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CP: First of all, we know that there are great places for Merlot on Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak, and Carneros. Well, I think there's a band of soils in Oakville — from Oakville Grocery, out towards Plumpjack — that I think is really good for Merlot. In fact, Silver Oak doesn't grow any Cabernet in front of their winery, and the best Cabernet at Opus is not at Opus, it's somewhere else. Another good thing about the Oakville source of Merlot has to do with frost. Even though Merlot is an early budding, early flowering variety, we get through frost very easily and have great fruit set — in fact, we have to drop more [fruit] than most people. So, it's a very forgiving little pocket for Merlot where we are, in terms of microclimate and soil, and those are the most important aspects. And while some of this applies to red Bordeaux varieties overall in California, for Merlot specifically from Napa, it's very important to have a very long, cool growing season. And in Oakville we definitely have that.
NM: The Swanson Merlot has very focused aromas and flavors: the telltale black plum, along with a great deal of licorice, black tea, and dark, sweet root. I think it reveals many of the variety's hidden secrets, if you will, that very infrequently show themselves in most other Merlot — even among those of quality comparable to yours. It's a clear example of what happens when Merlot is grown in an optimal location and with prime conditions. In light of all that, what decisions are you making both in the vineyard and in the cellar to coax these qualities out in the finished wine?
"It's a very forgiving little pocket for Merlot where we are, in terms of microclimate and soil."
CP: It sounds simplistic, but it's straightforward for me to decide when to pick the fruit at the point when it no longer has any greenness in either its flavor components or tannin structure. True physiological, as opposed to physical, ripeness is pretty easy to ascertain. And if you pick that moment right, then everything else seems to fall into place — how to conduct the macerations and fermentations, when to bottle, etcetera. These things don't seem very difficult if you've picked at the right time; if you haven't, it's going to be a struggle the whole way through. Some of this sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but you develop a degree of familiarity with all this. Then another one of the ways of maintaining wine quality consistently is by culling out wines and selling them in bulk. I've had the onus and privilege, especially after Dominus, of being the one to make that call. For the twenty five years I've been making wine for the owners of these three wineries, I've had the ability to cull up to 20% of the wine from a particular vintage. And you take a huge financial hit when you do that; you don't need to know much about the wine business to figure that out.
And the Merlot has really evolved to the point where it is now — a lot. It was very obvious, just from tasting previous vintages of Merlot at Swanson, that the components were already in place and we had the raw material. But there was some critical fine-tuning that needed to be done: early on, it was being harvested, I would say, a week too early; it was being aged in barrels with a heavy toast that should have been medium or medium-plus; and even before all that, there was some selective canopy management that needed to be done. Nevertheless, the elements were there for success all along.
NM: Now, let's put Swanson's Merlot in the context of the pendulum swing that the varietal has gone through in the marketplace. California Merlot, as you're well aware, experienced widespread — eventually indiscriminate — plantings to keep up with demand arising from its skyrocketing popularity in the early '90s, ultimately resulting in its market demise here in the U.S. Now, more than a decade later, we might be seeing that pendulum begin to swing back towards the center. What is your own assessment of all that?
CP: As is often pointed out in the movie Merlove, there were notions of Merlot out there that did it very little justice. I mean, in bars and restaurants it had become synonymous with a glass of red wine; you could order either 'red wine' or 'Merlot,' and they'd give you the same thing. And that ultimately became bad news for the variety. Then the movie Sideways added to that negative impact. I can't tell you how disheartening it was for me to walk into retailer after retailer after that movie came out and be told, "I love this wine! But unfortunately I can't sell it because it says 'Merlot' on the label."