Luc Morlet’s winemaking roots stretch back five generations to Avenay-Val-d’Or, in the Champagne region of France, where his grandfather founded a small winery. As a boy, he worked in the vineyard alongside his father, learning first-hand what it meant to be a viticulteur. Today, Luc is one of a handful of French-born winemakers who have found their niches in the sunny climes of California. To describe him as passionate feels almost cliche — what with the word’s overuse these days — but, in Luc’s case, it’s the only choice; and despite relocating across the Atlantic, dedication to family remains paramount in his work. It shows in the small, but precocious domaine he and his wife, Jodie, are building in Napa Valley.
Luc’s formal wine education began at École Viticole de Champagne. After earning a viticultural degree there, he continued to Reims University where he received a master’s in enology, and then to Dijon Business School for an M.B.A. His first full-time gig was as assistant winemaker at Val d’Or Champagne Cellars. In 1993, he took his first trip across the pond, replacing the winemaker at a French subsidiary in St. Helena. While there, he also got the chance to work and learn under John Kongsgaard at Newton Vineyard. In 1996, after briefly moving back to France to work in Bordeaux, Luc returned to the U.S. and settled permanently. He took over for Kongsgaard as director of viticulture and enology at Newton, and from there his career soared. He teamed up with Michel Rolland to create the first Bordeaux blend at Newton, worked as head winemaker at Peter Michael and then at Staglin, and also did work consulting for top Napa properties, including Vineyard 7 & 8 and Carte Blanche.
In 2006, Luc and Jodie — she was the real reason he moved back to the U.S. — started producing wines under their own label, Morlet Family Vineyards. They began by sourcing grapes from a number of top quality vineyards, but estate bottlings were soon to follow. The first vineyard they purchased was a parcel in Knights Valley, followed by a fantastic property just north of St. Helena, which has since become home base. Jodie and Luc recently restored the beautiful stone winery there, which was originally built in 1853. There are reportedly caves running back into the hillside behind the winery that Luc plans to develop and restore, if possible. For now, though, the focus is on winemaking and acquiring more vineyards.
Most recently, Luc and Jodie purchased a 24-acre parcel in Oakville (20 acres plantable), located just across the highway from the famed To Kalon Vineyard. While the St. Helena and Knights Valley holdings are superb, Luc loves Oakville, calling it “the heart of the valley.” Acquiring the property was a dream come true for him, which took many years of patient searching. Given the soil properties of the neighboring vineyards, Luc and Jodie expected to find typical Bale series 103 (pure loamy topsoil on loamy subsoil) and 104 (loamy topsoil on clay and loam subsoil) upon inspection. But when they ripped the ground with a deep plow (4 feet down to expose and remove any old roots), they were amazed to find soils comprised of 40-60% alluvial gravels. It will be interesting to see how this unique vineyard develops, though it will be years before it reaches its true potential.
When asked about the wide range of wines he produces at the relatively small winery, Luc described himself as having a split-wine-personality. “My head is in the Mediterranean, my feet are in Champagne, and my heart is divided between Burgundy, Bordeaux, and California,” he said. At Morlet, he ambitiously produces Bordeaux-styled whites and reds from estate-grown and purchased fruit (from Napa and Knights Valley), plus Pinot Noir and Chardonnay brought down from the cooler climes of Sonoma — quite an array for a winery of this size.
Luc’s winemaking style is modern but balanced, with a huge emphasis on the vineyard. His influences are Old World, but he readily accepts Napa’s natural tendency towards rich, ripe, layered wines, making a point to retain balance, freshness, and capture the wines’ terroir. “As much as I hate unripe fruit, I hate overripe fruit even more,” said Luc.
In the vineyards and at harvest, things are done as gently as possible, with very little intervention. He forbids herbicides, and uses pest control only as a last resort. Luc and his team do all farming of proprietary vineyards themselves. They use spades to shovel and turn the soil gently, cultivating as much as possible by hand to avoid compaction of the soil. Luc even maintains final say over farming practices for contract vineyards.
Over the years, Luc has moved harvest dates earlier in search of more balance and freshness. All harvesting is done by hand, at night when it’s cool. The grapes go into small, 30-pound cream-colored lugs (they reflect heat and are cooler than dark colors), which are carefully stacked on pallets, to be wrapped and delivered to the winery in temperature controlled trucks. “I am looking for harmony, equilibrium, and complete, seamless tannins,” Luc told me. Picking is extremely important, and it is a significant part of his style. Twenty years ago, he was one of the winemakers that would pick last, a trend he thinks got out of hand in the search for ultimate ripeness. Today he finds himself in the middle of the pack as far as picking dates. He relies on cues provided by taste, tannins, color, and the nature of the foliage to tell him when to pick. It’s not just physiological ripeness he’s searching for, but optimal development of flavors and acids as well.
The resulting wines are stunning and polished, combining seamless elegance with richly layered character. They have power and depth, but also balance. They are by no means over the top. By all measures, Morlet is a superb, small domain, crafting beautiful, classy wines under the guidance of one of the valley’s best. But as good as they are now — and they are very, very good — you get the sense that this is only the first act, that this is a winery on the move. As the new estate holdings come into production it will be exciting to watch where things go. And you can bet that Luc Morlet is aiming for the top.