Writing a blog can take up a significant amount of precious free time, especially if you feel compelled, as we do, to post at least once a week. With the pressure of jobs, kids, dogs, and the rest of life, we sometimes ask ourselves “is it worth it?” Just when one of us feels like taking a break, something good motivates us to keep at it. For us, the latest “something good” was making a connection through our blog (and our Twitter account @topochinesvino ) with Carol Reber, the Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer at Duckhorn Wine Company. One half of this blog duo has worked in Marketing for the past 15 years and has a strong affinity for branding, communications, marketing, sales and distribution. So when we connected with Carol via Twitter and she invited us to come up to Duckhorn Vineyards, we were doubly excited: first, we have been purchasing the wine for years and love it; second, Carol is an awesome marketer working in one of the coolest businesses we can imagine. If you don’t believe us, look her up on LinkedIn.
For those that have read our prior blog entries, you know that our goal since moving to Napa in 2013 is to taste wine at every one of the 450-500 wineries in Napa Valley. We are making our way through the list haphazardly, with no particular order. This past Friday we put Duckhorn to the top of our list and made the trip up the Valley close to the town of St. Helena. The Duckhorn tasting room is surrounded by beautiful vineyards and is worth a walk-around pre- or post-tasting just to soak up the beauty and take some pictures.
After checking in we were given the option to sit inside or outside. Having just come up from a tasting in the Carneros region 15 miles to the south, we hesitated, as the temperature in St. Helena was at least 20-25 degrees warmer. But when we saw the stunning outside covered veranda, we opted for the outside tasting. When we got to our table, I knew we were in for a nice afternoon.
Even before getting to our table, we had been offered a glass of Duckhorn’s Sauvignon Blanc. It was a perfect match for the warm day: crisp, balanced, with nice fruit flavors but also minerality and acidity to round out the finish. When we finished the Sauv Blanc it was time to get to the real tasting. As the picture at the beginning of the article shows, Duckhorn tastings include a card for each wine being served. These cards provide an overview of the wine, tasting notes, and other useful information. We wondered immediately why other wineries do not provide something similar; the cards were so useful we took them home with us.
The first two wines in the tasting were Merlot. If you’ve seen the movie “Sideways,” or even heard about it, you might have a skewed view of the quality of this noble varietal. To refresh everyone’s recollection, there is a scene in Sideways where Paul Giamatti’s character says: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any (d)ucking Merlot.” That was it – less than 30 seconds in a 7,380-second movie, but it had a measurable impact on the sale of Merlot wine in the U.S. Pardon the editorial, but this is an idiotic reaction. There, we said it. Across the world, there are hundreds and hundreds of red wine varietals. We really mean it – hundreds. Of these hundreds, only four red varietals are considered to be “noble”: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Merlot. In arguably the world’s best wine region – Bordeaux – nearly two-thirds of the vines are planted to Merlot. Wines from the famous “Right Bank” of Bordeaux are typically blends comprised of a majority of Merlot. One of the best wines in the world, Chateau Petrus, is made from mostly Merlot (in some vintages, 100% Merlot).
Are there terrible Merlot wines out there? Yes! If you don’t like terrible wines, don’t drink them. But don’t condemn a noble varietal because of a line in a movie or because you tasted some crappy Merlot that, based on its rock-bottom price, you should have known was going to be bad. Now that we got that out of our system …I can tell you that the Duckhorn Merlot is spectacular. Our intrepid hostess and wine guide, Carol, told us that the winery’s founder, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, were actually inspired to grow Merlot in Napa Valley from their experiences in France – and particularly Bordeaux, the Right Bank, and Chateau Petrus itself. As the price of a bottle of Petrus exceeds our monthly mortgage payment (and we have a pretty big mortgage!), we cannot say with any authority how close Duckhorn’s Merlot comes to Petrus. What we can say, though, is that the two we tried were delicious, and excellent examples of a European, terroir-based approach to making wine. While they had strong fruit aromas and flavors, the Merlot’s also had strong earthy elements, with hints of granite and chalkiness. Both wines were wonderfully balanced with medium tannin and long finish.
We also tasted two Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon offerings from Duckhorn as well as a Cabernet from Canvasback, a relatively new wine from Washington state, and some Pinot Noir from Goldeneye, a winery Dan and Margaret founded in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Carol was exceedingly gracious and generous with us, pouring many more wines than a typical tasting.
In addition to sharing wine with us, Carol gave us a lot of insight about the origins of Duckhorn, its founding over 40 years ago, the commitment of its founders, and their approach to wine making. We also learned about the new owners of Duckhorn, who are clearly balancing respect for the founder’s traditions with a vision for growing and enhancing the brand. Expansion into other states, managing and growing multiple labels, planting new vines, and building world-class facilities requires investment. From what we can see, Duckhorn has a strong team dedicated to making great wines from multiple wine regions in the United States. We will be adding Duckhorn to the “must visit” list we share with friends and family when they come to Napa.
John & Irene Ingersoll
August 19, 2016