Mark Herold is out at Merus, and Paul Hobbs is in. Merus proprietor Bill Foley has replaced founder and winemaker Mark Herold with winemaker Camille Benitah and consulting winemaker Paul Hobbs.
It's the second major shakeup in a year for Merus, a popular Napa Cabernet producer. Last year founders Herold and Erika Gottl sold the winery to the Foley Wine Group following the couple's separation. Foley also owns Foley Estate, Lincourt and Firestone Vineyards in Santa Barbara and a majority share of Three Rivers winery in Washington's Walla Walla Valley.
Herold and Gottl founded Merus in 1998, converting their downtown Napa backyard and garage into a bonded winery that quickly became one of Napa Valley's rising stars among Cabernet producers. The eight released vintages of Merus have all scored in the outstanding or classic ranges—three of them have earned 96 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
"Life goes on. I'm OK with this. Actually I'm embracing it," said Herold. "I've created 10 beautiful vintages of Merus, and now it's someone else's turn."
Foley's explanation for letting Herold go was, "It's time for a change."
As for why he chose Hobbs as consulting winemaker, Foley said, "He's very easy to work with, very down to earth. I've always respected his Cabs, I've always liked his style. We won't change the style of Merus. He and Erika [Gottl] can put the blends together."
After the initial success of Merus, Herold became one of Napa Valley's best-known Cabernet winemaking consultants, at one point overseeing winemaking for six Napa Cabernet brands in addition to Merus. Today, Herold consults for Kobalt, Kamen, Celani Family and Hestan.
Because of a non-compete clause, Herold won't be making his own Napa Valley Cabernet for at least three years. He can continue current consulting projects. Beginning with the 2008 vintage, he plans to purchase 50 tons of mostly Grenache and Petite Sirah from vineyards in Lodi, Lake County and Mendocino. He hopes to make both a high-end Grenache and a Rhône-style blend that will cost about $30 a bottle under the Mark Herold Wines label. After the non-compete clause expires, Herold said he will make Napa Cabernet again.
Gottl will continue at Merus in the role of general manager, overseeing the day-to-day operations. The brand recently relocated to the former Venge facility in St. Helena, upgrading from a tiny garage to a facility that can produce up to 8,000 cases annually. While plans are to keep Merus at its current annual output of about 1,500 cases, a second Cabernet label called Altus was released this year and may expand.
Hobbs owns and makes wine for his own Sonoma-based eponymous California winery, and works extensively in South America, where he is a partner in Argentina's Viña Cobos and consults for other wineries, including Chile's Odfjell, MontGras, Viña San Pedro and Viña Tarapacá.
New Merus associate winemaker Benitah previously worked at Merus for four harvests, beginning in 2004. Originally from France, Benitah has experience working for small properties in Bordeaux, as well as Laine Estate and Kent Rasmussen in California.