The Best Winemakers Are Control Freaks

iStock_000017467842SmallIf we were talking about any other profession, you might think of them as “control freaks.” But winemakers have valid reasons for wanting to make as many decisions as they can.

In point of fact, the more control the vintner has in every step of the process — beginning in the vineyard — the better the wine he or she is going to make. (“Better,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder; a more accurate way of putting it might be to say that greater control equates with being able to make wine in the vintner’s preferred style.)

Few winemakers begin their careers with such control. Typically, they’ll earn a degree in viticulture, then land a job as an assistant winemaker. Depending on the winery and the circumstances, it could take years — even a decade — to move up in the ranks. Sometimes it’s as much about luck as skill: being in the right place at the right time when a veteran vintner decides to retire.

But even head winemakers are at the mercy of others, at least to some degree. They may work for a winery that has purchase agreements with any number of vineyards, but they’re not likely to have much say in how those vineyards are farmed.

And even if they do have a say, they’ll still be dealing with clones of varieties that were selected when the vines were planted. Farming methods may influence how flavorful that fruit is in a given vintage, but the aroma and flavor spectrum will always be limited by the clonal selection.

All of this came to mind when a press release from Duckhorn Wine Company arrived in my “in” box. Duckhorn made my “epiphany wine,” a Merlot crafted from grapes grown in a vineyard that the winery did not own — Napa Valley’s Three Palms Vineyard.

Here is the text of that release:

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Duckhorn Wine Company is gratified to announce that, after 37 years of making wines from its coveted fruit, the company has acquired Napa Valley’s legendary Three Palms Vineyard. Widely recognized as North America’s greatest Merlot vineyard, Duckhorn Vineyards made its inaugural Three Palms Vineyard Merlot in 1978. This iconic wine helped to pioneer luxury Merlot in California, and played a pivotal role in establishing it as one of North America’s great premium varietals. Three Palms was acquired from Sloan and John Upton for an undisclosed price. Duckhorn Wine Company has been purchasing all of the grapes from the 83-acre Three Palms Vineyard since 2011. Fruit from Three Palms will continue to be used exclusively in Duckhorn Vineyards wines.

“This is a very special day for us,” says Duckhorn Wine Company Founder and Chairman Dan Duckhorn. “We have championed the remarkable character and quality of Merlot from Three Palms Vineyard since our debut vintage. We released that inaugural vintage at the then-high price of $12.50, because we wanted people to understand that it was a Merlot of exceptional quality. This message connected with people. Not only has the Duckhorn Vineyards story always been tied to the story of Three Palms, our long friendship with Sloan and John has been one of the wine industry’s most successful and enduring partnerships. We are honored that they are entrusting us to carry on their life’s work, and to carry their great legacy forward.”

Three Palms Vineyard has long been recognized for its unique history and its benchmark Merlots. In the late 1800s, the property was owned by San Francisco socialite Lillie Coit (for whom Coit Tower is named), who planted the site’s three landmark palm trees. In 1967, the rocky alluvial fan was acquired by the Uptons, who planted it the following year. The vineyard has sparse, bale loam soils. In many spots the vines’ roots dig as deep as 18 feet in search of nutrients. Because of the challenging soils, the vineyard is planted to only 545 vines per acre.

Three Palms is also covered by volcanic stones, which absorb the sun’s heat during the day and radiate the heat back to the vines at night, protecting against frost and helping to ripen the fruit. In addition, the vineyard’s warm up-valley location contributes to a shorter season with exceptional ripening. Of Three Palms’ 83 total acres, 73 are under vine, with approximately 50 acres planted to Merlot, and the rest planted to smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.

With the acquisition of Three Palms Vineyard, Duckhorn Wine Company’s Napa Valley estate program now includes seven vineyards. These vineyards include both mountain and valley floor sites, for a total of 223 planted acres.

“Three Palms is the crown jewel of our estate program,” says Duckhorn Wine Company President and CEO Alex Ryan. “Not only does Three Palms represent the pinnacle for New World Merlot, it is one of a handful of Napa Valley’s greatest vineyards. When the history of Napa Valley is written years from now, Three Palms, and the relationship between the Duckhorns and the Uptons, will be an important part of the story.”

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Ultimately, the only way a winemaker can truly have full control is to be involved in the site selection, clonal selection and planting of a vineyard… to oversee how it is farmed… and to make the decision regarding when to harvest the grapes.

Three Palms Vineyard may already be planted, but how it’s farmed and when it’s harvested each year will henceforth be decided entirely by the Duckhorn team. And that can mean only good things for the already iconic Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot.

Sometimes in life, being a “control freak” is a good thing.

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