Address: 1000 Main Street St. Helena,California 94574.
Phone Number: 707-963-2225
Tasting Hours: 10:30-5:30
Region: Napa Valley AVA, St. Helena AVA, California
Reviewer: James Houston
Review Date: 1/14/2013
Reviewer: James Houston
“If you make a bad Cabernet in Napa, youre in the wrong line of work,” says Ed Roudebush, the wise man taking the lunchtime shift behind the counter at the Merryvale tasting room. He proceeds to pour me Merryvales 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Fair enough. You probably would want to start investigating opportunities in the pineapple or fertilizer businesses if you were taking in ultra-premium Napa and Carneros grapes and somehow turning out bottles of plonk.
Especially if you have access to vineyards like Merryvales, like the Solstice plot in St. Helena, managed in conjunction with viticulture wizard David Abreus team, or the Stanley Ranch Estate Vineyards in Carneros, where cool nights and hot days turn out reliably balanced Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir year after year.
Merryvale is working with great raw materials. And winemakers Sean Foster and Graham Wehmeier are doing them justice with classical winemaking techniques–such as egg white fining on the top reds–and shrewd blending.
Mr. Roudebush first poured the 2010 Carneros Chardonnay, a deep gold elixir aged in 43% new French barrels for eleven months. It is creamy and toasty in the way that infuriates your typical Chardonnay-hater, but it still has a refreshing snap of acidity that allows the natural citrus flavors to emerge.
Next was the 2010 Juliana Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, an oak-fermented wine made rounder still by the addition of 10% Semillon. Needless to say, you would not mistake this for a Sancerre.
Reds began with the 2011 Carneros Pinot Noir, a dark potion sticky with ripe raspberry character. Unfined and unfiltered, it has a colossal texture and would easily stand up to a steak.
The 2010 Napa Valley Merlot should be required drinking for any Sideways superfans still disdainful of California Merlot. Though rich and opulent, it has great spicy complexity aided by portions of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend.
At most tastings in Napa, you get the feeling that the first 2-4 wines are just the warmup or the opening act for the Cabernet Sauvignons. So Merryvales main event began with the aforementioned 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It was cool–as in, probably just out of the cooler since I was the first visitor of the day. This shut down some of the ripe flavors, though I could tell that there was something big underneath.
Conversely, the 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was immediately open and generous, and gradually evolved in the glass to reveal layers of licorice and violets.
I was also lucky to get a taste of the 2008 St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon, a limited-release that just happened to be out and open. Im assuming the cork came out yesterday and its had a nice gulp of air. Either way, its amazing. Humongous. Beastly. Delicious.
Things conclude with a splash of the Antigua Dessert Wine, a brandy-fortified Muscat that has an invigorating kick of alcohol on the nose, propping up flavors of hazelnuts, hazelnuts and more hazelnuts, with the white flower edge good Muscat should have.
The Merryvale tasting room is a quick turn off 29 and over the train tracks. Built in 1933 as Sunny St. Helena Winery, it was the first wine production facility built in Napa after the repeal of Prohibition. Since 1983 it has been Merryvale, under the direction of the Schlatter family.
Today, a wide fountain gushes outside the main entrance and the interior is warm, wooden and inviting–but still spacious enough to handle large crowds. During my visit the music playlist was a steady stream of 80s nostalgia: Thompson Twins, a-Ha, Tears for Fears, et al.
Merryvale is open until 6:30, which makes it one of the latest-closing rooms in the Valley. This makes it a good choice to visit at the end of a long day of tasting, ideally followed by dinner at the adjacent Tra Vigne pizzeria, or Gotts Roadside across the highway.