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SF: (con'd) Winemaking, in general, comes down to a long series of decisions that we make. There are primary and critical decisions like picking, but then there are more subtle ones, like what we do with racking, topping, stirring lees, or whatever, to ideally move the level of quality further up and to slowly coax the wine to where we'd like it to go. And it takes a long time! Often we'll make decisions and have to wait a few months to see if we made the right ones, and sometimes we make wrong ones. In the end, we try to make enough right decisions so that we're truly improving the wine. When a lot of other producers take on an entry-level wine like this, their approach becomes formulaic — the wines are on a set schedule, racked and topped at regular intervals, etcetera. Ultimately there's not a lot of passion or energy put into those products; they're viewed more as a commodity. Whereas, here, I believe we put a great deal of passion and energy into everything that we make.
NM: How would you articulate what Merryvale hopes the Starmont wines are for its target consumers?
"For us, it's about making the best decisions for the business, and about doing the right thing; it's not about anyone trying to grab the limelight."
SF: One goal would for it to be a wine that consumers can rely on as a 'go-to' wine. If a consumer needs a bottle of wine for whatever reason, they can go to a store and pick up a Starmont Cabernet or Starmont Chardonnay and know that it's going to deliver for them. I think that's the overarching idea. Now, what is it that we're going to deliver? With Starmont, we're making wines that are varietally correct, that accurately express their fruit sources and the given vintage, and that aren't overoaked — we use a modest amount of oak to try to balance the wine, finding the level of oak that works for the overall concentration, weight, and complexity of the wine. The Starmont Cabernet uses grapes from the valley floor in Napa, where the soil is a little richer and farmers can grow somewhat bigger vines with more fruit on them, which we can then buy for less than hillside fruit. It doesn't mean that that fruit is any less desirable; it's about value for the price. And we work really closely with the growers to get that fruit to where we want it and then buy it for a reasonable price. We're constantly striving to do the best we can on our side so that we can deliver quality. And also consistency: vintage in and vintage out, the Starmont line is made to be a consistently value-driven brand that people can go to and expect quality.
The Team and its Techniques
NM: I'm curious about the fact that, as head winemaker for Merryvale, you're overseeing its entry-level, everyday line rather than its more premium lines. Are there ironically more challenges to overseeing production of the value-driven wines?
SF: Well, it's not really just about winemaking; there is also running of the business and facility operations. Plus, it's also very collaborative. The way we manage this is that [at the main winery] in St. Helena we've got Graham, a very talented winemaker who's totally capable of running the show here. He and I taste together frequently and have a common shared vision of where we want the wines here to go, and in the end he's in charge of executing that. He comes down to [the Starmont facility in] Carneros to taste and collaborate with us on the Pinots and Chardonnays. It's all a very collaborative effort. In addition to Graham, I have an assistant winemaker down at the Starmont winery, and then we have Remi who oversees all the vineyard operations and grape-purchasing. We frequently sit down all together as a group to taste and talk about stuff. And we keep the ego out of it. For us, it's about making the best decisions for the business, and about doing the right thing; it's not about anyone trying to grab the limelight. We're all working for Merryvale, we're all in this together. So it's a team effort. I think during the first generation of development in this industry, a lot of people had drive and passion, but I think also expected to get the recognition. There was the rock-star aspect of winemaking — there still is! — but we're trying to get past all that. Because in the end, there's no Superman winemaker; we're all human. Some make wines in ways that some consumers really like, others make them in ways that other consumers prefer.
NM: So you're personally involved in the making of some of the wines under the more premium Merryvale tier?