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SF: Early on, I was lucky to apprentice with a phenomenal winemaker who was extremely passionate about winemaking and made a very strong impression on me. Because when I first entered this industry, I was young and eager and really wanted to learn to make not only wine in general, but wine at a high level of quality. Fortunately, Merryvale's vision from the beginning has been to make the best that they can from the fruit sources. And although we make over 100,000 cases, it's quality that has really been the emphasis, rather than quantity. Also, when you're a winemaker, it's not about ego; it's about doing the best you can for the winery, for the brand. We're here to make the best product because in the end, the wine is going to the consumer and I want that consumer to enjoy the wine and feel they've gotten value for the money they spent on our wines. And I think Merryvale strives to deliver value at all levels — with the goal, really of over-delivering, based on whom we see ourselves competing against.
NM: During your time making wine for Merryvale, what changes have you seen come about that you feel are significant both for the brand and for the industry as a whole?
"Winemaking is an ancient art, so the really interesting part lies in the simply manifesting the fruit into wine in a way that ideally expresses a single vintage and location."
SF: First and foremost has been the quality and consistency of the fruit that we're getting in the premium growing regions in California. I'm most familiar with Napa and Sonoma, but I think there's been significant strides in the level of effort and commitment, especially at the high end, that's gone into growing the right fruit in the right places and doing things well in the vineyards, so that the starting material itself is great. There's also the availability of many different [winegrape] clones, versus having only a few, so we have many more options that allow us to attain a lot more complexity. On the winemaking side, I could sit here and say that the technological advances are great because they help with consistency, and I think it's good to take advantage of the technology. But at the same time, winemaking is an ancient art, so the really interesting part lies in the simply manifesting the fruit into wine in a way that ideally expresses a single vintage and location. And balancing that expression with consistency in quality is something we've been able to do better in recent years. That said, though, we still need to be careful as an industry that things don't become too homogenous, that differences remain apparent among different producers.
NM: It must be a challenge, then, to manage the entry-level line for such a high profile Napa brand, because you're balancing a number of critical elements all at once: articulating the overall house style; making Starmont stand out from the other quality tiers; and doing those at a price point that's widely accessible in the marketplace. How do you balance all that with a single, entry-level product line?
SF: It always starts with the source material, the fruit. We're in constant evaluation of our vineyard sourcing, and we're always looking to see which vineyard sources are already aligned with how make wine and what we're trying to achieve. If they are, that's great, but there's usually room for improvement. We make a concerted effort to work with the growers to do certain things in the vineyard to improve the fruit and bring it into line with what we want. That's key: if we start with sourcing material that works for what you're trying to achieve, then things are a lot easier. If a source of fruit is not quite where we want it, then there are things we can do in the cellar to coax so that it'll work with our other fruit and give us a final blend that represents what we're trying to achieve. In the Starmont line, we want wines that are clearly fruit-defined, varietally correct, and complex — and while clearly not the most complex in our portfolio, complex enough to go head to head with, or even surpass, other brands at the same price point. Our goal is to overdeliver for the price. A lot of that comes down to fruit sourcing, techniques in the cellar, and craftsmanship. And we apply the same philosophy to Starmont that we do to our other tiers of wine, just on a larger scale. I'm just as passionate about the larger lots that go into the Starmont Cabernet as I am about our smallest lot of estate Syrah or Pinot; they're all part of the bigger picture and they all have their role to play.