During a dinner recently at Bambara restaurant, I asked for a wine recommendation from our terrific server, Travis Hayes. I wanted to select a wine that would be versatile enough to bridge a range of pork, beef and pasta dishes, but not too expensive. Not an easy assignment. But the bottle of Merryvale Starmont Cabernet Sauvignon ($24.95 retail) that Travis suggested turned out not only to be versatile, but a surprisingly delicious bang for the buck as well. It’s a complex wine (but subtle) with classic cassis and blackberry flavors. And despite the low price, the Starmont Cab has many of the characteristics of Merryvale’s more spendy wines, like its reserve and single vineyard wines ($20-$30) and even the distinguished Profile and Silhouette series, which sell per bottle for four or five times the price of Starmont.
As I said, the Merryvale Starmont Cabernet was a pleasant surprise. So when, by coincidence, I learned that Rene Schlatter, Merryvale’s executive vice president (and son of Merryvale proprietor Jack Schlatter), was coming to town a few days later, I jumped at the chance to pick his brain over lunch. And despite catching him on a day when he was fighting the flu, Schlatter confirmed what I already suspected: Merryvale is committed to quality over quantity. Even in California, you won’t likely find Merryvale wines at the local Costco, and they don’t get reviewed in national wine magazines to the extent that the wineries that perpetually advertise in those publications do. But quietly and consistently, Merryvale makes some of the best wines California has to offer, even if they’re not very representative of typical California wines.
On a ridge top high above Napa Valley’s St. Helena sits Merryvale’s estate vineyard, where elegant and costly Bordeaux-style grapes are grown: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Those grapes go into Merryvale’s proprietary Bordeaux blend called Profile ($83.95). If you’ve got some extra cash lying around, get your hands on a bottle. Words like exquisite and luxurious don’t quite do it justice.
Additional grapes from Merryvale wines come from areas like Spring Mountain in Napa and all the way to Carneros in the south. Strict attention to grape diversity and balanced crop yields means that winemaking at Merryvale is a slow and costly process. But winemakers like Rene Schlatter and Merryvale’s Steve Test aren’t in a hurry. And even if Rene Schlatter didn’t speak with a French accent, Merryvale’s commitment to creating Old World-style versions of New World wines comes through in every drop. Merryvale’s Dutton Ranch Chardonnay ($34.75), for example, is a sleek, subtle and elegant wine that’s much more akin to French Chassagne-Montrachet than typical bombastic California Chards. In Wine Today, Merryvale winemaker Test says, “We are meticulous about our fruit,” adding, “the art of selectivity” is the secret to fine winemaking.
And that’s typical of each and every Merryvale wine; from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay through to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux-style blends, Merryvale makes wines that you’ll likely mistake in a blind tasting as being from Burgundy or Bordeaux—with complex, intense flavors, yet elegant and supple in structure. With Merryvale, you get to have your cake and eat it too: Classic European methods of wine production combine with rich, ripe Napa fruit to produce wines of exceptional quality. Best of all, while most Merryvale wines have enough structure and complexity to be age-worthy, you can also enjoy them upon release. They’re great wines that will only get better.