Dan and Margaret Duckhorn
Founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976, Duckhorn Vineyards was established early on in the modern Napa Valley boom. The first vintage, produced in 1978, consisted of 800 cases each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, Merlot was primarily used as a blending agent, but after falling under its spell on a trip to Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, Dan Duckhorn became one of the grape’s early proponents in Napa. Today, much of Duckhorn’s outstanding reputation comes from its Merlots, notably the Three Palms bottling. From the eponymous vineyard in Calistoga, this wine has been released every year since 1978. According to winemaker Renée Ary, the vineyard’s deconstructed rock soils, loaded with sand, cobbles, and stones from Selby Creek, create a high stress environment for the Merlot. The result is highly concentrated, flavorful wine.
A New Jersey native, Renée Ary is only the fourth winemaker in Duckhorn’s history. Her family relocated to California when she was 18 years old, and she graduated from Saint Mary’s College with degrees in chemistry and art. Like so many other winemakers, she started in the lab at Robert Mondavi, where she spent four years working with some of the tops in the trade. She also bolstered her wine knowledge by taking classes at Napa Valley College and UC Davis. Renée joined the team at Duckhorn in 2003, spending the next 11 years learning the craft under winemaker Mark Beringer. In 2014, she took the reins herself. Renée’s considerable experience with virtually every aspect of the winery has given her an excellent sense of how things work here. Although the operation is fairly large, her approach is much more akin to that of a smaller winery. Multiple small lots from their estate vineyards, along with purchased fruit, are all handled on a very individual basis.
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.