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Unusually, it rained nearly 7 inches in May in the Napa Valley. To many vintners, including Dan Duckhorn, the mid-May rain in 2010 is going to make a difference in the 2010 vintage.

“When you taste the 2010 wines, you’ll remember this day, because it’s very unusual,” he said on a rainy May 10. He said the rain will spur the vines to grow a lot of shoots, so crews will be in the vineyards trimming that growth to let the sun ripen the grapes.

Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, founders of Duckhorn Wine Company, Alex Ryan, president of the company and winemaker Bill Nancarrow hosted a group of about 25 people on that rainy Monday as they poured “history from a bottle.” On the five tables at Paraduxx — one of Duckhorn’s brands — were four vintages of both merlot and cabernet sauvignon, including wines from the 1978 vintage. The tasting culminated in the premiere release of Duckhorn’s newest wine: 2006 vintage of The Discussion, an estate-grown Napa Valley red wine.

The retrospective tasting began with Duckhorn’s signature wine, its merlot made from grapes grown by John and Sloan Upton in their Three Palms Vineyard, a couple of miles south of Calistoga on the Silverado Trail.

Duckhorn calls the Three Palms Vineyard “wonderful” and said his merlot made from those grapes is “our namesake.”

In the 1960s, Duckhorn started a grapevine nursery. Merlot vines were “not much requested” at the time. He mentioned he only sold two rootstocks in the 1960s, as compared with 10 to 15 rootstocks today as well as a similar number of clones. “Back then, there was only St. George rootstock,” he said, and added he planted merlot vines “wherever cabernet did well.”

The merlots reviewed included those from 1978, 1984, 1991 and 2001. All were a blend. The first two were merlot blended with cabernet sauvignon. In 1991, the blend included cabernet franc and in 2001, the blend included petit verdot.

Nancarrow talked about the merlots, although he was clearly reading notes written by Tom Rinaldi, who was Duckhorn’s winemaker for the first 20 years. The 1978 vintage, picked at 23.4 Brix, was fined with egg whites and aged in 100 percent new French oak for 18 months. It is at 12.9 percent alcohol. After tasting the 30-year-old merlot, Ryan was impressed. “It’s remarkable for something that old,” he said. “It wasn’t supposed to last that long,” but added it has aged well because of its acid.

Duckhorn, who will celebrate his 40th vintage this year, said the grapes were harvested and put in apple lug boxes. “In the early days, the vines were 8-by-12 spacing, so you could drive a pickup truck down the rows,” he said. Workers used pitchforks to transfer the grapes to the crusher and Duckhorn said they were hand-sorted at the winery. But, he said they were one of the few who paid attention to the grapes in the vineyard, to determine whether they were overripe or underripe.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, the price of grapes was based on the sugar,” Duckhorn recalled. “Growers were asked to deliver grapes to you (at the crushpad) somewhere in the middle range.” Back then, there were two or three pricing contracts throughout the valley for all the grapes sold. In contrast, today there are 400 to 450 contracts, he said.

Blended with cabernet

From the start, the merlots have been blended. In Duckhorn’s words: The Three Palms merlot demanded cabernet sauvignon. Margaret Duckhorn added, “Blending some of the other varieties make the merlot better. It has always been a blend. It just made a better wine from our perspective.”

She told a story about their relationship with the Uptons and their famous Three Palms Vineyard. In 1990, after Cal and Stanford met in their annual football match, she and Dan, who both went to Cal, took a “Go Bears” banner to the vineyard and hung it between two of the palm trees. Sloan Upton, a Stanford alum, apparently was very upset and the banner was removed.

In December, one of the palms died following a heavy frost and Upton blamed the Duckhorns.

“Upton said we killed it and added, ‘We’re not going to (have the vineyard) be called Two Palms,’” Duckhorn said. “So very late one afternoon, he had a palm tree helicoptered in and planted.” But, she said, “I now call the vineyard ‘Two and a Half Palms’ because the new one is so much smaller than the other two.”

Cabernet tasting

During the retrospective of the cabernets, again from 1978, 1985, 1990 and 1999 vintages, Nancarrow gave the technical data. But Duckhorn’s Napa cabernets are different than their merlots: they are not sourced from one vineyard but from all over Napa Valley. In 1978, the grapes came from two very different vineyards: one from Howell Mountain and the other from the Stags Leap District. Only 800 cases were made.

In 1985, fruit came from eight vineyards. Dan Duckhorn recalled that year was very hot all summer, including during the harvest. “I remember the gondolas all lined up at Mondavi, trying to get the fruit crushed,” he said, “It was a very difficult year.”

Discussion continues

After commenting on the 1990 and 1999 vintages — where the grapes were allowed to hang on the vines a little longer — the group was invited to taste the inaugural 2006 vintage of The Discussion, which, unusually, is an estate red wine. It is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot, but since it is not 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, it cannot be labeled as such.

Ryan said it is a unique wine in many respects and represents Duckhorn’s commitment to the long term, since it is being released at $115 per bottle. “Who would have thought when we planned this two and a half years ago, when the Dow Jones was at 14,000, that the economy would be in the shape it is today?” Ryan asked.

Dan Duckhorn said the wine is the company’s “history in front of you,” but with a twist, since it was designed to be consumed upon release and purchase. “You can go home and drink it tonight,” he said, “that’s been the shift in the business.

“There’s a different mindset today. Over 30 years, we’ve seen a shift in the style,” he added.

Duckhorn Wine Co.

2006 The Discussion, estate grown, Napa Valley red wine

53% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 14% cabernet franc, 5% petit verdot

Grapes grown in six vineyards in Yountville, St. Helena, Howell Mountain

Harvested Sept. 14 to Oct. 31, 2006, at 27.2 Brix

Aged in 100% new French oak barrels, 26 months

Alcohol, 14.5%, pH 3.39

Bottled July 2009, released April 2010

$115 per 750ml


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