The 1994 vintage was the type of year California winemakers would take every time if they could — a long, mild growing season nearly free of extremes of temperature or rainfall. The good conditions resulted in beautiful, ripe, and powerful wines with superb concentration, depth, richness, and balance. Twenty years on, the best are still in their prime.
One of the only minor concerns was during a period of hot weather in early August that caused some uneven clusters at veraison, but the problem was solved by careful crop-thinning to remove them. As harvest approached, beautiful Indian summer conditions settled in, prolonging hang-times and allowing the grapes to achieve fantastic levels of physiological ripeness. A tremendous year of classic, powerful yet balanced wines that have stood the test of time.
Bud break off to a late start, but days were sunny and dry
Snowstorm hit North Coast late in the month, and hail in Napa Valley; no damage, because flowering had not occurred yet
Heavy rains (Carneros and Central Coast)
A two-week period of hot weather at the beginning of August created some uneven coloration during veraison, and growers compensated by thinning fruit to allow only the best grapes to reach maturation
In 1981, after years of research, lab work and avoiding the border authorities, Jayson Pahlmeyer planted his smuggled Bordeaux clones in Napa Valley. In 1986 he released the first Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red to critical acclaim, and he's been on the way up ever since. Pahlmeyer is an ambitious guy who thrives in the spotlight -- he was once a trial lawyer -- but he also has a phenomenal knack for spotting talent. Over the years he has consistently nabbed up-and-coming winemakers who have made the label what it is today. The list, which includes Randy Dunn, Bob Levy, Helen Turley and Erin Green, now has two new names to round it out: Kale Anderson, director of winemaking for Napa Valley, and Bibiana GonzÕlez Rave, consulting winemaker for the Sonoma Coast holdings. Each winemaker is in charge of one of the estate's two main vineyards. The first, the Waters Ranch Vineyard, located on the ridge of Atlas Peak, high in the eastern hills of Napa, has 72-acres planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Chardonnay. The Wayfarer Farm Vineyard in Fort Ross-Seaview, covers 30-acres planted exclusively to Burgundy varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Fruit from the Waters Ranch Vineyard goes into the noteworthy Proprietary Red, a consistently strong Bordeaux blend, and the flamboyantly ripe and often outsized Merlot.
Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco
Roasts, hamburgers, other grilled meats
Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. Over the same period, a number of Cabernet producers began picking riper fruit and doing a better job managing their tannings during the making and aging of their wines. The result was an upswing of powerful, satisfying Cabernets that were far less austere in their youth -- and a sharp decline in interest in Merlot.
Still, California's best Merlots, some of which predated the vogue for this variety in the 1990s, continue to be some of the finest examples of this variety outside Bordeaux -- in the same quality league with wines from Washington State and Italy's Tuscan coast region. Expect to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins. Merlot also rules in Pomerol, and nowhere in the world does this variety make more complete wines than on the flat, clay-rich plateau that lies at the heart of this appellation.