Satellite Wine Club, Decembre 2022
$38 Retail , $456/Case $365/Case for Members ($30.41/Bottle)
$38 Retail, $456/Case $365/Case for Members ($30.41/Bottle)
Something horrible happened in 2004 and it has everything to do with Paul Giamatti. A train wreck, a nightmare, an absolute disaster; the kind of real world effect that any aspiring Hollywood writer wishes they could have on the world…
Friends, I am talking about the absolute sh•t storm caused by the movie Sideways. It’s a timeless story about a powerfully delivered line, a gullible audience, and an entire industry left reeling. The victim? A dear friend named Merlot.
“If anyone orders Merlot I am leaving. I am not drinking f*cking Merlot!”
This line, delivered with real angst, had seriously unintended consequences that dropped the global consumption of merlot significantly, -20% in California by many estimates! Bordeaux became *un-cool* while Burgundy & its precious Pinot filled the gap.
It’s so wild to think that such an off-hand line in an obscure film, shot right here in our own little wine region, could have an immense effect on the wine world - and a particularly important part!
Twenty years later, the narrative of Merlot bad, Pinot good still clings tight. Forget it. There’s a LOT of bad Pinot. And plenty beautiful Merlot. Often maligned for its soft, plush warmth, in Sideways Merlot is the antithesis of Pinot – neither savory or floral but fruity and friendly, middle-of-the-road, lacking an edge to balance things out. But these are the same traits that bolster the classic wines of Bordeaux and Napa Valley. Brash, bold, in your face; if there’s anything these Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wines need – besides time to age – it’s Merlot. Without it, the Cab alone would lack depth and drinkability, and the tannins would wire your mouth shut like a dog chewing peanut butter. No; the greatest examples of Bordeaux and Napa are tense and nuanced, chock-full of Cabernet’s black cherry cedar and brushed with the classic red plum and cooling menthol of Merlot.
The grape is a chameleon; a blending champion of great range, but Merlot also excels on its own. California has a shaky history with the grape, having spent the 1990s and 2000s churning out chewy oaky juice under the guise of Merlot. Yet there’s a new generation of Merlot makers in Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines, Rosalind Reynolds of Emme Wines, and of course, Ryan Roark of Roark Wine Company. It seems nowadays everyone’s getting ‘lot. Even Raj Parr, the Pinot Noir whisperer whose In Pursuit of Balance movement of the early 2010s defending low-alcohol and high-acid wines (that could be argued traces at least some lineage to the stylistic debate Sideways started), makes Merlot on the side.
Roark’s 2019 Santa Ynez Valley is a fruit-forward, easygoing take from old vines in a cool vintage. It’s full in body, purple in taste and new-school California Merlot through and through. Domaine Millaire’s ‘Chateau Cavale’ 2020 Bordeaux, on the other hand, hails from the birthplace of Merlot. France that year saw some hellish heat - heat that often helps rainy Bordeaux - and the result is a complex, intense wine nevertheless buttressed with acidity. Both bottles speak to the warmth and wonder we want from Merlot. Cozy up with a plate full of pot roast or your favorite rich, saucy dish, pop a cork, fire up Sideways and say it with us: “I’m drinking another fucking Merlot!”
$38 Retail , $456/Case $365/Case for Members ($30.41/Bottle)
Jean-Yves Millaire proudly defends his way of life. Emblazoned on his domaine’s website (underneath a Christmas Star-studded message advertising holiday wine offers) read the words: “Nous sommes avant tout paysans”. We are above all peasants. It’s a powerful introduction to a blurb outlining their farming philosophy, but also feels like much more than that. The sentence continues: “…and [we] have chosen biodynamic cultivation to create harmonious living conditions between the land, the vines and our environment.” There is a lot of this talk in today’s wine industry, but Millaire has been walking the walk for nearly two decades. It shows in the domaine’s wines. Under third-generation Jean-Yves, Domaine Millaire has committed to light-handed techniques in the cellar to honor holistic intentions, and the lion’s share of work, in the vineyard the other 300-plus days of the year.
Their story resembles that of many multi-generational 21st-century vignerons. Grandpa or great-grandpa buys vineyard parcels after World War II, when land ownership, like society itself, is in a state of dramatic transformation, and the family took over from there. In France, as was the case in the U.S., leftover bomb-making materials from the war were converted into herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, and chemical farming took root in the decades to follow. At some point around the turn of the millennium somebody decides enough is enough. For Domaine Millaire, that was 2006, when the property transitioned to organic, and three years later, biodynamic farming. Jean-Yves and his wife Christine have now farmed that way longer than any other and clearly like the results they see.
While some remain in the same hands for centuries, wars and revolutions have interrupted the generational cycles that otherwise govern these domaines. Not to mention the ordinary twists of fate – bankruptcy, illness of people or plants, Jr. not taking to the family business. But even a more recent, family-owned estate like Millaire has seen several shifts in decision-making. Their decisions began with Jean-Yves’s grandfather Jean Garnier buying 15 acres in 1950. He tended these modest holdings for almost three decades, farming conventionally with efficient, suddenly-commonplace chemical sprays.
He then leased the vines to family friends who continued that regime. Come 1998 the property fell into the hands of his young grandson Jean-Yves, who, alongside wife Christine, increased their holdings nearly eight-fold. They now manage nearly 120 acres in the twin appellations of Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, as well as Bordeaux… a piece of Bordeaux.
When it comes to Bordeaux, the jargon over 1855 and 1955 classifications and grand cru classés is frankly headache-inducing. Understanding the grapes and the general layout is most important. About halfway up France’s west coast, a massive estuary from the Atlantic called the Gironde makes a slice into the country to the southeast. It narrows before splitting into two rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne. The Left Bank is the chunk to the west of the Gironde and the Garonne, though almost everything is on the north end, tracing the estuary before it separates into the two rivers. The Right Bank is the exact opposite – east of the Gironde and north of the Dordogne, most of it sits along the river, not the estuary.
Cabernet dominates the Left Bank, Merlot the Right. For now, the focus is on the Right Bank, the eastern, inland part of Bordeaux, along the Dordogne. Here, Millaire farms in the areas of Fronsac, Canon Fronsac, and… Bordeaux. Confusingly, Bordeaux is the name for both the region and a piece inside the region. We’ll call this small-b Bordeaux. Most of it surrounds coveted Right Bank property, including Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, where Domaine Millaire’s most prestigious wines originate. It’s all clay and limestone, mostly the former in small-b Bordeaux and an ideal blend of both in the more prized sites. Merlot loves the Right Bank’s clay soils. The soft earth does the soft grapes well.
Merlot’s name is thought to come from merle, the French word for blackbird, whose dark colors the grape shares. But that’s not the only connection. It seems that birds of a feather flock together – the blackbird is a widespread vineyard pest, swooping down to chomp soft, never-bitter berries (kinda the Merlot thing) whenever it pleases. While their avian neighbors are unwelcome, Domaine Millaire employs plenty of other species big and small in its biodynamic system.
Cavale in English roughly translates to horse run and refers to the domaine’s own animal working the soil. Sheep munch on grasses and weeds that grow rampant in this rain-soaked area and poop local fertilizer right back into the ground. Cover crops increase biodiversity and contribute even more to that nitrogen-rich dump, while microbes go wild, storing carbon in dirt left mostly undisturbed by machines. Biodynamics is also a leap of faith. We won’t ever know whether burying dung in a cow horn or churning tea in a vector on the summer solstice really makes a difference in the final wine. Yet some of the world’s most compelling wines come from plants treated to these practices. We do know carbon sequestration to be a pretty good idea in the long run, and the farmer usually lands a healthier, more substantial crop of grapes, too. So maybe it’s worth a shot.
Domaine Millaire sure makes a good case with this bottling. The Château Cavale is silk and satin, and even in a hot vintage the fresh red and blue fruit of Merlot shows its face. Fully de-stemmed to accentuate that fruit, tart red berries and red plum, eucalyptus, toasted mocha and dusty green peppercorn coat an intoxicating and classic nose. This screams French Merlot. Instantly smooth, there’s still acidity and tension as darker elements of blue fruit, spice and minerality join to ensconce the palate – think mulberry, menthol-tinged tobacco and salt. Again, a classic Merlot, its tannins are soft and fine, a rounded hill of high thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets comforting the whole way through.
$38 Retail, $456/Case $365/Case for Members ($30.41/Bottle)
If Domaine Millaire’s bottling is steeped in terroir geekery, Roark Wine Company kindly asks us not to go there. From his website: “It isn’t meant to be a statement or a terroir project.” Oui chef! No need to wax poetic. There’s plenty to unpack as is between the man and his methods.
The nephew of wine geologist Jonathan Swinchatt and cousin of Lo-Fi and Entity of Delight’s Crosby Swinchatt, Roark found wine not in the family but through a college internship in France’s Loire Valley. Like many young winemakers he was quickly bit by the bug and bounced around a bit. Shortly after graduation, his uncle helped him nab a quick Napa Valley gig en route to harvest in New Zealand and the option between Sonoma and Santa Barbara from there. The combo of cool-climate Pinot Noir and warm surfing waters was enough to lure Roark to the latter. Joe Davis of Santa Rita Hills’ since-closed Arcadian Winery took the young winemaker under his wing, where he spent two years before moving on to vineyard management, then Andrew Murray Vineyards along Foxen Canyon. Come 2013 he was flying solo.
Roark founded his namesake company in the throes of the Great Recession. Few times in recent memory, besides 2020, was starting a business such an uphill climb than the slippery economy of 2009. But that was the year he secured some Chenin Blanc to kickstart the project, and luckily things took off. He’s since mentored not just cousin Crosby but the incredibly talented Gretchen Voelcker of Luna Hart and Piazza Family Wines, who credits Roark with providing the winemaking space and the Sauvignon Blanc that spurred her early success. Roark, humble though recognizing his part, says it was all her sweat equity and Hart.
More taken by farming than he is winemaking, Roark now tends six properties comprising twelve acres total. He’d like to grow that number to twenty. Organic practices are a must, but he’s not so picky about what’s being practiced on - the grapes themselves are a canvas for honest farming and minimalist winemaking. Good thing there’s plenty to pick from here when it comes to grapes. Eschewing trends and stereotypes, Roark ferments what interests him, regardless of grape variety or commercial viability. Santa Barbara County is the place to do just that. Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cab Franc, Syrah, Cabernet and of course Merlot – he’s covering all the climatic and stylistic bases here in California’s most diverse wine region.
With a generous, steady climate above his vines and over a decade of farming under his belt, Roark would rather dial in this band of grapes in the vineyard than the cellar. Not to say beautiful weather wraps up everything nicely with a bow on top. Roark stresses vineyard management as, by far, the most important and time-consuming factor in the outcome of his wines. They are made in the vineyard, with no doctoring in the winery to set them straight – that’s not his style. Like Jean-Yves Millaire this guy really does walk the walk. Though he’s not afraid to hedge his bets - by using that mélange of vineyards to his advantage, blending from here and there to ensure quality. He also buys grapes like nearly every winemaker in California. So there are hard-set rules and there is wiggle room. Above all, the wines must be faithfully grown and executed – regardless where they started within Santa Barbara County. Which leads to another point.
This is a Santa Ynez Valley region wine. We’ve discussed single-vineyard vs. regional wines before. The former are beloved the world over. But the latter? They’re whodunits, or maybe wheredunits, as the grapes – not to mention the facts of how they’re grown, harvested and rendered into wine – are often impossible to trace. They’re also now more significant than ever. Why?
Us wine geeks gawk at single-vineyard wines like the guy in the distracted boyfriend meme, eyeing sexy bottles to the chagrin of our wallet. Nowhere is this more apparent than Burgundy or Bordeaux. Being Merlot month, forget Burgundy for a minute. Bordeaux is to many THE world of wine. Hong Kong practically bathes in it. England too. Like Burgundy, these wines are a mile high in price and end up in the hands of a select wealthy and wine-savvy few. Unlike Burgundy, though, Bordeaux isn’t a limited production – they churn the stuff out. It’s just expensive because it’s famous.
But not all of it. Remember small b-Bordeaux? Lesser-known, it alone makes half of the entire region’s output, and at such range, its double-digit bottle prices give drinkers who can’t otherwise afford Bordeaux the opportunity to taste the world’s most celebrated wine region. A lot of these are questionably produced. Many are duds. But some are solid entry-level wines for those who want to play the game. Millaire’s is one such example.
Roark’s Santa Ynez Valley Merlot falls into a similarly approachable bunch. It’s unpretentious and as good a point of entry to Santa Barbara County red wine as any. Like the Millaire wine, it’s farmed and vinified responsibly, and shows as much in its freshness and texture. It over-delivers on price and gulpability. Sure, not a single-vineyard wine. But who cares? Does it really matter how specific the designation when the production is tight and the intention is delight?
On top of all that, how the hell does it smell and taste? Dredged in mulberry jam and leather, root beer and pine, it speaks to California Merlot in its fruit profile and width, apparent even on the nose. De-stemmed like the Millaire to boost that Merlot fruit, its woody and resinous notes are all the more intriguing. Ripe purple and blue fruits coat the palate – blueberry and blackberry among them, with flickers of wintergreen, dark chocolate and spice. Denser and deeper than the Millaire but still showing plenty of acidity and relaxed tannins, this wine wants wintertime and a warm meal. Coming right up.
It’s funny how life imitates art. The hilarious irony of Miles’ Merlot hatred, and the time at which it came, is that his wine writer character misguidedly swung the real-life pendulum toward Pinot Noir at the expense of Merlot the same way the influential wine critic Robert Parker swung it toward gigantic Cabernet and Merlot at the expense of wines that do not rip your face off years before. Maybe the lesson here is not to listen to wine writers? Or at least, most of our opinions…?
Oh, and the rest of Roark’s instructions for this wine? “...Just a good ole Merlot from some steadfast old vines… no surprises here.” None needed – good ole Merlot is more than enough.
“I’m not drinking another *fucking* Merlot!”
“… What is this delicious wine?”
“Oh… I guess I like Merlot”
Don’t knock it til ya try it!
That’s December (and everyday) at Satellite!
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