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California's New Generation: Philippe Melka

Stepping from Turley's shadow

Tim Fish
Posted: August 14, 2003

Bordeaux-educated winemaker Philippe Melka came to California for better career opportunities and found superior surfing as well.
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There's a shadow at the new Bryant Family winery. It follows winemaker Philippe Melka through the tank room, the barrel cave, even out into the vineyard. It's the larger-than-life legacy of his predecessor, Helen Turley.

Many winemakers would shrink from the challenge of replacing Turley, California's most influential winemaker, but Melka took a similar dare in the past, replacing Heidi Peterson Barrett at Vineyard 29 four years ago.

Melka is a young winemaker with confidence. Maybe that's why he is frequently a topic of discussion in Napa Valley, where speculating on the fate and fortune of hot new winemakers is a favorite pastime. "I feel like he has high qualifications," says Don Bryant, who hired Melka last October. "I hope people give him a chance."

All Melka has to do, of course, is keep up Turley's winning streak of world-class wines. He certainly has the raw materials: a stunning 15-acre Cabernet vineyard on Pritchard Hill and a $9 million winery. We won't know until the 2003 vintage is released -- Melka was hired just after harvest 2002 -- whether he will shape his wines in Turley's signature bold and rich style.

For his part, Melka tries not to focus on the past. "Obviously, you wonder, 'Can you improve what has been done?'" Melka says. "But you can't even go in that direction. You have to go in your own direction and believe in what you are doing."

Melka, 38, has produced his share of bold, flavorful wines -- almost exclusively Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends -- but he prefers the more restrained style of his native Bordeaux.

"I always think, 'What does a winemaking style mean?'" Melka muses. "To me, it would be boring to taste the same things all the time. The style needs to be more deep down in the wine. In the end, the fruit is the answer."

While studying at the University of Bordeaux, he worked in the cellars of Château Haut-Brion and Château Cheval-Blanc. Melka wasn't raised in a traditional French wine family, which he says made it easier to come to America, where young winemakers often have more opportunities. Upon arriving in the United States in 1991, he worked at Dominus and Ridge Vineyards, where he met his wife, Cherie. Today they live in Napa Valley with their two children.

Melka began consulting in the late '90s. In addition to Bryant and Vineyard 29, his clients include Caldwell, Lail, Quintessa, Seavey, Marston and Hundred Acre; the wines have for the most part received very good to outstanding reviews from Wine Spectator. Melka also has his own label, Métisse.

In 2002, Melka parted ways with one high-profile client: Constant. "I like Philippe. He's a talented guy, but he has a full dance card," says vintner Fred Constant. "We decided it was time to move on and have more attentiveness and dedication to what our focus is."

Melka is aware of the criticism that he spreads himself too thin, but he looks at the positive side. "To me, there is no pressure. Working with all these different personalities is exciting," Melka says. "It's also very exciting to work with all these different vineyards."

While juggling all those personalities, Melka has gotten used to working in another's shadow, be it the owner's or the former winemaker's. But with his growing influence, that might not be an issue much longer.

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