Posts Filed Under winemaking
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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“We don’t want a square strawberry.”
So opines Ridge’s Paul Draper in the first half of Wine From Here, a documentary about (and at points a bit of a commercial for) the budding natural winemaking movement in California (I got a sneak peak by invitation from one of the filmmakers, Martin Carel of Wino Brothers Inc.). The trailer is embedded below for your viewing pleasure.
The film will be screened in L.A. in a couple of days, followed by a tasting of natural wines with winemakers featured in the film at BUZZ Wine / Beer Shop – and if you buy tix to the event online you’ll get 1/3 off the full price by using discount code “1WD” at checkout!
Draper’s comment above is in reference to (what I think is) the strongest selling point behind natural winemaking: consumers ought to know what they are getting when they buy a product, and in the case of wine sometimes they are getting a lot more than just fermented grape juice, primarily in the form of various additives (for more on that topic, and for a rough definition of natural winemaking itself, see my review of Alice Feiring’s new book – she makes several appearances in the film, by the way). And as we know well, consumer sentiment is king, and will play a large part in whether or not the natural winemaking movement gains any serious traction in the wine biz and becomes the vinous equivalent of the organic / slow food phenomena.
Based on the film (which is well-made, and is highly recommended watching for wine geeks), the natural winemaking movement sorely needs to emphasize its strong points, because it’s still touting a few tenets that hold less water than well-drained gravelly vineyard soils…
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What Is The Job Of The Winemaker Today?
Simple question, right? “Duh! To make wine!” you might be answering to yourself. What could be more simple than that?
But real wine lovers, and real winemakers, know better; they know that almost no other query could be more complicated, opinionated, difficult, thought-provoking, or (hopefully!)invigorating to answer.
Which is exactly what drove me to ask it.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after visiting hundreds of winemaking outfits of all sizes all over the world, it’s that no two winemakers ply their craft in exactly the same way, or with exactly the same ends in mind, or exactly the same attitudes. But one thing in that world is consistent: the majority of those same people invariably have passionate stances on both the How and the What of their jobs as winemakers. Theirs are the kinds of viewpoints that make for fascinating reading – and even more fascinating discussion and debate.
I wanted a techy interview, but one with passion, soul, and life . – in the hopes that it would fascinate, entertain, educate and maybe even get your wine blood boiling. To that end, I’ve staked the decks significantly in favor of passionate discussion by posing it to Matt Powell, the force behind Lodi’s Draconis Vineyards. Matt’s wines are focused and powerful – just like his viewpoints. He’s active on social media, is a big fan of comics, and takes his wine very, very seriously; case in point – visitors to the Draconis Vineyards at one point were greeted with the following message:
“I have no lists, clubs, or membership bullshit.”
Matt’s take on the job of the winemaker today? It’s just as straightforward, opinionated, and fascinating as you’d expect form the person who authored that welcome message, and who told me this about a recent vintage: “I tossed the entire 2009’s; weren’t good enough.” A review of one my faves of Matt’s wines follows our interview. Enjoy!…
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