Reading Room

Dynamic Duo - At Napa's Merryvale winery, winemaking and viticulture are inseparable.

by Richard Paul Hinkle
Summer 2009

We all recall, with awe and wonder, the marvelous "moon shots" of yesteryear, when a phalanx of engineers demonstrated the ultimate in communications skills. They sent sapient beings to the surface of the moon ... and then brought them back to dramatic, televised, oceanic splashdowns. It was awesome, it was thrilling, it was inspiring.

While it does not have the same gravitas, the communications skill set between viticulturist and winemaker works to create artistic success stores--through (forgive me) intelligent design--that do inspire a bit of awe, a modicum of wonder. When you know what transpires between the placing of a stick of wood into the earth and the pouring of grape nectar into a crystalline goblet, well, it takes us well beyond picking berries in October, pressing the juice therefrom, and letting the yeast transmogrify grape juice into wine.

Remi Cohen is director of vineyard operations for Merryvale and Sean Foster is senior winemaker. Cohen took her initial degree in molecular and cellular biology from U.C. Berkeley and Foster studied biochemical engineering at U.C. Los Angeles. Both subsequently studied at U.C. Davis; both later earned MBAs.

"We are in such constant communication that we occasionally feel joined at the hip," quips Cohen, who loves dance and hot yoga. We are sitting in an Italian restaurant tasting (then drinking) the 1999 Profile, Merryvale's signature wine. We are talking about how that wine gets from ground to glass. "The fruit for Profile comes from our best vineyard, up in Conn Valley, up on the eastern bench of the St. Helena appellation. It's the foothill of Howell Mountain, about 850 feet above sea level, and very steep--up to a 30 percent slope in parts. The soils are volcanic and the vineyard blocks are small, running from one to three acres. We have done extensive infrared imaging to monitor the vigor of the vines, which demonstrated to us that we needed to increase irrigation in some parts of this vineyard. The vines are closely-planted: 2,200 vines per acre!"

Foster notes that he and Cohen spend a lot of time walking the vineyard together, time that increases as harvest approaches. "We also spend a good deal of time tasting the wines together," he adds, "because we both need to see the results of what we're doing in the vineyard as expressed by the wines. One thing we've done here is to employ much smaller picking bins to insure that the fruit comes into the cellar in the best possible condition. We no longer use the standard half-ton bins, but much prefer to use 20-pound bins. That creates a lot of extra work [pickers derisively refer to them as FYBs -- "f---ing yellow bins"], but the resulting improvement in wine quality is well worth it."

Cohen notes that, while they occasionally harvest at night, early morning is the norm. "We pick very small blocks--one to two tons per lot. We start at six in the morning and we have moved the fruit to the receiving hoppers well before nine. We now have new, smaller, stainless steel fermenting tanks -- two-, three- and five-ton tanks -- that are reserved for our estate vineyard fruit."

Berry sorting techniques have become another important quality control process, and Merryvale takes that to another level, starting in the vineyard. "We will actually pick one side of the vine at one pass, and then pick the shade side a full week or two later, the difference in flavor maturity is that distinct," says Cohen. "Sean and I will walk the vineyard together, tasting the fruit and discussing weather forecasts, and there are times when we don't know exactly when we're going to pick a location until the very night before!"

Sorting continues in the receiving hoppers and in cold rooms, going through the process several times to make sure only the best, cleanest fruit goes into the fermenting tanks. "Making good wine is ultimately a collaborative exercise," concludes the bearded, balding Foster. "To say that the vineyard is important is an understatement. Quality raw material is everything. To bring the best possible fruit into the winery is absolutely essential, with this wine and with every wine we make."

Updated: Tuesday, June 07, 2011