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It’s not a stretch to say that Philippe Melka is, right now, the hottest winemaker in all of the Napa Valley (hottest as in “most in-demand,” and not as in “most hunky,” though admittedly I’d be a pretty poor judge of the latter). He’s got a 100-point Wine Advocate review under his belt with Dana Estates (no denying the power of that, no matter what your take on wine scores might be), and is now riding high on Dana’s stunning 2012 Premiere Napa Valley auction lot, which took the top-grossing slot at $70K.
So it’s interesting, in retrospect, that he was… let’s just say cautiously optimistic about Californian winemaking potential when coming to Napa from France with Dominus in the early 1990s. Being skeptical is part of the French culture, of course; and being skeptical about Napa wine is probably even more understandable when you’ve cut your winemaking teeth at Bordeaux stalwarts Haut Brion and Pomerol darling Chateau Petrus.
“In France I kept hearing, ‘in California they make good wine, but they have no sense of terroir’” he told me over lunch in the trailer that now marks the entrance to what will become the Napa Valley tasting room for Melka Wines, the only brand to which he’s attached his now-famous (in winemaking terms, anyway) surname. “And to some extent, they were right. I mean, everyone was planting Cabernet Sauvignon no matter what – regardless of the soil, the sunlight, everything. I was looking for limestone in Napa. I am still looking for limestone in Napa!”
Fast forward twenty-some-odd years from those cautiously-optimistic days, and through the thoroughly French exterior, you find someone that seems thoroughly Northern Californian at heart – a laid-back, down-to-earth surfer-dude of a winemaker. Philippe now consults on wines from the elegantly powerful (Vineyard 29, Parallel Wines, Entre Nous) to the sometimes-just-too-damn-powerful (Gemstone and Moone-Tsai), and he’s involved in at least one worst-kept-secret “cult wine” Napa project that I’ve tasted (if you’re wondering if that last one is worth the ton of money it would cost to try it, I’ll say this: I’ve had few wines that were bigger, but also few big wines that were better, and it’s got the purest black licorice and dark chocolate aromas I’ve ever encountered in a wine, period)…
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[ Editor’s note: While the following article contains a serious view on – and producer recommendations regarding – recent Napa Valley Merlot vintages, it employs a facetious style that may or may not offend you, depending primarily on whether or not you posses a sense of humor. If you are easily offended and/or have misplaced your sense of humor, please take care in reading the article. Also, if you’re a Merlot-hater who disagrees with anything that you find in this post, then you are wrong. And probably a jerk. Oh, crap… did I just offend you? Sorry… ]
Last year, I had a run-in with Napa Valley Pinot Noir at a multi-vintage perspective tasting held by the Napa Valley Vintners Association at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. It was… not a fun experience. In fact, it was sort of like having your palate beat up in a bar fight, with cigarette ashes poured over it for spite afterward, only slightly more dignified.
So it’s with much relief that I tell you the 2012 version of the NVV perspective tasting was substantially more pleasant, and gave me the opportunity to go through a blind tasting of three different vintages (2007, 2008 & 2009) from nine different producers. I skipped the overly-crowded Cabernet tasting entirely (hey, the Premiere Napa Valley auction was the following morning, and there’s only so much big-ass Cab I can handle in a 24-hour period) and went straight for the substantially less-well-attended tasting of that most-maligned of reds, Merlot.
After that short PNV Merlot immersion, I’m here to tell you a few things… but I want to start with this:
Merlot-bashing is for douchebags.
Seriously… over-generalizing to the point of hating on anything in the wine world is just plain stupid, because nothing contains more exceptions to prove the rules than the wine world. Hating on Merlot because a fictional character in a movie that is eight friggin’ years old (the movie, I mean, not the character… an 8-year-old bitching about wine in a major motion picture wouldn’t even be funny, it would just be weird) said that it makes sucky wine (and this is a character who actually drinks Merlot at the end of the same damn film)…? Well, that move is just so douchebaggy that we’d need to farm out design work to third-world sweat tech shops (hey Apple… are you listening??) in order to raise the manpower required to create enough instrumentation to measure the enormity of the douchbaggy-ness…
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Premiere Napa Valley – the annual auction event in which Napa Valley Vintners members create small-quantity, one-of-a-kind wine lots that are then bid on by wine industry/retailer types – is, basically, a total zoo.
And I love that it’s a zoo. It’s my kind of wine geek’s zoo: equal parts social event, fund-raiser, total chaos, and killer (but often big, thick, dense, tannic) juice. As I have for the past few years, I spent the last Saturday in February at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, tasting some of the NVV’s ultra-premium wares and watching the subsequent auction action (which becomes SRO rather quickly in the CIA’s top-floor conference area).
PNV is viewed as a bit of a bellwether for the U.S. fine wine biz’s economic outlook in general. I’ve seen it in lean years, when the parties are subdued and the auction results are pleasantly surprising when they’re decent. And I’ve seen it in years like 2012, when the parties were packed and everyone’s hopes were higher than the abv % in most of the Valley’s biggest Cab blends.
If PNV is a true wine biz litmus test, then the high-end of the market should feel pretty good, because the auction raked in $3.1M this year – a 31% increase over last year’s record take-away. The top lots went courtesy of Dana Estates, Kapcsandy, Ovid, Checkerboard Vineyards, Vine Hill Ranch, Joseph Phelps, Amuse Bouche, Duckhorn, Silver Oak, Levy and McClellan, and Shafer. And no, those were NOT necessarily my personal faves from the event, but I’m not bidding on any PNV lots so what the hell do I know. You can see who paid what for what by visiting www.premierenapawines.com (you know, in case you’re in the mood for spending $1000 on a bottle of Napa juice).
So… PNV’s results suggest sunny days ahead for the fine wine market, but how were the wines themselves? In short: big (but not always!), oaky (but pretty well balanced), tannic as all get-out (but not exclusively) and for the most part really friggin’ good. In fact, one of them may have been the best PNV wine I’ve ever had (and one of the greatest CA wines I’ve ever tried)…
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