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SF: Right. And we're trying to do so in a way that's natural. It's a question of how and where we have inputs, what we can influence without forcing something unnatural on the vineyard. Ideally, our biggest levers would be how we manage the canopy and how we irrigate. Whereas, in a perfect world, with some of these other things, like nutrition, the soil would have what it needs to slowly give to the plant. And that would be done through composting and green manure to build the soil up, so the soil would be in a good state to sustain the fruit. Then the levers we'd be playing with would only have to be irrigation, canopy management, and the crop load we leave on the vine.
Focused on the Future
NM: Bringing it full circle, how does the decision-making and overall philosophy with the Merryvale and Starmont lines influence Profile and vice versa?
SF: I would say it definitely goes in both directions. Certainly with Profile, we're starting with source material whose tannins are more resolved in the vineyard. We can try to extract a lot from the fruit that goes into this wine because it's not going to give aggressive or harsh tannins, so we're trying to pull out as much of the good tannin that we can. I think what we can learn there, which we take into consideration in making the other tiers of wines, is that not all source material is the same. If we were to take the same techniques and apply them to a vineyard whose fruit is not as resolved in it tannins, we would be over-extracting and end up with aggressive tannins in those wines. One of the lessons here is that we have to use the appropriate technique, since one is not applicable to everything. The benefit and dynamic of having wines at these different price points and fruit sourcing from different areas of the valley is that we see a wide variety of quality levels. It's a great thing for Graham and I to be involved this way. We see a wide variety of fruit and apply a wide variety of different techniques, which ideally gives us a bigger toolbox to work from and allows us to collectively share experiences of what works and what doesn't.
"Not every single piece of property in the Napa Valley can make a $50-$60 bottle of Cabernet."
NM: Merryvale is a Napa Valley stalwart — this house, its brands, and its philosophy have been part of Napa for a long time. From this perspective, how do you see the wine industry in Napa as a whole unfolding in the future as a major player on the world wine stage, taking special note of the current economy?
SF: I think it's going to play out differently, depending on the level of wine quality. On the very top end, the best properties in Napa will undoubtedly produce world class wines and compete with the best in the world. But that doesn't represent all of Napa; there's a lot of different types and qualities of fruit. What Napa will struggle with is that not every single piece of property in the valley can make a $50-$60 bottle of Cabernet or a $30-$40 bottle of Chardonnay. Just because you're in this appellation, the price a wine still has to be appropriate for the quality of fruit going into it. Unless we can figure out how we can correct that, I think Napa is going to struggle in the marketplace, because there are a lot of quality wines in the marketplace from all over the world, which come in at markedly lower prices than a lot of wines from Napa that might be somewhat lower in quality. And that's not because we don't know what we're doing here, but rather, like I said, not every piece of property can produce a 90+ point wine. Value is the name of the game these days and consumers are seeking that out — I'm one of them!
CO: I think that's entirely correct, especially in this economy. But economies change. Among California wines as a whole, the percentage that's from Napa Valley is really quite small, somewhere in the teens — and then far less when you add in all the other wines of the world. There's a sea of wine out there! But what Napa Valley has shown in its very best sites — the First Growth type of sites — is that it's very well-suited for making big, ageable Cabernet. The terroir side of the argument is that for the people who like that style of wine, Napa Valley is one of the best in the world at doing that. And that's not going to change. The relative scarcity in quantity of these wines will always drive prices higher, and the people who like big, juicy, ripe, rich Cabernet that can age are always going to spend the money for this level of quality. It has lessened somewhat in this economy, but I see that as just a part of a cyclical phenomenon that turn around again.