It’s not all that often that we hear anything beyond “who the winemaker” is anymore when tasting wines out of California. I’m not saying that it never happens, but often I feel this ends up being the case when tasting some of the golden state’s more cult-styled wines. After living almost 4 years in Oregon and spending half of that time traveling to and from the Napa region with Archery Summit’s sister winery, Pine Ridge, I learned to experience WINE more from the vineyard perspective – above and beyond just the persona of the winemaker. Oregon to me was and still is more about the life of the ‘property’ vs. ‘the who made it’ mindset. During those monthly work trips to Napa, I’d make time to taste the wines of the valley in my down time. Tasting in Napa always ended up feeling like the selling points were more focused on the ‘celebretism’ of who made the wines, leaving the conversations few and far between when it came to the actual farming of the fruit.
Today, I honestly don’t feel that much different about the valley. When visiting now, I remain loyal to the farmers and true land stewards I made friends with years ago and continue to visit their properties. When I make appointments to visit outside the realm of my little wine families, I make sure I expend my energies with others who follow the same philosophies. Why? Because I’ve seen the silo winemaking teams and have experienced the cult-y snotty attitude that ends up leaving me completely bummed by my visit.
So when a recent Twin Cities wine rep asked me if I’d taste wines with cult-statused Winemaker David Long of David Arthur Vineyards, I grumbled. I didn’t need another $300 Cabernet on the wine lists for whom I consulted. I wanted the funky, unique, small batch farmers that were going to share their love for the land upon which they farmed. Open wines with me that would not only impress my palate but share with me, a story. Needless to say, when my appointment finally arrived- I was not as excited to meet Sir David as the rest of the ‘cult seething groupies’ that he had lined up to taste with earlier in his day.
With a huge smile upon his face and a style that reminded me of a Coloradoan city slicker, David greeted me with hands out stretched and an air of enthusiasm that I had not expected. The rep reached out and poured our first glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. And without even taking one sip of wine and most importantly, without contention, David, instead of launching straight into a full sales pitch – went right into ‘story telling’ mode. Not the stories of flavors, point scores and attitude that I expected – yet, an initial story of his “tour bus” named Meritaggio. Were these the first impressions of one of California’s most coveted winemakers? Not really. After all, this was a man who scored a whopping 99 points from the iconic 1997 vintage. What was he doing with a hippie tour bus? (Okay, it doesn’t exactly have the ‘dancing bears’ pasted all over it- so maybe not hippie-but I liked his FREE NATURED notion.) A man whose property sat amongst the likes of Chappellet and Colgin and a man whose wines sold for more money than most pay for groceries in a week. I started to think…were all my initial preconceived notions of this iconic Napa winemaker dead wrong?
Wine after wine, the stories went on. Stories of when he first met his childhood hero, a 1967 Olympic skier. Years after making wine, he met the skier and actually had the opportunity to converse with the Olympian. Most importantly, finding that not only was he a fan of this skier, but that the athlete was a fan of his wines. Describing the moment as ‘humbling’. Stories with heart and pure enthusiasm. The funny part, it was I asking for the information when it came to tasting the wines.
Why the names, why the grapes, why the plot of land and why on earth Sangiovese in one of his most celebrated blends ‘The Meritaggio’?
The Meritaggio came, he said, after trying a wine in the late 70s, maybe early 80s (he said he couldn’t remember – as was the case, he said, of many things now in his age) made entirely of Sangiovese. A grape, he said at that time, he’d never heard of. Infatuated with the grape’s backbone, intensity and flavor – he decided to throw into his Bordeaux blend, using it to replace the grape that he really wasn’t the biggest fan of…Malbec. And the name, thought up by his brother in Chicago and announced one day in a phone call that simply stated the word: Meritaggio – then hanging up after the word declared. The funny part, he said, was that the blend initially started out having a 1-2% of the grape blended in – now up to 19% he loved it so much!
At the end of the day ~ the wines, in one word: Lovely. Really lovely. Wreaking of Pritchard Hill dark briary fruit and dusty baker’s cocoa – the smells were all too familiar to the palate if you’re a lover of this dusty hillside. Gorgeous aromas of wild blackberry, baked cherries and dark chocolate. And with a mouth-feel smooth enough to crawl out onto and take a nap on. Luxurious.
My own bratty, ill-conceived notions of a fancy pants’d winemaker – who once graced the cover of Wine Spectator for his 99 point wine – was after all, a horrible way to introduce myself to a portfolio of luxurious fruit and very cool down to earth guy. David, as I ended up calling him by the end of our tasting, was my newest ‘down to earth, hippie lovin’ winemaking friend’. And now one added to my small portfolio of wine family peeps, and one that I will be happy to introduce my family to when we visit the Napa Valley in a few weeks. Bravo David, Bravo. I applaud you for making wines with grandeur, and for living a life that goes above and well, beyond just WINE.