Thursday, November 24, 2011

Duckhorn Vineyards – St. Helena, California

After visiting Clos Pegase the bright morning sun departed behind a sheet of clouds that came over the Mayacama Mountains. I then headed south on the Silverado Trail to St. Helena to revisit Duckhorn Vineyards, one of my Top Ten favorite wineries out of the 109 wineries in the Napa Valley I have visited since the Spring of 2000.

Duckhorn Vineyards’ was co-founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. Dan Duckhorn, a native of Santa Rosa and graduate of U.C. Berkeley, toured the Pomerol and Saint-Émilion in the Bordeaux region of France in the mid-1970s with Richard Forman, who as winemaker of Sterling Vineyards is credited with introducing vintage-dated Merlot and (along with Dick Graff) barrel fermentation of white wines to California and later went on to help found Newton Vineyards.

Subsequently Dan Duckhorn returned to California with Margaret to promote a new market and develop a tradition with a focus on the production of Merlot. Though many Napa Valley wineries were using Merlot as a blending grape in the late 1970’s, few were exploring the potential of this varietal as a stand-alone wine.

Duckhorn Vineyards’ production eventually grew from 1,600 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in 1978 to more than 20,000 cases in 2006. Beginning in 1988, Duckhorn Vineyards purchased seven estate vineyards on Howell Mountain and the valley floor, for a total of 168 acres in the Napa Valley, and four vineyards totaling 153 acres in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.

All of Duckhorn Vineyards’s Wines are barrel-aged separately by vineyard lot, utilizing an extensive barrel program that sources 25 different types of oak from 13 separate cooperages. The resulting wines combine accents from a comprehensive barrel program with grapes from diverse smaller appellations within the broader Napa Valley, including Howell Mountain, Carneros, Yountville, Rutherford and St. Helena. For nearly three decades, the commitment to crafting wines of distinction has remained at the heart of the Duckhorn Vineyards philosophy. As its Napa Valley estate properties continue to mature the winery will continue creating world-class wines from exceptional vineyards.

So, for over thirty years Duckhorn Vineyards has been producing some of the finest wines in the valley, particularly Merlot and Bordeaux blends. From its modest inaugural vintage of 800 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 800 cases of Merlot in 1978, to its addition of Sauvignon Blanc in 1982, Duckhorn Vineyards has crafted a tradition of quality and excellence that continues today.

In July 2007, GI Partners, a private equity firm, purchased a controlling interest in Duckhorn Wine Company and with it Duckhorn’s various brands.


One of my favorite things about Duckhorn is not only the consistent superb quality of the wines, but they have a “sit down” tasting room where you can comfortably lounge in the garden, on the porch or inside the house and the polite and service-oriented staff brings you each sample in a different glass. This (as opposed to standing at a wine bar) is how I prefer to sample wines!

After exploring the vineyards, I ventured into the entrance where I was greeted by the friendly host who then escorted me to a window seat in the tasting room. For $20 I then sampled the following wines:

The first pour was the 2010 Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (75% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Semillon). This is an absolutely superb white wine with a gorgeous bouquet of tropic fruits, fresh pineapple, melon, and a crisp lemon zest that then lingers on the palate for days along with grapefruit, canned pears and great acidity and yet it also has a full creamy mouth feel. This wine sells for $27, which is about $5 more than I typically spend for a bottle of this varietal but I just had to take one home.

My next wine was from a sister winery, the 2008 Goldeneye Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley. The aromas of this wine reminds me of a cross between a scented burning Christmas Candle and smoky bacon on the frying pan. It has plenty of fruit  with cranberry sauce, chocolate covered cherries, and sweet oak and a touch of licorice. A really nice wine BUT a bit steep at $55 a bottle.

My next two wines were served side-by-side, the 2008 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot and the 2008 Stout Vineyard Merlot which is 100% Merlot. The Napa Valley on the other hand is a blend of 86% Merlot, 9.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc. Both of these wines are absolutely superb! The Napa Valley sells for $52 and the Stout is $85, yet I actually preferred the Napa Valley. Neither is your typical Merlot, both are big, opulent, rich wines but I found the Napa Valley had more complexity and a more interesting evolution through the front and mid palate and more intriguing finish.

I then tasted side-by-side three different Cabernets – the 2008 Duckhorn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the Monitor Ledge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and Rector Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

The 2008 Duckhorn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is really a Bordeaux/Meritage blend of 80% Cabernet, 13% Merlot, 5% Cabernet franc, 2% Petit Verdot. This is an absolutely gorgeous wine with layers of blackberries, black currants, raspberries and plums on the nose. On palate the wine has a firm grip but still delivers silky tannins followed by some damp earth and creamy vanilla with just a hint of sweet oak and spice on the finish. A really great wine but at $65 a bottle there is a lot of stiff competition with comparable wines in the $45 - $60 range.

The next wine was the 2008 Monitor Ledge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (96.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Petit Verdot). Monitor Ledge Vineyard  is a 43-acre parcel planted to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Franc. Located on the alluvial fan of Selby Creek, the site is composed of cobblestones and a gravelly sandy loam and is located in one of the warmer growing regions of the valley. This is a slightly bigger and more aggressive wine than the previous wine and could probably use some more time in the bottle before it really shows its full potential. Think of this wine as a more exotic big brother of the Napa Valley Cab with more focus and intensity but slightly less complexity and variation in profile. The ’08 Napa Valley Cab is a “drink now” wine and the Monitor Ledge is a “save for your wedding anniversary ten years from now. A great wine, with a big price tag at $95 a bottle. But I suspect in a few short years you’ll have to pay 3 times as much for this vintage.

My final wine in this trio was the Rector Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (100% Cabernet Sauvignon). The vineyard is located north of Yountville along the Silverado Trail adjacent to the Paraduxx winery (also owned by Duckhorn). This is a big and intense wine and like the Monitor Ledge could use a couple more years in bottle before it can be truly appreciated. On the nose and palate I picked up big black licorice followed by flowers and spice and a nutty finish. A great wine with a big price tag to match at $95 a bottle.

To see more pictures of the Duckhorn Vineyards, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

For more information or to visit:

Duckhorn Vineyards
1000 Lodi Lane
St. Helena, California 94574
Phone: 1-888-354-8885
Open daily from 10:00am to 4:00pm

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