Note: The following article was originally written by Kim Marcus and published in the Wine Spectator on November 30, 2018 and can be found here.
Peaks & Valleys California Merlot is at its best in Napa, where vineyards at diverse elevations deliver distinctive styles
Though Merlot is grown throughout California, Napa Valley is by far the variety’s powerhouse appellation. Yet the region’s wines are not all cut from the same cloth. There’s a marked contrast in style between wines grown on the valley floor and those sourced from mountain sites. The driving force in both types is texture, but the valley wines tend to be fleshy and richer, while higher altitudes provide more structure and purity of flavor. The two top bottlings in this report-one from a high-elevation site and one from valley vineyards—help bring those styles into focus, and their differences can be instructive when it comes to making buying decisions with this versatile grape.
In the past year, I’ve tasted 135 Merlots and Merlot-based blends, with an impressive 43 scoring an outstanding 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. (A free alphabetical guide to all wines tasted for this report is available.) The flagship mountain bottling is the La Jota Howell Mountain 2015 (93 points, $85), which offers intense and pure red fruit flavors. La Jota is in the stable of the Jackson Family group of wineries, as is another outstanding mountain Merlot, the Mt. Brave Mount Veeder 2015 (91 $80), with robust and well-knit dried berry and black fruit flavors. The wines are firmly tannic and fresh-tasting, hallmarks of the higher altitudes where they were grown—both at about 1,800 feet, though on opposite sides of the valley.
Skilled Jackson Family veteran Chris Carpenter made both La Jota and Mt. Brave. “There’s a structure to mountain Merlot that is incredibly compelling. And a lot of how I think about Bordeaux varieties in the mountains is tannin development,” he says. “How are the tannins in sync with the sugars, phenols, acid and other compounds? Ultimately, I’d like to have them all in their respective sweet spots, but they all act independently of each other.”
Tannins are usually bigger in mountain-grown grapes, which are typically smaller in size than valley fruit and have a higher skin-to-pulp ratio (skins are tannin-rich). The small berry size is mostly due to the poorer soils and cooler conditions found in the mountains. “The vines are struggling here more than on the valley floor, because there’s very little clay in the soils that retains water and [the soils] are low in nutrients,” Carpenter adds. “Tannins are protective and are there to allow the fruit to ripen.”
To help wrangle those tannins, Carpenter employs a variety of techniques. He is careful to optimally sequence the harvest down to the individual row or plot, which is complicated by the many vineyard exposures, including the shadows cast by tall mountain forests. That’s more of an issue on Mount Brave, where the slopes are steep compared to the relatively level terrain found at the top of Howell Mountain. In the cellar, Carpenter encourages modest exposure to the softening effects of oxygen through aerative pump-overs along with gentle racking into barrels.
The top representative from the valley floor this year is the Venge Oakville Oakville Estate Vineyard 2015 (93, $70), big and rich, with luscious dark fruit flavors. Grab this one while you can, because its vines were pulled for replanting after the vintage. It was made by Kirk Venge, of the family-owned estate in Calistoga, who is now hoping replicate its quality in future vintages with fruit from the nearby Kenefick Ranch vineyard, among other sources.
“I love the approachability of Merlot. The flavor profile has a softer body to it. It’s fun to see its personality and, compared to Cabernet, it shows the terroir better,” Venge says. “We’ve always stuck by Merlot and never abandoned it, even with Sideways,” he adds, referring to the 2004 hit movie in which Merlot was disparaged and that many believe led to the sizeable drop in demand for the wines in the ensuing years. “It’s wonderful in a blend and great by itself, but it is hard to grow because it is prone to poor fruit set and overcropping. It can give you some attitude.”
Venge points outs that he considers Kenefick, which features a very gentle slope at the base of the Palisades cliffs just south of the town of Calistoga, to be more a benchland site than a pure valley vineyard. It also one of the warmest areas in Napa, and Venge is careful with canopy management to protect against the strong rays of the sun. The soils here are gravelly and well-drained, traits the site shares with the vineyard that produced last year’s top-scoring Merlot, the Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Napa Valley 2014, which also took Wine of the Year honors.
“We do ripen earlier here but it’s a good location. It gets sun, that’s for sure, but a little later [in the day] because of the Palisades and the narrowness of the valley here,” Venge explains. A tasting of the yet-to-be-released 2016 Kenefick Ranch Merlot revealed richness to the sanguine and spice box flavors. Venge added 5 percent Petit Verdot to the cuvée to build structure and boost depth of flavor; Carpenter added 3 percent Petit Verdot and 2 percent Tannat to his 2016 La Jota for the same reason.
In the list of recommended wines that accompanies this report, you will find additional examples of both mountain and valley styles. From the mountains, besides La Jota and Mt. Brave, top wines were made by Luna, Pride and Beringer. Due to their powerful structures, most would benefit from short-term cellaring and should be good matches for roasted meats and other savory dishes. The leading Merlots of the valley style include those from Flora Springs, Darioush, Stewart and St. Francis (in Sonoma). These are fine for sipping on their own or paired with pasta or grilled steak.
On the values front, you have to be choosy. High-yielding Merlot can taste thin and herbal, and it requires committed winemaking to make high quality affordable versions. Planting it in the right terrain is key as well—with rich soils, the grapes can overproduce and turn weedy; in poorer soils, the tannins can turn tough.
“Like Cabernet does on thinner soils, Merlot can become a raisin even more quickly due to the size of the berry. Or at least head in that direction. Therefore I look for more glacial soils, loam soils, and if they have some clay, even better,” says Nick Goldschmidt, whose Goldschmidt Dry Creek Valley Chelsea Goldschmidt Salmon’s Leap 2015 (90, $20) is one the top values in this report. Other key factors for Goldschmidt include selecting rootstocks in the vineyard that can produce ripe fruit in California’s bone-dry summers without dehydrating. In the cellar, keeping quality high means long fermentations to extract as much flavor as possible.
An exceptionally priced wine for the quality is the Flora Springs Merlot Napa Valley 2014 (92, $30), with silky tannins behind the spicy red fruit flavors. Outside of Napa and Sonoma, the choices are more limited, though it’s worth the search to experience the varying expressions of this versatile grape. Paso Robles is a reliable alternative, with the likes of the San Simeon Estate Reserve 2014 (90, $22), a big and rich red with loamy accents to the dark fruit flavors, and the Maddalena 2014 (88, $18), with red fruit flavors and minerally overtones.
“The most expensive wine in the world is a Merlot [Petrús in Pomerol] and we should have a Merlot that garners that kind of respect,” though not at such a high price, says Jackson Family’s Carpenter. “We have the terroir for it.”
Ambitions still run high in California for Merlot, both on the mountains and in the valleys. And with the best versions generally rich in dark fruit flavors and appealing spice and savory herbal notes, and a bit softer and more open-textured overall than Cabernet, Merlot remains an enticing big red from the Golden State.
Senior editor Kim Marcus is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on California Merlot.
Our one-of-a-kind Holiday Wines are a year-round labor of love. Each year, the artwork changes and provides a unique, limited-edition Napa Valley wine to give or collect for yourself.
We’re excited to expand our annual tradition with a beautiful new holiday-themed release, our 2016 Holiday Helper Cabernet Sauvignon. The charming label artwork was created for us by self-taught artist and illustrator Ruth Harper—who is best known for her work in many New York Times #1 best-selling children’s picture books.
This is the second wine label Ruth has created for us, and her whimsical watercolor of those hard-working but ever-cheerful elves wrapping their holiday gifts is a reminder that even Santa needs a little help!
Ruth began work back in December of last year. “Now that the holiday rush is over (and what a LOVELY Christmas we had!), I’ve settled down to resume creating – all warm and cozy, with a shivery snow-covered landscape outside. You should see the gorgeous frosty designs on my windows. Dark chocolate syrup in my freshly-ground coffee and a sweet Aussie at my feet warm my fire as I work…”
We love the comforting setting Ruth describes, and we love the final illustration even more. Below you can see the progression and evolution of this year-long project.
Twenty years ago Nat and Anne Komes tied the knot on Halloween in a unique and fun celebration – it really is Nat’s favorite holiday! This was after a beautiful, traditional ceremony in Anne’s hometown in France. Join us in wishing them a very Happy Anniversary!
Note: The following article was originally written by Chris Macias and published in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 30, 2018 and can be found here.
The Napa Ghost Wineries You Can Visit
Trek around Wine Country, near its luxury hotels and fine-dining destinations, and you’ll find the remnants of wineries that date back to a time when Napa wasn’t so flush. These are vestiges of the Dark Ages for California wine. They’re known as ghost wineries, not because they’re haunted (though that’s up for debate in some cases), but because they serve as an important link between Napa’s early years as a wine region and the bustling destination it is now.
Napa Valley had a thriving wine industry in the 19th century, with more than 140 operating wineries opened by the final decade. But starting in the late 1880s, the region was hit with a triple blow that left the local wine industry reeling for decades. First, an outbreak of the lethal grapevine virus phylloxera crippled wine production for 20 years. Then the Great Depression arrived, which dovetailed with Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.
This half-century of setbacks left many California wineries in ruins. Although a few were able to stay in business by selling sacramental wine or grapes for home winemaking, the industry had withered to about three dozen by the time Prohibition was repealed. Many of the buildings remained vacant for decades, falling into ruin. Halloween notwithstanding, Napa’s ghost wineries are worth visiting any time of year. They’re scattered throughout the valley, offering a peek into a storied history and a spirit of perseverance that defines the area.
Here are a handful of the ghosts you can visit:
Flora Springs: This former home of the 1900 Rennie Brothers Winery in St. Helena, suffered a one-two punch at the turn of the 20th century. Not only were its vineyards hit by phylloxera, but a fire in its wine cellar decimated its production capabilities. After decades of inactivity, the property was purchased in the mid 1970s and renamed Flora Springs. The ghost winery has since been renovated and serves as a production facility, which visitors can see during tours of the Flora Springs estate. Flora Springs plays up its ghost winery heritage with Halloween releases including All Hallows’ Eve Cabernet Franc and Ghost Winery Malbec…
Note: The following article was originally written by Catherine Bugue and published in the St. Helena Star on October 16, 2018 and can be found here.
Wine of the week: Flora Springs All Hallows’ Eve 2016 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
It was dark. She was tense. He came at her with a knife.
And as she grabbed the knife away from him, she sighed irritably, and used the corkscrew end to open the wine bottle herself. She was in no mood for his theatrics.
It’s Halloween — it’s time for stories! Why not gather up friends and good wine on the 31st for a night’s respite from the weekly grind? Adding a wine like Flora Spring’s iconic All Hallows’ Eve Cabernet Franc brings good fun to the mix. The 2016 Cabernet Franc label features a spooked black cat and carved pumpkin; the wine has enough rich dark fruits and spice complexity to stand up to the spookiest of ghost stories.
See also special etched bottles like the Drink in Peace Merlot, complete with coffin wine box.
Order by 5 pm October 23 for delivery by Halloween. Please call (800) 913-1118 with questions on shipping times. Shop now.
Note: The following article was originally written by Jess Lander and published in the Napa Valley Register on October 11, 2018 and can be found here.
Creepy visitors, ghostly wines: Flora Springs gets into the spirit of Halloween
As a tribute to their 1885 ghost winery, one of the few remaining in the area, Flora Springs Winery goes all out for Halloween.
You can’t miss the trio of enormous skeletons that dance outside their Highway 29 tasting room in St. Helena. Inside, the walls are covered in cobwebs, rooms are transformed into a crematorium and morgue, and you might just find a headless horseman sitting at your table and struggling to sip his wine (for a lack of mouth). But the decorations, done by local design team, The Baker Sisters, are just the beginning. The winery’s Halloween preparation starts months in advance.
For eight years running, Flora Springs has released a collection of limited release, Halloween wines. Featuring custom labels and usually 100 percent bottlings of varieties that are traditionally used for blending, the initiative was started by Nat Komes, general manager and son of proprietors John and Carrie Komes. He has a personal fondness for the holiday and even tied the knot on Oct. 31.
Komes’ inspiration for the Halloween collection came from an unlikely place: beer. Once a year, hundreds of thirsty fans spend hours lined up outside Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing Company, all for a taste of their cult release, Pliny the Younger.
He wanted his own version of that, saying, “I was trying to generate some of that excitement in the wine business.”
There might not be a line outside of Flora Springs, but there’s certainly a high demand among the winery’s followers. The Halloween wines often sell out well before Halloween each year and have become collectors items in the cellars of many wine club members.
It all started with the Ghost Winery series in 2010. For the labels, Komes partnered with artist Wes Freed, best known for his eerie illustrations on Drive-By Truckers album covers. One of those albums was a favorite of Komes’ brother.
“My brother passed away from cancer right when I was starting the Ghost Winery project,” said Komes. “That’s how I got a hold of Wes Freed, because that was his favorite record at the time. I reached out to him, started telling him about my brother, how he loved the art, and he came right back to me and said, ‘Let’s get going on this.’”
Over the years, the Ghost Winery series evolved into the Halloween collection with a Ghost Winery label at its centerpiece. Always a bottling of malbec —fittingly sourced right in front of Flora Springs’ ghost winery — the label is a modern interpretation of the 1978 label. It features a sketch of the stone ghost winery building, which was severely damaged in a fire in 1900, but has since been restored.
While the Ghost Winery Malbec stays the same every year, the labels of the others change. Komes develops his vision by scouring through children’s books, album covers, comic books and even skateboards, then contacts the respective artist and commissions them to create a one-of-a-kind wine label for that year’s release.
His favorite label of 2018 is the 2016 All Hallows’ Eve Cabernet Franc, a throwback to old school Halloween imagery of a black cat and jack-o-lantern. The art was done by artist Emmenline Forrestal, a former wig maker who illustrated the children’s book “Gloppy,” a favorite of Komes’ daughter’s.
The true collectors item this year is the 2014 Drink In Peace Merlot. On it, a hand-etched, glow-in-the-dark skeleton holds a wine bottle across its chest. It even comes packaged in a coffin box.
And then there’s the 2013 Black Moon Cabernet Sauvignon. Available only in magnums, it’s already sold out and therefore as rare as an actual black moon (defined as an additional new moon that appears in a month or in a season, or the absence of a full moon or of a new moon in a month).
Skateboard artist Dennis McNett’s illustration depicts the phases of the moon surrounded by bats, which Komes said are regulars in the steeple of the ghost winery. The art is etched and hand painted on the bottle.
The new ghost tour
Those who want to taste the Halloween wines can reserve a tasting at The Room, Flora Springs’ St. Helena tasting room, but this year, the winery is taking their celebrations to a new level of creep with a ghost tour. Flora Springs has teamed up with Napa City Ghosts & Legends to lead a paranormal tour of the ghost winery and estate on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 10:30 a.m.
Komes said he was always curious if the ghost winery was haunted and that Napa City Ghosts have since identified three spirits during their recent visits. There’s Matthew, who supposedly died in a horse-related accident, a flapper who loves to party, and another man who gave off a particularly unsettling vibe.
Let’s hope he’s not in the mood for socializing that day.
For more information on Flora Springs’ Halloween tastings and ghost tour, visit www.florasprings.com/events.
Looking out across the Flora Springs Estate on this warm and sunny day, one would never know that fires were ravaging through parts of the Napa Valley just a year ago. From our vantage point, all appears to be as it always has been – green, lush and beautiful as always…something we often take for granted, but something we were reminded last year, that we shouldn’t.
As noted in previous updates, we didn’t have a crystal ball but we completed harvest on October 7th last year – the day before the fires began. This year, we are currently about one-third of the way through harvest. Last year we experienced several heat waves that sped things up a bit, while this year we have experienced a nice, consistent temperature range. We did see a small amount of rain last week, but fortunately it came and went without any effect on the vineyards.
In regards to harvest dates, people often ask, “Is this an average harvest?” or “Is this a “normal harvest?” However, “average” and “normal” are not necessarily synonymous. Average is a term that can be quantified. That is, if you have four decades of harvest dates, you can simply divide by 40 and find your average harvest date. But, normal depends on who you ask – and how long they have been farming grapes, and the conditions in which they have been doing it.
As you know may know, we sell a lot of our fruit to other wineries. Some of the newer wineries have only experienced harvests during the drought years, so their version of normal has been marked with early harvest dates and early completion dates. But if you ask someone who has been around for a while, you’ll hear a different definition of normal. Prior to 2008 for instance, very seldom – if ever, were grapes harvested before Labor Day, and seldom – if ever – was harvest completed before Halloween. So while we are only one-third of the way through harvest, it’s really more of the “normal” for us, if you don’t take into account the recent years of drought.
We have completed harvesting most all of our whites at this point: 100% of Pinot Grigio, 100% of Chardonnay and 96% of Sauvignon Blanc. We left a small amount of our Sauvignon Blanc on the vine to make a late harvest wine.
We will have pressed off all of the reds we have received thus far – Merlot and Sangiovese – prior to harvesting our next grapes on Monday. We will be receiving the first of our Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon starting next week.
Flavors are really starting to develop in the vineyard, and we’re looking forward to making some outstanding wines with what Mother Nature delivers!