An Armchair Winery 'Tour' with Philippe Melka

Aug 10, 2007

Philippe Melka parked his burnt-orange Honda Element outside my office the other day and retrieved a Styrofoam-lined cardboard box filled with wine samples for us to taste together.

The French-born winemaker has worked in Napa Valley for nearly 15 years, and with 12 (or is it 13?) clients spread throughout Napa and Sonoma counties, he's a busy man in great demand.

He says he "never counts" the exact number of wineries he consults for, and it's no wonder. Melka often adds a winery here, drops another there. So it makes it easier on me that he brings the wines to my office—it would take me two days to visit each property.

As we tasted through the different wines over a 90-minute period, we exchanged our thoughts on each one. Melka emphasized the importance of each property's unique terroir, and getting each vineyard to perform to its best ability.

“The focus for me has always been on terroir [and clientele] with the right site,” he says. “A lot of people ask, 'What is up with you [and all these wines]?' Well, the primary focus is on small estates with various locations."

My sense is that Melka's clients are making better wines, even if the changes are subtle. Whether the improvement in quality is due to Melka's input, the strength of specific vintages or practices in the wineries isn't entirely clear—and Melka doesn't make claims one way or another.

Melka's clients include proven wineries such as Gemstone in Yountville; Lail, which sources its grapes from several Napa vineyards; and Vineyard 29, Seavey and Hundred Acre, each of which are vineyard-driven wines. At Caldwell, a proven Cabernet vineyard in the Coombsville area east of Napa, Melka is experimenting with a Cabernet blend that's 100 percent barrel-fermented. It’s a new technique in California (but not in Bordeaux, where small vintners such as the "garagistes" take their wines directly to barrel rather than fermenting them in stainless steel). Melka thinks the blend has good potential.

Then there’s Melka's involvement  with the new line of wines from Don and Rhonda Carano, owners of Ferrari-Carano, and PreVail, a sweeping hillside vineyard and winery in northern Alexander Valley. The Caranos are making a trio of Bordeaux-inspired blends.

Melka's newest project is in Sonoma, a venture called Flanagan, which is making a Bennett Valley Syrah; the 2006-barrel sample was dark, intense and powerful.

Melka's new clients include Dana, which uses grapes from the former Livingston Vineyard in Rutherford for its wines; Parallel, a venture involving eight friends ("parallel" being the four couples involved), near Seavey; and Roy Estate in the eastern hills south of the Stag's Leap District off Soda Canyon Road. At Roy, for example, the winery has created two different wines from the same vineyard, which Melka has helped fine-tune. One portion of the vineyard is anchored by Cabernet, which goes into one wine; a second wine relies more on Merlot, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

(Among Melka's former clients is the esteemed Bryant Family Vineyard. They parted ways amicably last year. Bryant felt Melka was over-extended and wanted a more hands-on winemaker, so he hired Mark Aubert.)

Then there's Melka's personal ventures, including Matisse, Melka’s own brand, a Napa Valley Cabernet, and Pirhouette, a Cabernet-Syrah cuvée made in Washington from local grapes, which he is involved in as a partner. And he makes100 cases of wine in the Bordeaux's St.-Emilion region (annually), where he spends two to three weeks each summer reacquainting himself with his homeland.

Melka also revealed that he and his wife, Cherie, have purchased a property in Sonoma’s Knights Valley, near Peter Michael’s vineyards and winery. There, they’re planting Sauvignon Blanc, likely in a Graves style, and Cabernet Franc and Merlot for a Right Bank style of red wine. The first harvest will be in 2008.

“We’re taking a bit of a risk,” he says. “The Sauvignon Blanc should be fine,” he says, adding that he’s less sure of the red grapes. “It’s important for me to keep my palate fresh and my mind open."

United States California

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