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.