Mark Herold’s first wine, Merus, was an overnight success. He and his wife, Erika Gottl, created the first small batch in the late 1990s, and by 2001 they had become the darlings of the press.
The New York Times referred to it as the Napa Valley’s newest “cult” wine. But unlike the other such highly sought-after cult wines at the time — Harland, Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Grace Family and a few others — Merus wasn’t made in a fancy, multimillion-dollar winery with acres of meticulously groomed estate vineyards. Instead, it was being made in the couple’s garage at their home in suburban Napa. They purchased the grapes from an acquaintance.
The success of Merus — and a few other like-minded, scrappy winemakers at the time — helped usher in what became the gold-rush equivalent for California’s garagiste winemakers. No longer was it important to have tons of money backing your dream. Instead, a bucketful of high-quality grapes, a few new oak barrels, and a willingness to wake up early and tend your wines before heading to your day job might just do the trick.
In 2007 Merus was sold to vintner Bill Foley for an undisclosed sum. Today Herold and Gottl are no longer together; however, he has continued his own wine brands — Mark Herold, Mastodon, and Uproar — and has a tasting room in Napa’s Oxbow District. And although the world of wine has changed dramatically since Merus launched, one thing hasn’t changed: Herold’s wines are big, plush, and consistently delicious.
From California to Panama and then back again
Herold was born in Newport Beach, California. His father, Raymond Herold, is a psychiatrist. His mother, Marisa Gonzalez Revilla, grew up in Panama, where her father, Carlos Gonzalez Revilla Delgado, had created one of the country’s first electric-generation companies, Empresas Electrica.
“[Delgado] was born in 1897, studied medicine in New York, and returned to Panama with the dream of his city having electricity,” Herold said. “He bought a hydroelectric plant that became operational in 1924 and started producing electricity in 1927 and then moved into telecommunications in 1931. He was a pioneer and an incredibly driven man.”
When Herold was 4, his family moved from the United States to Panama. The family’s businesses there were thriving so much so that they were part-owners of a small island off the coast called Rancheria.
“The island was a beautiful place,” he said. “We’d go there and fish — my parents were into competitive fishing — and when I was 13 I caught a 130-pound sailfish on a 20-pound test line. It took me 50 minutes to reel it in and I was exhausted by the end, but I did it myself and was very proud. If I caught it today I’d probably throw it back.”
In homage to those times, a mounted swordfish that has been painted with a kind of Doppler Effect adorns the tasting-room walls.
Beyond fishing, in Panama Herold learned to love the intensity of flavors and smells that accompanied his new Latin American home.
“My parents thought I was strange, “he said. “I’d go around smelling everything. I still use that mental catalog of aromas when I am making wine.”
One of the aromas he remembers is that of Nance fruit, a tropical fruit that grows in South America and is an acquired taste. Nance berries, orange and about the size of a cherry, are said to have a mildly cheeselike aroma with hints of banana, lychee, and pear — which sounds a little like some chardonnay wine descriptions I’ve read.
From well-off to
just making it
Herold’s young life in Panama was idyllic. In the 1970s, however, the military took over the Panamanian government and soon after that his family’s companies.
“The government was corrupt and only paid 5 cents on the dollar,” Herold said. “My mother is still in lawsuits over the takeover. We went from well-off to just making it.”
A lesson from those experiences still holds today.
“Change is always happening from all directions,” he said. The trick is to learn how to navigate and appreciate the changes.”
He used his mother as an example to illustrate his point. Soon after the takeover, she converted some of the family’s remaining Panamanian land to an eco-resort called El Valle de Anton, also known as Crater Valley. The resort is located within two hours’ drive from Panama City and includes a forest of teak trees she planted 35 years ago.
By the time Herold turned 16, his parents had divorced and he had moved back to California with his father. His idea was to brush up on his English, then eventually become a chef or biologist.
After high school in Irvine, he attended UC Davis, where he ultimately earned a doctorate in ecology. During his studies, surrounded by students and professors immersed in the art and science of winemaking, he became curious about wine, even making a barrel of his own at home.
“Growing up, dinners were always lively and the wine flowed,” Herold said. “I don’t recall any idealizing of wine, but it was more about bringing everyone together for celebration and good times. For me, wine remains powerful in that respect.”
After graduating, he was hired at Joseph Phelps Vineyards as a research enologist in 1996. He and Gottl launched Merus in 1998.
20,000 decisions go into every bottle of wine
According to Herold, a single bottle of wine represents 20,000 decisions, each instrumental in shaping the personality of the final product.
“All of the decisions — even the most minuscule — have to come together to form the final wine,” he said.
From where and how to plant the vineyard, which grape clones to use, how each vine is pruned when to harvest the grapes, what barrels to use during aging and when to bottle — and thousands of other points along the way.
Herold suggests that making wine is akin to solving a complex puzzle, similar to a Rubik’s Cube. In the case of wine, however, there are many more moving parts and multiple hands involved. The winemaker’s role is to be adviser, guide, advocate, and shepherd of the entire process.
“The biggest decision made during the year is when to harvest,” said Philip Coturri, owner and CEO of Enterprise Vineyards, a vineyard-management company dedicated to organic farming that has worked with Herold since 2002.
“Every winemaker has their definition of ripeness. Walking the vineyard with Mark as the fruit ripens he is the manifestation of patience. Mark likes fruit to be totally mature. I liken it to that last tomato of the season that you bite into and the juicy flavors run down your chin and drip onto your shirt — the essence of ripe flavor.”
As was the case with Merus, Mark Herold wines are still not found in a fancy winery’s tasting room located on some remote hill, accessible only by traveling a miles-long olive-tree-lined driveway. Instead, sticking to his scrappy roots, Herold’s wines are available to taste at a small but hip tasting room in Napa’s Oxbow District.
Tasting flights range from $35 to $65 per person, and wines by the glass are available. Spurred by the pandemic, he and his team have also created an innovative “Herold at Home” program where small samples of select wines are shipped to a customer and then tasted with one of the Herold team during a Zoom video conference. Prices range from $50 to $75, and shipping is an extra cost. Eight different wines are currently available, three of which are described below.
The 2017 Herold Coomsville Cabernet Sauvignon ($95 a bottle and 600 cases made) is a wallop of a wine. Drinking this wine one is taken back to the heyday of Napa Valley cabs when they were unapologetic for all their big, plush lushness.
According to Herold, Coomsville, on the eastern side of the city of Napa, produces some of the finest fruit in the entire valley and fits his winemaking style perfectly. I agree. Here we have a wine that will “tattoo you from the inside,” as Robert Foley liked to say about his purple-teeth-staining red wines.
This nearly opaque Cabernet has vibrant, intense aromas of black raspberry, red-current jam, anise, kombu seaweed, and nutmeg. On the palate this wine is expansive, spreading its 16%-plus alcohol over your tongue and coating your mouth with flavors of chocolate, vanilla, and coconut cream mixed with shiitake mushrooms and toasty hazelnuts.
The 2017 Uproar ($65 a bottle and 450 cases made) is a blend of various Napa Valley vineyards and is only slightly less intense and complex than the Coombsville. It shows fewer red-fruit characteristics, however, instead of expressing full aromas and flavors of plum, blueberry, and cacao nibs along with a pleasing smokiness and roasted meatiness in the finish.
Like all the Herold wines I’ve tasted, the textures and plushness of this wine are consistently pleasant. I could see this wine pairing nicely with any grilled item, although braised short ribs spring to mind as a near perfect emparejamiento.
The 2018 Sauvignon Blanc ($28 a bottle and 150 cases made) was sourced from the Uboldi Vineyard in Sonoma Valley. The bouquet is expressive with smells of nearly ripe pear, Buddha’s hand zest and the honey-mint-strawberry floral aroma of freesia blossoms. The flavors are tropical — green mango, citrus and tangerine with a hint of stony minerality. While the mouthfeel is creamy, there is enough acid here to make this wine a perfect paring for crab cakes served with a mango salsa full of grilled jalapeños and lime.
Maintaining a garagiste spirit
The very concept of talking about cult wines feels somewhat antiquated at this point. There is no longer a grand authority wine reviewer to bestow such ranking on any wine. However, there still remains a somewhat romanticized view that with the right mix of grapes, talent and chutzpah there remains a role and possible market success for those making wines in the garagiste spirit.
And although Herold has been making wine for more than two decades and has built and sold then rebuilt numerous wine brands, his wines still retain some of the welcome rough edges associated with something real and meaningful found in many of the garagistes-inspired cult wines of yesteryear.
“I have so many interests, I could have easily been a professional student,” Herold said. “In hindsight, I found my calling in a really roundabout sort of way, but I’m lucky enough to do something that fulfills me on so many intriguing and challenging levels.”
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