Philippe Melka is in the business of making others look good.
One of the foremost craftsmen of his trade, Melka for years has been turning some of the valley’s best grapes into outstanding wines.
While kudos came his way, Melka nevertheless took a back seat to the owners of a number of highly lauded brands — brands that in many instances soared to the top of wine lovers’ must-have lists.
The self-effacing Bordeaux native never pursued the spotlight, preferring instead to let the wines speak for themselves. Not even prominent critic Robert Parker’s selection of Melka as one of the Top 10 winemakers in the world could turn the soft-spoken cellarmaster into a glad-handing self-promoter.
Even the wines Melka and his wife, Cherie, made on their own took on a sort of runner-up status to the products getting raves in print and on blogs around the world.
Those days of playing second fiddle have come to a halt — although not screechingly so.
Cherie and Philippe Melka have decided to increase production of a few choice wines marketed under the Métisse and CJ brands — which fall under the umbrella of their own Melka Wines project — and want the world to know about them, to give them a try.
After all, if you don’t have faith that Philippe Melka will pour you a glass of exceptional wine, who can you trust?
Circuitous path to wine
Neither one of the Melkas had designs on a career in the wine business.
With a degree from Northern Arizona University, Cherie intended to settle into medical microbiology. When she turned up at a placement agency — admittedly ambivalent about a career in medicine — Cherie was told about a lab position at Paul Draper’s Ridge Vineyards.
Although she didn’t know much about wine, Cherie admits “I B.S.’d my way through the interviews” and wound up with the job. “It’s a very relaxed industry and I had a job that I loved. It was stimulating, especially with how the harvest changes every year. And I came to learn that (Paul Draper) believes in a woman’s palate.”
The son of a physician, Philippe entered studies at the University of Bordeaux with the goal of becoming an oceanographer. He’d spent a lot of time in Hossegor, on the south Atlantic coast of France, where his parents had a summer home.
“My parents live there today, but at the time they had a summer home, not too far from Biarritz. It’s a mecca for surfers, and is on the world circuit (of surfing). I’m a surfer and all my good friends are from there.”
“It’s where we got married,” interjected Cherie as she poured one of the new Melka releases for us to taste.
Although his mother’s father made wine in the Loire Valley, Philippe didn’t intend to follow in grandpa’s steps.
“I took geology courses — the prettiest girls always went to the geology classes,” he maintains. “What does that say about me?”
He admits he took a lot of geology courses, and graduated with a degree in geology in 1989. Subsequently, he received a masters in terroir and viticulture, and also studied ampelography. He stumbled into the workaday world with the announcement that he was a soils specialist.
That brought Philippe to the Napa Valley to work in both cellar and vineyards with Christian Moueix at Dominus Estate, a New World venture of the family that owns and operates one of the world’s most acclaimed wine operations, Chateau Petrus.
“Christian and Paul (Draper) were good friends, so I wound up doing a soils study for (Draper’s) Montebello Vineyard. I spent several months there in 1992. It was where I met Cherie — she was the lab manager.”
Philippe returned to France to work at Petrus and Haut Brion the following year, as well as with the sangiovese grape in Italy. Then, in 1994, he and Cherie were married at the surfer’s paradise Philippe called home every summer growing up.
The Melkas returned to Napa Valley later that year, to celebrate their nuptials with friends and to line up employment. It was then that Philippe launched his consulting business. He wound up offering expertise in the production of a number of elite wines — Lail, Bryant Family, Quintessa, Caldwell, Marston, Seavey, Hundred Acre and Vineyard 29. At present, he continues to consult on a dozen local wine brands.
The launch of Melka Wines in 1996 turned out to be a closely guarded secret. Sure — those in the know learned of Philippe’s own wine project, but you didn’t see him beating the drum around the valley about it.
“My intent was to keep it small, to keep control of the brand,” Philippe noted during a tasting of his newest releases. “Because I had other jobs.
“My clients were actually the people who got my brand started — they provided the grapes.”
The Melkas chose Métisse for a brand name, the French word for mixture. “Métisse is a blend of cultures — French and American — a blend of vineyards, a blend of varietals,” Philippe adds.
In 2003, the Melkas took a substantial leap by deciding to make wine with their own fruit. Grapes for Métisse and CJ wines come from three local vineyards and one in St. Emilion, a renowned winegrowing region on the right bank of Bordeaux’s Gironde River.
The eight-acre La Mekerra Vineyard in Knights Valley, purchased in 2001 by the couple, was planted to cabernet franc and merlot. Additional plantings of the two Bordeaux varieties are planned, along with an acre or more of sauvignon blanc. It and the Jumping Goat Vineyard in St. Helena, planted to cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot by respected valley viticulturist David Abreu, are farmed by the Melkas.
Whether you call it the rebirth, relaunching or rebranding of Melka Wines, the clear message to consumers is — using current vernacular — that Philippe and Cherie are “in it to win it.”
This is not a project where the client is pulling the strings, rather a venture in which both of them are investing considerable time and effort.
For years, Philippe and Cherie Melka worked for others, helping put a number of Napa Valley wine brands on the map. Friends, even clients agree — it’s time for the Melkas to toot their own horn.
The Métisse and CJ wines pay homage to Philippe’s technical expertise — extended skin contact, gentle handling, new oak aging — as well as his understanding of prime grape soils and terroir. In fact, it’s fun, as a taster, to see if you can identify the effects of terroir on each of the wines he’s made.
There’s a new package as well. A simple, elegant design is anchored by the piercing gaze of the winemaker, as Philippe’s eyes are captured at the top of the label, with family name, brand and viticultural area included.
Here’s one taster’s impression of the quartet of new Melka wines:
• 2007 Melka CJ Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($48) — “Celebrating what our kids (Chloe and Jeremy) brought to our lives,” the Melkas named this Bordeaux blend for their children. With nearly three-fourths of the fruit coming from Coombsville, this is a blend of cool climate cabernet sauvignon (82 percent), merlot and petit verdot (9 percent each). With 1,300 cases, this is the largest production from the Melka cellar. A serious red that provides ample bang for the buck, it offers layers of complexity due to the fact that fruit from several vineyards is in the blend. It’s bright and juicy, has mature tannic structure and a silky mouthfeel. Black fruit, especially currants, are evident on both nose and palate. Noted wine critic Robert Parker gave this wine 90 points. It’s currently in release.
• 2007 Melka Métisse La Mekkera Vineyards Knights Valley ($125) — The inaugural vintage for this vineyard, which is located at 2,300 above the Peter Michael vineyards, this is a blend of merlot (65 percent) and cabernet franc (35 percent), in the tradition of Bordeaux’s Right Bank. A well-balanced red with oodles of ripe black fruit, velvety texture and lovely finish of chocolate and spice. Melka said Napa Valley allows for the best expression of cabernet franc; if this wine is any indication, he’s right on he money as the cab franc is featured beautifully in this superior blend. Only 155 cases produced, it will be released in the fall.
• 2007 Melka Métisse Jumping Goat Vineyard Napa Valley ($125) — Great structure and complexity in a wine that critic Robert Parker labeled “brilliant.” In fact, he gave it 96 points. A textbook growing season allowed for all parts of this wine to develop — acid, tannins, fruit flavor. A lush, full-bodied blend of St. Helena cabernet sauvignon (85 percent), merlot (12 percent) and petit verdot (3 percent), it’s a voluptuous red that offers an intense floral nose and delicious black fruit on a lengthy finish. Melka said the tiny bit of petit verdot gives the wine added vibrancy and spice. Yummmmm. This one should age quite well. Only 375 cases produced, it’s just been released.
• 2007 Melka Métisse Le Chatelet Vineyard St. Emilion Grand Cru ($125) — From fruit selected by the winemaker during harvest in a highly prized vineyard adjacent to Beausejour Becot in Bordeaux, this blend of merlot (70 percent) and cabernet franc (30 percent) is one of which Melka is quite proud in that he’s making wine from his homeland. It’s a complex, inviting red with perfumy richness and juicy black currants. The fruit is ripe, but not jammy, and the finish is delightfully long. A wine that goes quite well with roasted or grilled meats. Only 175 cases, it will be released on Bastille Day (July 14).
At last, Philippe and Cherie Melka can take well-deserved bows for wines that carry their name. The passion has borne fruit.