On a recent trip to Napa and Sonoma, we discovered an underground network of young winemakers who are making some startling good wines in albeit tiny quantities. At the 'head of the class' was Chad Alexander, who has already amassed quite an impressive resume at a relatively tender age.
Chad grew up in the Napa Valley and took a job as a cellar helper at the age of 14 at Hess Collection. In college, he turned towards geology, a decision that has helped him immensely when trying to make sense of the vineyards and varied soil types in northern California. In the end, Alexander couldn't get his cellar experience out of his blood and returned to Napa and took a job at St. Clement before moving on to Robert Craig on Mount Veeder. From 2003-2005, Alexander was head winemaker at Robert Craig, producing an array of highly touted mountain Cabernets from Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder, and Howell Mountain.
The rugged hillsides of Howell Mountain have extremely efficient drainage and although the mountain receives twice as much rain as the valley floor, the ground is very dry. This arid volcanic soil, called 'tufa', combines with extended hours of sunshine, reducing yields to miniscule amounts. The fruit from these low-yielding vineyards produces complex and robust wines with a striking balance between sugars and acids. Cabernet is king in the select, highly-prized terrain of Howell Mountain and producing any other variety can be financial suicide. But Chad Alexander knows mountain fruit. When one of the mountain's top growers, with magnificent vineyards set at 1800 feet in altitude at the very top of the west-facing ridge, offered him a few tons of beautifully farmed Merlot, Chad could not turn it down.
When we tasted this 'Merlot,' we found all of the lush, deep red fruit, chocolate-tinted flavors one finds in superb mountain Cabernet. At just 2 tons per acre, this is a fabulously concentrated red wine that is drinking beautifully now (so much gorgeous, ripe fruit), but will continue to age gracefully for up to 7 years. Finely honed, full of blackberry, licorice and chocolate on the palate, it's absolutely impossible to taste this wine and think you're tasting Napa Valley Merlot.
The 2005 Carl Roy Merlot is versatile on the table, but it demands a dish that will stand up to it. It is absolutely superb with shitake stuffed lamb loin, served on whipped celeriac with a flash sauté of baby bok choy on the side.