The 1997 vintage was one that had Napa growers smiling from ear to ear. They brought in a large crop of excellent quality, with 144,000 tons harvested compared to an average of 121,000 tons over the preceding decade. The optimum growing conditions over the summer and through the harvest produced wines that are superbly concentrated, dense, rich, and powerful yet balanced.
The growing season got off to an early start with bud break coming a month early in the warm late-winter and spring conditions. The vines seemed to shrug off a little rain that fell in early June. The summer was warm but not too hot, with one heat spike in early August, followed by moderate to cool temperatures, to slow ripening. September conditions were excellent — the grapes had a long period of ripening without any heat spikes, allowing growers to wait to pick at optimum ripeness. It is one of the greatest vintages of the decade, with wines that are firmly in their prime today. They have incredible extract, depth, and structure, with solid, dense fruit centers to match.
Early bud break, due to dry spring
Unexpected rain had little to no effect
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.