GOOD DIRT

Why would French wine­mak­ers leave the pres­ti­gious Old World for the New? The an­swer be­gins with a hunch that great­ness grows in the soil and cli­mate of the Western U.S.

Robb Report (USA) - - Contents - BY SARA L. SCH­NEI­DER

French wine­mak­ers are drawn to Cal­i­for­nia and Ore­gon for the West Coast’s wild spirit and

spe­cial soil.

DRILL DOWN INTO a vint­ner’s ex­pe­ri­ence these days and you’ll find an in­tern­ship in Bordeaux, a har­vest in Aus­tralia, a year in Ar­gentina, a pro­gres­sive stint in Cal­i­for­nia. The movement of wine­mak­ers around the globe re­sem­bles noth­ing so much as an in-flight mag­a­zine’s map of air­line routes.

One path, though, has be­come more heav­ily grooved in re­cent years. More and more wine­mak­ers (many rep­re­sent­ing ma­jor houses back home) are trav­el­ing on a one-way ticket—from France to the West Coast of the United States. It’s a com­mit­ment to con­cen­trate on land lesser known than the great do­maines and châteaux of Bur­gundy or Bordeaux; to raise fam­i­lies an ocean and a con­ti­nent apart from grand­par­ents; and to risk en­tire ca­reers on early promise and a hunch.

For Napa Val­ley’s Philippe Melka, it was the dirt that caught his eye. A na­tive of Bordeaux, Melka has al­ways been a stu­dent of the land, earn­ing a de­gree in ge­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Bordeaux. Just in the nick of time, a se­nior-year class in wine­mak­ing pro­pelled him into grad­u­ate stud­ies

in oenol­ogy that landed him in Napa Val­ley on the verge of a seis­mic shift.

It was the early 1990s, and the mes­sage of the mo­ment in France was that Napa’s wines were good but had no sense of place. But we had never con­sumed wine by place in this coun­try. We drank Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon and Chardon­nay, not Pouil­lac and Ch­ablis. A Napa style of Caber­net (read: he­do­nis­ti­cally ripe, not ter­roir driven) was well on its way to star­dom, but for true con­nois­seurs that was too sim­plis­tic. They were ready for more nu­ance, for an Oakville Cab to taste dif­fer­ent from a St. He­lena Cab, or a bot­tle from How­ell Moun­tain to be dis­tinct from a Spring Moun­tain one.

Melka was given a mis­sion by Napa’s Domi­nus Es­tate: Study the soil. Find out why wines from one place have char­ac­ter­is­tics that wines from 600 feet away don’t. And what he found hooked him on the place—great qual­ity in gen­eral (we’re talk­ing dirt here), an ex­cit­ing range of el­e­va­tions (which Bordeaux lacks in spades), and a rare di­ver­sity of soil types, “which is the most im­por­tant thing!” he says. “And also the most in­ter­est­ing thing to talk about.” That last bit might dif­fer­en­ti­ate Melka from even the most hard-core wine lovers, but, he says, “A lit­tle click went off in my head.”

Those el­e­va­tions cre­ate var­i­ous ex­po­sures and mi­cro­cli­mates, which is some­thing con­nois­seurs, wine­mak­ers, and soil geeks all love to chat up.

“The vol­canic soil type does not ex­ist in Bordeaux,” Melka says, “which is why it was very unique for me to dis­cover. Vol­canic rocks play a ma­jor role in the re­sul­tant char­ac­ter of the wine—ei­ther they cre­ate a com­pacted, im­pen­e­tra­ble bedrock or, con­versely, some frag­mented rocks that al­low for deeper root sys­tems. This cre­ates com­pletely dif­fer­ent types of wines.”

And as Napa Val­ley be­gan re­think­ing its wine­grow­ing meth­ods to take ad­van­tage of all of its site unique­ness through new at­ten­tion to ev­ery­thing from root­stocks and clones to row di­rec­tion and trel­lis­ing, Melka was po­si­tioned to ad­vise. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he al­ready had ex­pe­ri­ence at Château Haut-Brion (not a bad first job out of school), and he con­tin­ued to stock­pile it in France at Château Pétrus and in Cal­i­for­nia with Paul Draper at Ridge. He soon be­gan con­sult­ing for some of Napa’s now-leg­endary pro­duc­ers un­der his new Ate­lier Melka um­brella: Lail Vine­yards, Skip­stone, Davis Es­tates, Seavey, Château Boswell, Ale­jan­dro Bul­gheroni Es­tate (where he shares con­sult­ing du­ties with fel­low Frenchman and global wine con­sul­tant Michel Rol­land).

It’s un­der­stand­able that a whiff of crit­i­cism might float around the new­est premier con­sul­tant in Cal­i­for­nia’s premier wine val­ley—a sus­pi­cion that a sin­gle man will bring a sin­gle style and play right into the one-note Caber­net rep­u­ta­tion that many in the re­gion are work­ing hard to shed. Melka minces no words on that front: “I’m the re­verse of im­pos­ing style! I’m here to tell the truth of the soil, and I can’t re­peat a style.”

“I’m here to tell the truth of the soil, and I can’t re­peat a style.” — PHILIPPE MELKA

WILD OUEST More and more wine­mak­ers are leav­ing France for vine­yards on the United States’ West Coast, such as Domi­nus Es­tate.

The dirt at Do­maine Drouhin Ore­gon.

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