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