Duck’s Unlimited

After the J.Lohr winery piece last month, I received some very nice feedback on that style of content. For me, wine has always been about the people and the stories that surround them… that’s what makes winery history so interesting…the journey to that end point. And in that particular wine bottle, something magical to share with family, friends, and good food…the cycle continues. Now just to clarify, I have nothing against the big corporate wineries, as they make some very nice wines. It’s just my humble opinion that wine tastes better when it’s made by a family. So with that in mind, I’d liked to share some more winery profiles, and share the personal side of the business.

One that has been around for a while is the good folks at Duckhorn in the heart of the Napa valley. Celebrating their 35th vintage this year, they were part of the van guard in the 70s that helped put California on the world wine map. From the end of Prohibition thru the 60s, Napa was a sleepy little town. Robert Mondavi had kicked off the new renaissance when he opened the first new winery in the valley since Prohibition (1966). Others quickly followed, among them Mike Grgich (Grgich Hills), Donn Chappellet (Chappellet winery), Jim Barret (Chateau Montelana), Warren Winiarski (Stags Leap Wine Cellars), and a new winemaker by the name of Ric Forman who worked at another new winery (Sterling).And this is just my personal tip of the iceberg when it comes to the new pioneers in Napa.

And a young man by the name of Dan Duckhorn was soon to make his contribution to the “modern” history of the valley. A Northern California native, Dan earned his MBA from the University of California at Berkley. In the ensuing years, he worked for a variety of companies, before heading up a company called Vineyard Consulting Corporation (VCC) in 1971.This company specialized in consulting for many of the new and old wineries emerging on the scene. Dan had quickly traded the boardroom for the vineyard. With his “boots on the ground” approach, he began his wine education, literally from the ground up. As he discovered early on, it takes a great vineyard property to make great wine. There is a very complex balancing of elements that enables the humble grape vine to make spectacular wine. As anyone knows in the Hill country that has wild mustang grapes on their property, they don’t need much to produce fruit…sun, soil and water. The fruit is pretty basic, not great. And this is where the majority of the wine industry had been stuck since the 30s.Grape production was geared for whatever and wherever inexpensive and high yield grapes would grow. The result was the Chablis, Burgundy, and Rose’ era…drinkable wines, but not a lot of sophistication or finesse. But this was about to change dramatically, and for the better for the American consumers.

Part of Dan’s expertise was his new mantra that great wine starts in the vineyard, influenced by the choices made in varietal, clones, and most importantly, terroir. This was a pretty radical concept for many of the growers at the time, and Dan’s company (VCC) helped raise that level of awareness. They were at the forefront of making wineries aware of the real importance of the elements involved in their consulting work. Topics such as vineyard row spacing, row orientation to the sun, valley floor versus mountain fruit, pairing varietals to appellations, new improved rootstocks, new improved trellising systems, and even micro-climates entered the lexicon of winemaking discussions. Dan could easily see that the industry was ready to make a huge shift from quantity to quality.

The defining moment soon came on a trip to France with Rick Forman in the mid 70s when they visited the Pomeral and Saint-Emilion appellations in the Bordeaux region. For centuries these regions produced magnificent red wines that were primarily Merlot based, the most famous being the critically acclaimed Chateau Petrus. Dan had the opportunity to see, observe, and more importantly, taste what the French winemakers had developed all the way from their classic vineyards to the finished bottle. Ric had just recently introduced the first varietal labeled Merlot at Sterling, and felt this grape had tremendous potential in California. But most of the time, Merlot had been used as a blending grape in red wine production.

Now the die was cast. With his in-depth knowledge of valley sites and their best grape matchups, Dan returned home and with his then wife Margaret, and founded Duckhorn Vineyards in 1976. His goal was a simple one…create a world class Merlot in Napa. The founding year was especially fortuitous, as greatness was soon to be thrust on Napa after a small tasting in Paris. Steve Spurrier assembled a top flight collection of French wine writers and critics, and had them rank a collection of the finest red and white wines. Worked into the mix was a group of wines that Steve had tasted on a recent trip to Napa. What this blind tasting provided was a huge understatement as the Chateau Montelana Chardonnay and the Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon were judged the best white and red wines, in a group that had included the very best French examples produced. Time magazine ran with the story, and the Judgment of Paris is now viewed as the start of the fine wine industry in California. Riding this wave of appreciation and anticipation was Dan’s first release in 1978…800 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and more importantly 800 cases of a vineyard designated Merlot from a little known site called the Three Palms vineyard.

Three Palms vineyard is an improbable designation for what has become one of the valleys most iconic vineyard sites, and often referred to as America’s Petrus. In the late 1800s, Napa was a weekend destination for many San Franciscans that sought a close getaway in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city…sounds like a small town in south Texas I’ve come to love. They bought land, built vacation homes and embraced the sleepy nature of the Napa Valley. One that escaped to Napa on a regular basis was a San Francisco socialite named Lillie Hitchcock Coit. She built a beautiful home, named it Larkmead, and entertained family and friend there till her death in 1929. The legacy she left the city of San Francisco is the famed Coit Tower landmark that towers from the hills of the city. The legacy she left the world of California wine were three lone palm trees, all that remained of her holdings. Purchased by the Upton brothers in 1967, they had the radical plan to plant it to vineyards. The 83 acre site seemed a poor choice with minimal soil deposits, dominated by volcanic stones that had washed down the hillsides over the centuries on the northwest side of the valley floor. The locals thought they were nuts when they planted their first grapes in 1968, but they were looking at the site with the fresh perspective of matching the right grapes to the right location. The rocky soil was rich in nutrients and well drained, helping to ”stress” the grapes to produce the best fruit possible by making the root sections search far and wide and especially deep to locate the food and water they needed. The stones helped absorb the heat of the sun, and radiate the heat back in the evening, helping to ripen the fruit and even helped provide frost protection when the vines are most at risk. The result was the development of the vineyards that are probably the most famous landmark in the valley. In 1992, the brothers lost one of the palms that was 102 years old, and replanted that site with a smaller 40’ palm, and with great affection renamed the vineyard 2 and one-half palms. The Uptons initially only sold their Merlot fruit to two wineries. Dan has produced an unbroken series of Three Palms designation Merlot every vintage since 1983. Now the Uptons sell all their grapes to Duckhorn. As the Uptons put it…”We have always believed in farming Three Palms for the right reasons. For love of the land, not ego. That’s a vision we have always shared with the people of Duckhorn. Ours has been a remarkably long partnership: one based on friendship, respect, and trust.” The other winery, if you’re interested and can even find some, was Sterling.

Soon dubbed the “King of Merlot” by the critic and consumers alike, Dan and his team worked on a disciplined growth plan that soon encompassed 13 distinct vineyard sites covering over 1000 acres that produce a portfolio that operates under the Duckhorn, Migration, Decoy, Paraduxx, and the Goldeneye labels. Dan and his team are not ones to rest on their laurels, and with four decades of experience in securing the best growing sites in Napa, Sonoma, and even Mendocino, they are ready for new challenges. As Dan puts it… (Over the years) ” you have to let the market tell you what to do. You can’t tell the market what to do”. Re-inventing himself as he explores new appellations and varietals is minimized, he feels, by using a high percentage of his estate fruit, thus controlling quality and cost. Surrounding himself with the best people is the other key part of his approach to the market. With Tom Rinaldi (now at Hewitt winery) as the founding winemaker all the way to Renee Ary, the current winemaker; he instills in them the creative freedom to utilize the best of every aspect in the winemaking process to produce consistently stellar wines. Case in point, their first ever release of a Napa Chardonnay. Starting in 2001, they began to tinker with this varietal, experimenting with different sites and clones, producing wine with no intention of selling until they got it not just right, but perfect. Originally scheduled for a 2011 debut, Mother Nature intervened with the perfect vintage in 2012.I had the distinct pleasure of tasting and reviewing this wine for a trade publication, and was very impressed with their inaugural vintage. I gave it 97 points.

I guess the best place to close is to look at the movie Sideways, and its effect on the Merlot category. It took a relatively unknown varietal and shot it to the top of public awareness, unfortunately with a corresponding increase in price. And by association, it was supposed to be the death knell for Merlot as a category leader in the red wine segment. But a funny thing happened. The category slowly grew even stronger. Those who made great Merlot continued to do so. Quantity of wineries that emphasized Merlot decreased, but quality increased consistently over the years. Remember Dan’s initial release in 1978 of 800 cases?  Thirty three vintages later, his 2011 release of Three Palms is slightly over 3000 cases. In the early 80s less than 2,000 acres were grown in California, in 2013 there are almost 45,000 acres being grown. The Merlot category is now up 6.5% in 2013. Next time you’re looking at a restaurant wine list or visiting The Boerne Wine Company, put Merlot on your list to discover or re-discover. As I did many years ago, a glass of Duckhorn is a rich sensory experience, beautiful layers of young fruit, leading to a long lingering finish. Hmmmm…looks like those rib-eyes are ready to come off the grill. Time to pull the cork on that next bottle for Kathy, Sheema, and John.



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