Duckhorn Vineyards And The Unusual Triumph Of Merlot In Napa Valley
These days, Cabernet Sauvignon is king in Napa Valley. It’s been that way for some time now, so consider what Dan Duckhorn and his wife Margaret were thinking back in the late 1970s when they opted to focus, not on this variety, but instead on Merlot. It could have been a folly, even a disaster, but time has shown the wisdom of their decision. Today Duckhorn Vineyards is the most recognized and successful producer of Merlot in Napa Valley, and one of the most famous Merlot producers in the world.
This year, Duckhorn Vineyards, located in St. Helena in northern Napa Valley, is celebrating 40 harvests, and while Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are produced here, it is Merlot that is the signature variety of the winery. Six different examples are crafted in most vintages, ranging from a Napa Valley blend to various single vineyard offerings from around the valley.
Why did Dan Duckhorn decide on Merlot when he established his winery? As he is currently enjoying semi-retirement (though still a member of the board), I spoke with winery President and CEO Alex Ryan to learn the answer to this question, and to find out his thoughts on everything Merlot at Duckhorn. Given that Ryan started to work at the winery in 1981 while on summer vacation from high school, he is as well versed as anyone about this topic.
Alex Ryan, president and CEO of Duckhorn Wine Company
PHOTO COURTESY DUCKHORN VINEYARDS
“When you look at the history of the great wineries that shaped the modern age of Napa Valley, most were not developed from a business plan," says Ryan. “At their foundation, they were a reflection of the passions and palates of their founders and the wines that inspired them.” Ryan notes that Duckhorn was inspired by the prominent Merlots he had tasted while visiting Pomerol, one of Bordeaux’s most important wine districts, in the early 1970s. “Those wines had a very pronounced and personal impact in his becoming a vintner. Both Dan and Margaret were incredibly passionate about Merlot as a stand alone variety, and their passion has been a part of our DNA for 40 years. Our championing of Merlot has played a key role in establishing luxury Merlot as one of Napa’s great wines.”
Identifying Merlot as a “remarkable grape with a pleasure factor that is off the charts,” Ryan discusses the various Duckhorn Merlots, starting with the Napa Valley offering. Blended from seven estate holdings, along with other vineyards owned by leading independent growers in Napa Valley, he describes the wine as an “intense, well-extracted expression of the variety, with soft tannins and generous fruit. It is also very nuanced and layered.” Ryan points out this is possible because of the variety of vineyard sites the winery owns in Napa, from valley floor to mountain, encompassing both warm and cool climates.
He notes that winemaker Renée Ary does upwards of 60 individual fermentations of each vintage just to make six Merlots, underlying the variety of the sourced fruit and the complexity of the finished wines. The Carneros Merlot, from southern Napa Valley, has “lovely polish and poise,” according to Ryan, while the Atlas Peak offering, from elevations at high as 1,750 feet, is a “wilder, more rustic expression of Merlot that is dark, rich and ripe.”
Three Palms Vineyard, source of Duckhorn Vineyards' most famous Merlot
PHOTO COURTESY DUCKHORN VINEYARDS
Then you have the Three Palms bottling, the most celebrated Merlot from Duckhorn. This vineyard is situated on the east side of the valley floor and is a warm site with deep, stony soils. “Though it’s a valley floor site, if you close your eyes when you drink the wine, you’d think it was a mountain site,” proclaims Ryan. “Year after year, the wines from Three Palms are intense and age-worthy, with complex mineral layers of red, blue and black fruit—it is a remarkable vineyard.” Produced since 1978, the Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot has received amazing critical praise for years, culminating in the 2014 vintage being named the No. 1 Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator in November 2017.
Ryan is emphatic in his belief that Dan Duckhorn made the right decision to specialize in Merlot when he established the winery. “We were in unchartered territory. Almost no one else was focusing on great Merlot. If you have the vision and the courage, there’s opportunity on the road less traveled.” According to Ryan, the wines have improved due to many reasons, including greater focus on winemaking, clonal and rootstock selections, and of course, “40 years of knowledge certainly helps.”
Sales remain strong, Ryan reasons, because of the winery’s reputation. “Our wines have always been a safe harbor for Merlot lovers – they trust us and trust the quality of our Merlots.” He understands that consumers, the trade and the media know what Duckhorn stands for. “Our goal is simple. We want to make the finest Merlots in the world.”
2015 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot: Excellent
Aromas of red raspberry, black plum and tobacco. Medium-full, well-balanced tannins, impressive persistence and good acidity. Typical for a Duckhorn Merlot, this offers notable varietal character and excellent overall harmony. Peak drinking in 7-10 years.
2015 Three Palms Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot: Outstanding
Aromas of black cherry and plum with notes of cigar box and subtle brown herbs. Exceptional depth of fruit, big, balanced tannins and excellent persistence. Superb complexity and styling, this is very much a product of Napa Valley in its fruit character, yet it elicits Bordeaux in its essence and structure. Peak in 15-20 years.
2015 Atlas Peak Napa Valley Merlot: Outstanding
Expressive cranberry, tar and black licorice aromas. Full-bodied with an expansive mid-palate, excellent persistence and very good acidity. Brilliant varietal purity, rich, polished tannins and exceptional harmony. Peak in 12-15 years.