The wine market may be tough right now, but there's still no shortage of people who aspire to be Napa Valley Cabernet producers, regardless of their lack of experience or other assets needed to make wine. In the first two years of his winemaking consulting business, Mark Herold has found six would-be vintners -- and none of them have a winery, two don't have vineyards, and one would rather put up his vines for "adoption" than sell his wine.
Herold and his wife, Erika Gottl, own Merus Wines, a 500-case winery run out of their garage. Merus' first three vintages of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon were each rated 92 to 94 points, or "outstanding," by Wine Spectator, making it one of California's most exciting new wineries. Despite early critical success, Herold is eager to take on consulting work to make ends meet -- even if it means making wines that compete with the Merus label.
"Mark has to do this for us to survive, " said Gottl, admitting that they might be "cannibalizing" themselves by pouring attention into other ventures. "But we try to keep our spirit clear. We focus on quality. We can be threatened by them, but instead we embrace them. We want everyone around us to succeed."
Herold, a big bear of a guy with a ponytail and a PhD in ecology, is thoughtful and articulate when talking about winemaking. Gottl, who is president of Merus, cut through red tape to get their own garage to be bonded as a winery, and Herold's clients end up asking her for advice about licensing, taxes and packaging.
Herold met his first client in 2000 through a classified ad placed by someone looking for a "consulting winemaker/mentor." Peter and Paulette Story had recently moved from their Silicon Valley home to St. Helena in Napa Valley. Winemaking was at first a hobby for Peter -- until the wines came out well. But Story balked at simply selling his wine traditionally, feeling that conflicted with his creative process. So he came up with the quirky idea to put his vines up for "adoption." For $80 a year, you can adopt a vine, and in turn receive a photo of your adopted vine and a bottle or two of the vineyard's Sympa or Scandale Cabernets. It's a fancy way of doing a mailing list, and the Storys' St. Helena Winery has 12,000 vines in the 15-acre Fleur de Vigne vineyard in need of foster parents.
Next Herold met Michael Harris, a pediatric dentist who, along with his wife, owns a 48-acre property in Calistoga with seven acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. The Harrises had sold grapes to the Paul Hobbs winery, but also dreamed of making their own wines. Herold said he was so impressed with their vineyard that he told them, "If I can't make good wine out of these grapes, you should fire me." The first Harris Estate release will be a 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Then Herold encountered Alicia and William Deen, respectively a registered nurse and the president of a landscaping company in Kimberton, Penn., who dream of moving to Napa Valley. The Deens had no vineyard, no grape source and certainly no winery, yet they hired Herold to make wine for them. In a few short months, Herold found the grapes and barrels and facility to make their debut 2002 Napa Cabernet, called Buccella, a Latin term for "mouthful."
Meanwhile, Kevin Carriker, who met Herold at a winemaker's dinner, was planning on expanding his home winemaking into a commercial venture. Carriker signed Herold on to assist in securing grape sources and consult on winemaking decisions. His venture is named Kobalt, a German word for a mischievous underground spirit, which Carriker came across while thumbing through a dictionary during a Scrabble game. His first Napa Valley Cabernet, from the 2001 vintage, will be released next year.
Helen Cheng called Merus to be put on the mailing list after she and her husband, Stanley, had been introduced to a bottle of Merus while dining at the French Laundry. Stanley is chairman of Meyer Corp., which manufactures cookware brands such as Farberware, Circulon and KitchenAid; the couple also owns a vineyard in east Napa and wanted to bottle their own wine. Herold was hired as consulting winemaker for the 2002 vintage of their newly created Hestan label, making Cabernet Sauvignon using grapes from their vineyard, as well as grapes purchased from a site in Coombsville.
Finally, Mark Bozzini called Herold out of the blue, interested in making wine from his 25-acre Oakville vineyard. Bozzini, who was CEO of Pete's Brewing Co. for much of the 1990s, is now CEO of Infinite Spirits, a beverage company that just launched Shakers vodka earlier this year. Bozzini's label is called Warm Springs, and a Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc from his vineyard will be released next year.
None of these wines are bottled yet, and many won't hit the shelves for at least a couple years. Barrel samples tasted by Wine Spectator indicated that the wines are all ripe, plush, concentrated and flashy -- similar to the style of Merus. "They want the 'wow' factor, they want concentration," said Herold of his clients. But Herold said he isn't making cookie-cutter wine and is instead tailoring wines to articulate his clients' tastes and vineyard sources. "My job is to read a vintage. You can't recipe a wine."
With all the new wines influenced by the same winemaker, priced at similar levels, and in some cases, being made from the same grape sources and types of barrels, Herold's success with consulting is creating some of his own future competition.
But competition doesn't bother Herold, who believes quality will always win out. "I think there's room in the market for good wines," he said. "Let's face it -- there's a lot of bad cultish wine out there. Hopefully the public will get their own palate and focus on wines that are good on their own merit, not just on their name recognition."
P.O. Box 3838
Yountville, CA 94599
Telephone: (707) 257-7100
Harris Estate Vineyards
225 Franz Valley School Rd.
Calistoga, CA 94515
Telephone: (707) 942-1513
6177 Gordon Valley Rd.
Suisan, CA 94585
Telephone: (707) 551-2888
P.O. Box 2624
Yountville, CA 94599
Web site: www.kobaltwines.com
P.O. Box 360
Napa, CA 94559
Web site: www.meruswines.com
St. Helena Winery
100 Pratt Ave.
St. Helena, CA 94574
Web site: www.sthelenawinery.com
1750 First St.
Napa, CA 94559
Check our recent ratings of Merus wines.
Read more about Merus:
New Wines, New Faces: Downtown Napa's Vin de Garage