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Longtime Napa Winery Continues to Make Quality Accessible
— An Interview with the Senior Winemaker of Merryvale Vineyards—
A visit to the grounds of Merryvale Vineyards reveals everything we've come to expect of a Napa Valley winery: graceful design, serene landscaping, warm hospitality, and, of course, quality-driven wines. On scratching the surface, though, we discover something that doesn't seem quite as common anymore among producers here: a commitment to making wines of high caliber that are accessible to more consumers in the marketplace. With its entry-level Starmont line, it seems that Merryvale has struck a fine balance by offering wines made from top vineyard sources, all at a higher availability and lower price point than we might expect for their quality. In addition, through its smaller-production and more premium lines that showcase the best of its own estate vineyards, Merryvale provides elevated options for more discriminating palates. To learn more about its marketing strategy and winemaking philosophy, I met with the winery's Communications Director, Chris O'Gorman, and its Senior Winemaker, Sean Foster, in the dramatic ambiance of its historical Cask Room.
With a total case production exceeding 100,000, it may come as a surprise that Merryvale is a family-owned winery. As producers of comparable size are increasingly assimilated into corporate-run conglomerates, this one has stood fast as an independent entity fixated on a single goal — "to craft elegant, complex world-class wines in the finest European style yet reflecting the exuberant fruit from Napa Valley's finest vineyards." Doing so in a way that makes quality widely attainable is, in large part, what has kept this industry stalwart, under the ownership of Jack Schlatter and his son René, in business since its humbler beginning in 1983 all the way through today's uncertain economic climate. Hearing about the inner workings of its winemaking team, and how its overall philosophy firmly underpins its brands, was a compelling reminder that wine production, through all its craftmanship and artistry, is still a business with a responsibility to the consumer. It's a focus that Merryvale successfully maintains, in striking a balance between quality and value.
The Make and its Mission
NM: You've been making wine for Merryvale for quite a few years now, right?
SF: This was really the first company I worked for in the wine industry. I've been with Merryvale now for thirteen harvests — the first one of which was an internship where I pulled hoses and did pump-overs in the cellar along with some lab work. In 2002, I went to another winery. But then about three years ago, I came back here while Merryvale was building the Starmont Winery — which is what I came back to oversee. Overall, I'd have to say that I love this industry. It's been a lot of hard work over the years, but it's also been so rewarding because of its complexity. On the one hand, we're dealing with farming, production, and operations. But there's also the artistic side where we're dealing with the wines' expression and blending, and trying to have a vision of where we want the wine to go or oversee it going on its own, both in the cellar as far as techniques, as well as what we need to do in the vineyard to get the fruit source that we want. Mother Nature is always throwing a curveball! So, it's a lot of challenges but also a lot of fun. And I love wine, so it's great to be making something that I'm so passionate about to really pour myself into.
NM: Merryvale has a history and reach in the marketplace on a number of levels, starting with the Starmont brand and going all the way up to the super-premium Profile line. What has been your experience in working for this well-known brand, given its provenance and position in the industry?