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Merlot for Your Amusement

James Laube
Posted: October 9, 2003

Every so often a wine comes along with so many whistles and bells -- and tries so hard to be noticed -- that it's next to impossible to ignore.

This year's winner from California, hands down, is Amuse Bouche (French for "amusement for the mouth"). It's an infant wine that brings together an improbable cast of characters in an attempt to capitalize on, among other things, the star power of a celebrity winemaker, the glamour of a famous artist and the allure of a secret vineyard.

Amuse Bouche is the brainchild of John Schwartz, a 38-year-old businessman who spent 16 years developing export markets for Wente Vineyards. The wine is a Pomerol-inspired Merlot, vintage 2002, from an as yet undisclosed vineyard in Napa Valley.

The vineyard was handpicked, if you will, by Heidi Peterson Barrett, one of Napa's best-known and most sought-after talents. She has been a friend of Schwartz's since childhood. The third partner, Guy Buffet, only adds to the intrigue. The famous French artist was commissioned to paint a new label for each vintage.

Amuse Bouche is being marketed as a limited-edition wine, with just 500 six-bottle cases produced, each of which will include a lithograph of Buffet's label painting. It is an unabashed attempt to achieve cult status with one of wine's toughest grapes. The wine is offered on a futures basis -- you pay in advance of its release, and at $200 a bottle ($1,296 per six-pack with tax) it is one of Napa's most expensive wines. It is due for release next year. The lithograph is shipped once your check clears.

Despite the obvious buildup, the wine is intended to set a new standard for California Merlot, a tricky grape to grow and one that Barrett rarely works with. In fact, she resisted Schwartz's overtures until she was sure she could do it right.

"I didn't want to associate my name with something I didn't know much about," Barrett said. "I'm more cautious [than some winemakers in taking on new projects]." She eventually became intrigued, however, and looked at several vineyards before finally picking one she could get excited about. The wine "is a really big, ripe Merlot that has the potential to be a very good wine," she said. "I also think 2002 was a particularly good year for Merlot."

At press time, no one outside the winery had tasted Amuse Bouche. Barrett plans to make the final blend in September, and said that her blueprint includes adding a dollop of Cabernet Franc. She wouldn't disclose the vineyard's location, except to say it's along the eastern ridge of Napa Valley. "I could tell you [where it is], but then I'd have to kill you," she said with a hearty laugh. One fear is that another vintner might try to buy the grapes, Barrett said.

Barrett is hardly a starry-eyed opportunist looking to make a fast buck. The 45-year-old mother of two grew up in a winemaking family and is married to a winemaker (Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena). She considers herself a conservative pragmatist; she drives a used Subaru wagon. Barrett's mother is also an artist, so there are clear ties to both endeavors. Finally, Barrett might be called an artist in her own right, one whose medium is the wines of her own label, La Sirena.

While Barrett's La Sirena Cabernet is classy (the '99 scored 93 points), her highest profile wine is the celebrated Napa Cabernet Screaming Eagle, which sells for $250 on release, and she has worked at Dalla Valle (she made the first vintages) and Grace Family Vineyard. She is also winemaker for another handful of wineries, including Paradigm and Showket Vineyards, and she consults for Diamond Creek and Niebaum-Coppola.

Besides Amuse Bouche, Schwartz is currently involved in two restaurant chains, one with celebrity chef Martin Yan. As for Buffet, he is helping design the interior of Schwartz's Yumcha dim sum restaurants. Buffet is widely known for his preoccupation with painting waiters (his family owned a restaurant in Paris), and his works command $75,000 to $200,000 each, according to Schwartz. He is paying Buffet a fraction of that, but Buffet will share in the business profits, as will Barrett.

Barrett's attitude is that consumers will get two things for the price of one with Amuse Bouche. They're buying the wine and getting the art, a $1,500 value, for free. Or, they're buying the art and getting the wine for free. Take your pick.

If the wine is as good as the story, no one will be disappointed.

James Laube, Wine Spectator's Napa Valley-based senior editor, has been with the magazine since 1983.

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