Today we have a very big interview on WWB. One of the huge names in Napa, Duckhorn Vineyards has focused their program on crafting exceptional Merlot since the 1980s. I recently had the chance to review their new lineup of red and white wines and was very impressed. Head winemaker, Renee Ary, has an esteemed background which includes previous stints at Robert Mondavi Winery, as well as studies from UC Davis. She has a background in chemistry and her scientific knowledge has proven to be very helpful for her in crafting silky Merlots. I recently had the chance to sit down with her and talk about her wines. I found her to be incredible articulate and thoughtful as her passion shows in the glass. Learn more about her wines at duckhornvineyards.com. Here is my exciting new interview with Renee Ary, head winemaker at Duckhorn Vineyards
WWB: Can you talk about your winemaking experiences prior to coming to Duckhorn Vineyards? What were some of your big influences in wine?
RA: Prior to joining Duckhorn in 2003, I worked at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. I started there as a lab technician in 1999 and moved into an enologist role after two years. Mondavi was a great training ground for my hands-on technical experience and really, where I fell in love with the industry. I earned a degree in chemistry and art from Saint Mary’s College and had no idea that I was going to end up in the wine industry. As it turned out, my degree proved to be a great background for a career in winemaking. I enjoy both the science and art of wine and the passion and pride that surrounds the industry. Over the years, I have taken classes at UC Davis and the Napa Valley College to augment my hands-on experience. I have been influenced by many people throughout my journey, both in the vineyards and cellar. I continue to learn and be challenged, which keeps me motivated and always striving to make better wines.
WWB: Duckhorn Vineyards has gained an international reputation for great Merlot. Your 2013 Duckhorn ‘Three Palms Vineyard’ Merlot (WWB, 93) was no exception. Can you talk about this rich and layered Merlot, as well as the vineyard?
RA: Three Palms is rightfully legendary. It’s a remarkable 83-acre vineyard planted to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and a bit of Malbec. It is located at the southern tip of the Calistoga AVA, which is the warmest part of the AVA. This unique site is anchored in well drained rocky soils which imparts a fair amount of stress to the vines. This stress is translated into depth, concentration, and structure and makes for wonderful aging potential. The 2013 reds are dense, complex, and structured. When you take a fantastic vintage and pair it with an incredible site, the results are magnified and that shows through in the wine. The 2013 Three Palms Merlot builds wonderfully on the 2012. It is a notch darker, more complex, and overall, more structured. You will find beautiful notes of red and black fruit, sweet spices, wet river rock, and black tea. This is a wine that you will be able to cellar for decades.
WWB: I was extremely impressed with your 2014 Duckhorn Chardonnay (WWB, 92) which combined rich fruit flavors, moderate oak and nice minerality. Can you talk about some of your winemaking philosophies when attempting to make great Napa Chardonnay?
RA: Chardonnay is a winemaker’s wine and so many times, the varietal can get lost underneath heavy-handed winemaking. We wanted to make a Chardonnay that was true to the Duckhorn style, which is classic, balanced, and food-friendly, and I am really happy with our Chardonnay program and where it’s going. Like all wines, fruit sourcing is extremely important for both quality and stylistic reasons. Our Chardonnay is sourced from the cooler regions of the valley—Carneros, Oak Knoll, South Napa, and Atlas Peak. This allows us to ripen the fruit while maintaining great acidity. That acid is key to balancing the weight and texture of the wine. Our Napa Chardonnay is 90% barrel fermented, went through just 45% malolactic fermentation, and was aged in 40% new French oak—all of which were part of achieving the balance, structure and refined texture we strive for. We also do some heavy lees stirring early on and then taper off mid-aging cycle once we achieve the weight and texture we are looking for.
WWB: Many winemakers in Napa are excited about their 2014 red wines. What are you expecting with your next year’s releases for Merlot and Cabernet? How do you see the 2014 vintage being different from the 2013 vintage?
RA: I am also very excited about the 2014 wines. Following 2012 and 2013, 2014 delivered our third great vintage in a row. The 2014 reds have wonderfully focused flavors and resolved tannins. They will be very approachable upon release, while still providing great longevity and ageability.
WWB: When you are not enjoying Duckhorn Vineyards wines, what wines are typically in your glass? Do you have any favorite other producers of Merlot, maybe others from California, Bordeaux and Washington?
RA: For me, drinking wine is all about a mood and I enjoy all varieties. I am very lucky to be at a company that works with so many great winemakers and wines. When I’m not drinking one of our other brands, you will find me drinking some Dry Creek Cabs and Zins or Russian River Valley Pinots. I really like Hartford wines and their focus. I also like Dutcher Crossing and Stuhlmuller. I’m a big fan of Howell Mountain Cabs in general and varietal Petit Verdot. I also like white Burgundy for its age-ability. As far as Merlots go, I really respect the Provenance Merlot’s and I think Marty Clubb is doing a great job with the program at L’Ecole 41.