known all over the world," hesays. When Robb recently finished building the winery's first real tasting room, he filled it not only with bottles of Talbott wines but also with items from the company.

Robb also did most of the work converting his original 400-square-foot bachelor's cabin into a four-bedroom ranch-style home. The walls are covered with family photos of the Talbott children, of Robb on his bikes and motorcycles, of his mother sewing ties. But it's the view of the sun-dappled vineyards below that makes the house feel particularly special, as if it were a Tuscan hillside villa.

It's a setting that lends itself to entertaining, as Robb and Cynthia did when Victor Scargle, executive chef at Pisces, a restaurant in nearby Burlingame, put together a menu to showcase Talbott wines. The 1998 Kali-Hart Chardonnay accompanied the first course of white corn and clam soup, the 1996 Diamond T Estate Chardonnay paired with a lobster and heirloom tomato salad, and the rich, full-bodied 1997 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay was the match for the main course of grilled ahi tuna with kalamata couscous.

After the dinner, Robb related the story of how he and Cynthia first met. He'd been working part-time in the family's retail outlet in 1980 when his wife-to-be came in to buy fabrics. "It was absolutely love at first sight," he says. They were married the following Valentine's Day.

There is no question that Robb is a romantic. Perhaps the best proof of that is the Talbotts' most unusual bottling. Explains Robb, "Our winemaker, Sam Balderas, and I made a small quantity of wine without filtration or fining. We didn't tell Cynthia anything about it. One day, in the winter of 1992, I brought an unlabeled bottle home for her to taste. Cynthia said it was the best Chardonnay we'd ever made."

Three years later, at a winemakers' dinner in Palm Springs, Robb arranged to have a large basket of roses delivered to their hotel room. In the middle, he'd hidden the first bottle of the first vintage of the new wine. "I didn't know what the name of the wine was until I unwrapped it," Cynthia says. The label read "1993 Talbott Chardonnay, Cuvée Cynthia."

David Shaw, the media critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote about his search for a very particular (and very memorable) Albariño in the May issue of FOOD & WINE.

Published September 2000
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