Reading Room

At Merryvale, it's more than wine and cheese

David Stoneberg
Napa Valley Register / St. Helena Star
May 12, 2011

Well, I can’t believe that my partner in crime — or at least in wine — Catherine Seda and I could have more fun or more room for another adventure, but here goes. After drinking Karl Lawrence wines with Ric Henry and enjoying a vineyard experience with Mark Simon and Mimi Gatens, coupled with appropriate Crocker & Starr wines and bites, we were off to enjoy an elegant wine and cheese pairing with Shawn Dougherty at St. Helena’s Merryvale Vineyards.

To quote Seda, "Merryvale is a venerable Napa Valley institution that awes visitors instantly with its candlelit, fairy-tale barrel room. Set with a lavish dining table that extends the length of the grand room, and enveloping guests in barrels of exquisite wine, this is a place where you dream of holding your grand events. And yet, within this incredible room, there are hidden treasures that the eye does not instantly see.

"For intimate groups of guests who come to savor all that is Merryvale, and tucked in a corner of the barrel room, there is a large wine barrel, and only those who come to obtain the full experience of Merryvale know that the barrel opens, admitting small groups for the intimate experience of their lives.

"As you enter the barrel, you realize that inside it is a table, surrounded by chairs, and high boards are lined up against the barrel walls showcasing wine bottles and soil samples of the estate. At each place setting, there are a number of cheese choices, and the number of wine glasses lined up behind them lets you know you will taste each cheese with a different wine."

Shawn Dougherty, sommelier and food and wine educator, led us through an incredible food and wine pairing, educating at each step along the way. Want to learn about acidity? Taste the Merryvale sauvignon blanc (2009) and learn why the Cypress Grove Chevre, a pasteurized goat cheese, works so incredibly well with the wine.

Dougherty said, "I like to smell the wine first before I swirl it, just to get that single concentration of flavors. When I swirl it, all those layers pop out. I find hints of banana and a nice citrus style. I let it swirl around my mouth, hit the front, sides and back, take a little bite of goat cheese, let it mush around my mouth and I hone in on the flavors and then go back and finish it off with more sauvignon blanc." The grapes for the sauvignon blanc were grown in Pope Valley’s Juliana Vineyards and the wine is 98 percent sauvignon blanc and 2 percent semillion. It was aged four months in French oak barrels and is 14.2 percent alcohol.

On to one of Merryvale’s two "Prestige" wines — the 100 percent Silhouette Chardonnay, which in 2008 was made from grapes grown in two Carneros vineyards: the Stanly Ranch and Hyde Vineyard. It is paired with a Chabot Clothbound, a firm cheddar that was aged for 12 months and is from the Northeastern United States.

To Seda, the pairing was sublime: "Taste the Silhouette Chardonnay and educate yourself on why this very fruity wine pairs perfectly with the Cabot Clothbound."

Pairing the chardonnay, aged 17 months in French oak barrels, with the aged cheddar cheese is a match made in heaven. "The age worthiness of the Chabot, almost grassy and very rich, brings out a lot of the same fruit flavors of the Silhouette," Dougherty said. "Cheddar has always been a fantastic pairing with chardonnay or cabernet. This is what I tell people, if you’re on a budget or you’re looking to find one cheese, you should get a nice, big block of it, not processed, but true, naturally aged cheddar. Then you can focus on your white and your red."

On to the third pairing: the 2009 pinot noir paired with a semi-hard Challerhocker from Switzerland. The sommelier said the pinot, made from grapes grown on the Stanly Ranch in Carneros, is "pretty tight." He adds, "What I like about it is I can open it up almost two days before I want to drink it and that’s when it hits my style, when all the herbs come in. There’s a good balance of fruit and herbs." After sampling the 100 percent pinot noir, aged for 12 months in French oak, Seda exclaims the pairing is "amazing." She said, "The earthiness of the cheese is helping bring up the earthiness of the pinot. It actually smoothes it out, so I can focus on the flavors of the cheese itself."

Again, instruction from Dougherty: "Smell the cheese, let it sit in your mouth. What I like to do after I swallow the cheese and the wine, is to close my mouth and breathe out through my nose, which gives me another whole style of flavors. For me, that brings it all together."

The fourth pairing, 2007 cabernet sauvignon with a gouda from Beemster, Holland, was all about tannin. The Merryvale cabernet is "very young and still has nice tannins with really rich fruits," Dougherty said.

The cabernet, aged for 19 months in French oak barrels, is 99 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent cabernet franc. It was made from 100 percent St. Helena estate grapes. The L’Amuse Sig. Gouda is a hard cheese, aged for two years.

"In this pairing, I want to talk about tannins, how the proteins of this particular cheese will wipe out the tannin structure of the wine, so it almost makes a new vintage an older vintage," Dougherty said.

The tasting of wines and cheeses went on for an hour to two, and as we were leaving, we thought there must be a carriage waiting at the entrance, because the experience was something so sublime, it must be reserved for royalty. (It’s not, though — there are plenty of tasting and pairing experiences available at Merryvale. Check the website for details.) As we peered into the sunlight of the day, it’s clear there is no better place to be than the Napa Valley.

History of Merryvale Merryvale Vineyards was established in 1983, then it was bought by the Schlatter family in 1996: Jack Schlatter, proprietor, and his son Rene, president.

The property, though, is much older as it was one of the first wineries built following the repeal of Prohibition. In 1933, Jack Riorda and Charles Forni expanded Riorda’s winery and created Sunnyhill Winery, which was later changed to Sunny St. Helena, which was later owned by Cesare Mondavi. After many owners, in 1971, it was bought by the Christian Brothers and used for storage.

After the Schlatter family bought it, they renovated the facility and started making wine under two labels: Merryvale and Starmont. Sean Foster is Merryvale’s senior winemaker, and is joined by winemaker Graham Wehmeier.

Information taken from Merryvale Vineyards’ website and from "Napa Wine: A History from Mission Days to the Present" by Charles L. Sullivan.

Updated: Tuesday, June 07, 2011