Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Easter Weekend at Merryvale Vineyards – St. Helena, California

After visiting Napa Cellars, on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I headed up north on highway 29 to Merryvale Vineyards in St. Helena.

Merryvale Vineyards was the first winery built in Napa Valley following the repeal of Prohibition. In 1933, Jack Riorda and Charles Forni expanded Riorda’s winery and created Sunnyhill Winery. They then changed the winery’s name to Sunny St. Helena and it was later owned by Cesare Mondavi, the father of the famous Robert Mondavi. After many owners, in 1971, it was bought by the Christian Brothers (now called the Culinary Institute of America) and was used for storage. Then in 1996 it was bought by the Schlatter family in 1996 with Jack Schlatter serving as the proprietor and his son Rene Schlatter as the president.
 The Schlatter family then renovated the facility and started making wine under two labels: Merryvale and Starmont. Sean Foster is Merryvale’s senior winemaker, and is joined by winemaker Graham Wehmeier. 

 The winery is surrounded by beautiful gardens and a large water fountain welcomes visitors into the tasting room. The winery is ideally located in downtown St. Helena, adjacent to Tra Vigne, one of my favorite restaurants in the valley. 

 Inside the winery is a charming Cask Room where they host private events, seasonal wine club events, winemaker dinners, and unique Wine Experiences for visitors. The winery also features a state-of-the-art winemaking cellar that showcases the latest equipment to craft boutique wines. You can also reserve private tastings in the Barrel Room and they host special events in the Cask Room, with its enormous 22,000-gallon, wood fermentation tank. 

 The tasting room has a large bar made of fir and redwood, as well as a bench made out of well-used barrel staves. In addition to the wines there are also wine and artisan cheese tastings available.

 Merryvale produces about 10,000 cases of wine a year, consisting of both Bordeaux, Burgundian and Rhône varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Viognier, and Syrah. Their most notable and highly acclaimed wine is called Profile, a proprietary red blend using Bordeaux varietals.

Merryvale has two tasting flights tiers – the Signature Tasting ($15) and the Profile Tasting ($35). They also have Limited Production Wines and the Prestige Wines available for purchase. While visiting I tasted the following wines from the following flights:

The first pour was not on the tasting menu - the 2010 Rosé, which is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Syrah. This wine is dry, slightly fruity displaying a classic profile of strawberries, cranberries, raspberries and orange rind on the nose and palate. It has a full mouth feel with a touch of tannin gripping the gums and mouth watering good acidity. This wine feels more substantial than your typical Rosé. A great summer wine for $25 a bottle.

My next wine four wines were from the Profile tasting series:

The first, and only white, was the 2009 Silhouette Chardonnay. The grapes are from Carneros and the Napa Valley. This wine was whole cluster pressed and 100% fermented in French oak barrels, aged sur lie, with occasional stirring of the spent native yeasts. It underwent full malolactic fermentation. After ageing for 17 months in 77% new French oak and 23% in previously used barrels it was bottled unfined and unfiltered. As one might expect from this style of wine making this is a BIG Chard! On the nose it displays buttered popcorn, stone fruits (apricots), dried peaches, hazelnuts and roasted marshmallows. On the palate has a full mouth feel, good acidity and lemon custard on a lingering finish. If you like this style of Chard, this one is great but it is a bit steep at $65 a bottle. But this is also a very age worthy wine and I’d expect it to improve over the next 10-15 years.

My first red wine was the 2010 Carneros Pinot Noir. This wine is your typical Carneros Pinot – big bright and fruity cherries, supple tannins, good acidity, a hint of cloves and medium bodied. This wine is $35 a bottle and is comparable to many of Pinots from the region.

My second red was my favorite in the line-up, the 2007 Merlot, Napa Valley. This wine is legally a “Merlot” but it is actually a Bordeaux blend of 75% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Cabernet Franc. This wine is BIG, luscious and complex with dense concentrated black cassis, black cherries and licorice on the nose. On the palate this wine is full bodied, has good structure, well-integrated tannins and a really long finish with notes coffee on the return. As much as I love Duckhorn Merlots, I think this one has got their Three Palms Vineyard Merlot beat for about $38 less at $48 a bottle. So, I brought one home.

My next wine was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. This wine is 99% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Cabernet Franc. It was aged 19 months in French oak (70% new), including 20% in 500 liter puncheons. Visually this wine is really dark and it leaves purple streaks in the legs and stains the glass. On the nose the bouquet is still very tight, but after much swirling I picked up black currants, cigar box, a hint of vanilla and sweet oak. On the palate this wine is full bodied with supple tannins the profile of nose is confirmed with an additional hint of mint on the return. The 2007 vintage is an excellent one for Napa Cabs and this is a primo example. The wine still seems very youthful and could probably use a couple more years to reach its peak. A great wine but at $65 a bottle it is a bit steep.

My next sample was the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. The wine is very different than the ’07. It is earthier with notes of beef jerky and a salty minerality followed by stewed plums, cassis and sweet tobacco. On the palate this wine has supple well developed tannins and is ready to drink now but could also be held for a couple more years. Another great wine for $65 a bottle.

My next two samples were from their Prestige series:

The first was the 2008 Profile Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. This wine is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Petit Verdot, 6% Malbec, and 1% Cabernet Franc. The nose is a bit tight but after some serious swirling I picked up blackberry, cassis, black tea, a slight hint of bacon grease, followed by hints of vanilla, spice and toasty oak. A fantastic wine but $165 is REALLY steep! If I was going to shell out some big bucks on Cabs, I’d rather have two of the ’07 and ’08 Napa Cabs from the Profile series and save $30.

My final wine was the 2006 Profile Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. The aromas and palate of this wine is very similar to the ’08 Profile Cab but the flavors are more integrated, the tannins are more supple so the ready is ready to drink now. Again, a really beautiful wine but insanely expensive at $165 a bottle.

To visit or for more information:
 Merryvale Vineyards
1000 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
Phone: 1-707-963-7777
Open daily: 10 a.m. until 6:30 p.m.