MERRYVALE VINEYARDS: A working winery in St. Helena attracts out-of-town visitorsby Karola Saekel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006
There is a lot of history in Wine Country, and Merryvale, on the southern edge of St. Helena, exudes the patina of a winery that's aging as gracefully in the landscape as its best wines age in rotund barrels.
Merryvale is all of 23 years old. However, that is only the date when the winery acquired its current name. The building was already half a century old, being the first winery built in the Napa Valley after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Before it became Merryvale, it was called Sunny St. Helena Winery.
The Merryvale tasting room stays open later than most; it's one of the most spacious and well stocked in the valley, and tasting fees are reasonable.
Located within walking distance of a number of fine restaurants -- Tra Vigne, Martini House -- and St. Helena's downtown with its stylish boutiques, antique shops and more, it's an ideal choice for out-of-town visitors with a tight schedule. They can taste wines and do their requisite shopping from the selection of clothing, pottery, gourmet foods and artwork, all the while surrounded by the smells and sights of a working winery -- barrel rooms open onto the tasting room.
Should you hear someone shout, "Here, Magnum!" they are not advertising a major purchase. Magnum is the owner family's big black dog.
The vibe: Heavy brick walls ensure pleasant temperatures even on hot valley days. The natural wood interior and well-designed display racks and tables add up to a feeling that's rustic yet sophisticated. The large, three-sided tasting counter is well staffed, so visitors can ask questions and enjoy a bit of friendly chatter while they taste, even when a large tour group descends on the room, a frequent occurrence.
The team: Since 1996, Jack Schlatter has been sole proprietor. His and wife Lilo's primary residence is in his native Switzerland, but their son Rene, executive vice president, lives in St. Helena and is at the winery daily. His wife, Laurence, is responsible for buying the high-quality apparel offered for sale. The winery has a new winemaking team, Larry Cherubino, an international winemaker who divides his time among his native Australia, the Napa Valley and other international wine venues, and Sean Foster, who has been with Merryvale for 14 years. Highly respected Napa Valley grower Andy Beckstoffer partners with Merryvale for the Merryvale-Beckstoffer Vineyard label.
The wines: Merryvale produces wines at several levels. Two tasting room exclusives were part of the reserve tasting on my recent visit. They were the 2005 Juliana Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($22), a smooth blend of 85 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 15 percent Semillon, and the 2003 Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay ($45). The other wines in this group were a 2001 Reserve Napa Valley Merlot ($35) and 2002 Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($39), plus Antigua dessert wine ($29; 500 ml), Merryvale's delicious Muscat de Frontignan, fortified with California brandy. The fee for this tasting was $7. The Classic tasting, for five wines in the $17 to $29 range, costs $5; the Prestige tasting of a $45 Chardonnay and a $90 proprietary red Bordeaux-style blend is $10, as are tastings of either five red or white wines. At the top of the scale is a vertical four-year tasting of Bordeaux-style reds for $20.
The experience: I asked some pertinent and some pretty naive questions of two staffers. They did well with both, giving both facts and opinions. One person I spoke with was solicitous without talking down to me and asked me some good questions to try to get a feel for what I like in a wine. When I asked about the merchandise and art on display, the information was offered up without a sales pitch.
The extras: Merryvale has an extensive program of tours and classes mostly aimed at wine novices. The merchandise offered is far more interesting than the T-shirt, baseball cap and coaster variety found at some wineries, with heavy emphasis on local products, be it artwork or interesting food items like Tulocay Napa Valley marinades or Round Pond olive oil.
Nearby: Set back from Highway 29, the St. Helena Hwy., on the edge of town, the winery is close to dozens of other wine destinations in St. Helena, including Prager Winery and Port Works (1281 Lewelling Lane, 707-963-7678 or 800-969-7678), which also operates a bed and breakfast; Sutter Home (277 St. Helena Highway, 707-963-3104); Beringer, the oldest continuously operating winery in the valley (2000 Main St., 707-963-7115); and Tasting on Main, a collective tasting room where customers can sample wines from small wineries that don't operate tasting rooms on-site (1142 Main St., 707-967-1042).
Copyright San Francisco Chronicle.
Updated: Tuesday, June 07, 2011