Tag Archives: Merlot

Winemaker Interview – Sally Johnson-Blum of Pride Mountain Vineyards


On your next trip to NorCal Wine Country, please make the picturesque drive to the top of Spring Mountain and visit Pride Mountain Vineyards. It will be well worth the effort to plan ahead and arrange the required tasting appointment. The winery and vineyards are beautiful. The attendants are friendly and engaging and the wine is amazing. Of the true “super-premium” Napa wineries, Pride has consistently produced top quality wines at comparatively good value. This winery is definitely on the higher-priced end of the Napa scale. So, join them if you are comfortable in the $75+/btl. range. My wife and I have a special connection to Pride. The winery represents more than one epiphany in our lives’ wine experience…

Our first visit many years ago commemorates our initial understanding of value in this price category. The absolute commitment to quality is demonstrated in every level of these organizations and the sensory experience brings your enjoyment of wine to an entirely new level. If you are ready to take the plunge and begin your research into this price range, you will soon come to understand why Pride holds a special place among these producers.

That same visit initiated our palate’s introduction to “mountain fruit” wines (red varietals grown in steep vineyards at higher elevation). It was a match made in heaven and we have consistently sought out similar producers since. If you are looking for complex, highly structured Cabernet Sauvignon with black fruit flavors, look for estate wineries on the mountain ridges overlooking Napa Valley. Pride is one of the very best of these producers.

That trip also introduced us to “ultra-premium” Merlot. Previously, we had thought of Merlot as cheap, easy drinking wine. We spent a half-day at Pride on that visit. I won’t go into all the details, but the attendant made sure we wouldn’t forget the experience. The Pride Vintner’s Select Merlot represents the very best of the Merlot that the United States has to offer. Plum and blackberry in front, luscious amazing mouth-feel with high acidity and tannins… drink one of these 6-8 years after release and be prepared for something special. We had an experience that day that my wife and I still talk about. That trip celebrated our introduction and graduation to a category of very special wines.

A Game with Your Friends

There are a couple of outstanding Merlots made on Spring Mountain and I really enjoy converting our friends…. I hear from so many Cab Sauv drinkers the mantra of how terrible Merlot is… then I break out my Coravin and give them a taste of the way U.S. Merlot can taste. Proud to say, I am batting 1000 with conversions. Merlot CAN be excellent outside of Bordeaux, France.

The Interview

I had been looking forward to interviewing Sally for months. It was difficult to coordinate our schedules, but in the end I am glad we were able to settle on a date at the winery, rather than an interview on the phone. The setting brought back good memories of our several enjoyable visits in the past. Sally was very welcoming and she was kind enough to give us more than an hour of her time.

I struggled a bit with how to approach this piece and finally arrived at the answer… skip the typical qualifications and background. Sally is a classically trained winemaker and all that brings with it. I decided to explore the story of the 2011 vintage year in Napa that she shared with us that day.

2011 Napa Vintage: The Gamble

I found this story fascinating and an insight into the stress some years can bring to farmers/growers with any crop. 2011 was an unusually cool year in Napa. The fruit was not ripening on schedule and the producers in Napa were bracing for a sub-par year. Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Franc can produce fairly good fruit in cooler years, but Cabernet Sauvignon has specific needs and tends to require hitting just the right conditions to produce a high level of quality. So, it was a real nail-biter for producers focusing on this varietal that year.

2011 Napa Harvest

The typical harvest timeline was approaching and across Napa producers were starting to agonize over the decision to come…

This story requires a little background on the importance of harvest timing in a cool vintage year. Red grape varieties in particular are very dependent on total hours of sunshine for development of not just sugars, but also flavors and structure. If you pick too early, Cab Sauv can be thin, vegetal and very rustic. If you pick too late, it can be too alcoholic, flabby and taste like grape juice. If a grower waits too long, they also run the risk of the rainy season coming early to Napa. What happens if it rains during harvest? First, the berries actually absorb the water and the rain affects the concentration of flavors in the wine. Second, (and the scary one) the moisture can induce the propagation of mildew. Mildew can easily destroy half of an entire year’s crop.

The Pride Mountain Decision

Other growers started harvest… but Pride decided the fruit in their vineyards didn’t meet their standard of quality… yet. Everyday, the decision had to be made to harvest early and suffer a poor vintage, or wait and potentially experience the financial pitfall. Then it started to rain. The forecast was for continuing rain and fog that week. Sally and the Pride team took the gamble and made the decision to wait it out.

After a couple days of rain the clouds cleared on the mountain top, while fog continued below in the valley. This reprieve gave them enough sunshine to dry the grapes and add more ripeness to the crop. Unfortunately, many growers below made the wrong call and suffered the consequences. Some wineries settled for fruit harvested too early that year, or sourced fruit from outside the area. In addition, many growers and estate wineries suffered crop loss, due to the rain and fog.

Gutsy Call

I tasted their 2011 Cab Sauv on that trip. It wasn’t their best vintage, but Sally worked with the fruit (instead of fighting it) and produced a high quality wine. Compared to many other Napa Cab Sauv’s we tasted from this difficult vintage, it was a masterpiece of winemaking. I was very impressed. Sometimes a little luck (and a well thought-out gamble)… makes you look awfully smart!

Pride Mountain Wine Selected to Accompany this Post:


2002 Pride Mountain Vineyards Merlot Vintner Select Cuvee Mountain Top Vineyard

Tasting Note:

The nose is full of rich, plummy aromas and a touch of alcohol. Still fruit-forward, with candied plum and black cherry in front with rich dark chocolate dominating the mid-palate and finish. The tannins were almost completely resolved, but there was still good acidity. The mouth-feel was soft and velvetty. The wine held-up well for 13 years in the bottle and was a pleasant accompaniment to the braised short ribs in balsamic reduction. This Merlot was a couple years past its prime, but still very enjoyable. The structure supporting the wine had started to weaken with age, confirming my past experience with well-made Bordeaux Blends from Napa hitting their prime drinking window in the 7-10 year range. A beautiful well-made wine, with the fruit holding-up, after so much time in the bottle.


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Winemaker Interview – Bill Nancarrow of Goosecross Cellars

Winemaker’s Toolbox – Blending


When you talk with winemakers regularly as I do, you begin to expect being regaled about a passionate connection to wine and the industry. Bill takes you down a different path, focusing on the process and science of wine.  He dives right into conversation regarding the chemistry as if it were the only approach to winemaking.  In our conversation, we touched on building premium wines, his formative years in New Zealand and moving from his legacy at Duckhorn, to his future at Goosecross Cellars.

Before Duckhorn

Bill was raised in New Zealand and his early years were far from the wine scene.  He chose Hospitality and Resort Management as a career.  The training included an introduction to Wine and Culinary Program Management, his first exposure to the wine industry.  During his travels in South Africa, wine continued to intrigue him.  Upon returning, he was introduced to Nick Sage (currently with Eastern Institute of Technology Wine and Spirits) and Kate Radburnd (winemaker CJ Pask Winery) and their influence moved him to a full commitment to wine as a career. He worked with Kate at CJ Pask for five years learning the craft.  CJ Pask is in the Hawkes Bay region and focuses on Syrah and Merlot. New Zealand is well known around the world for quality Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but Hawkes Bay has a long tradition with warmer climate varietals.  Bill eventually made the decision to come to Napa and expand his knowledge of Bordeaux varietals.  He joined Duckhorn and soon became winemaker for their new label at the time: Paraduxx.

Duckhorn Vineyards

Bill’s experience at Duckhorn was steeped in the tradition associated with the brand.  Tom Rinaldi was the founding winemaker and had a significant influence, sharing and handing-off his passion for structured U.S. Merlot in an Old-World style.  We also discussed the style of Chardonnay at Duckhorn: acidic, minimum of oak, aggressive stirring of the lees and never a secondary Malolactic Fermentation.  A very specific style aimed at being fresh, with a bite and a rounder mouth-feel.  Bill was later promoted to Executive Winemaker and found his responsibilities were taking him too far afield from the winemaking itself.  The role included added travel and took him away from his young family too frequently.  He soon came to realize, this career direction was not a good fit.


Every discussion with a Merlot producer, eventually winds its way to the movie Sideways.  With Bill having been so connected to premium Napa Merlot for so many years, it was inevitable:

The Wine DOCG – “So, Bill why do you think there is so much lousy Merlot made in the U.S.?

Bill – “Merlot has been so over-planted in the U.S. in the last decade, that vines were turning up in horribly unsuitable locations.  I think Sideways had a positive effect on Merlot production.  The change in demand resulting from the impact of the movie led directly to vineyards in poor locations being removed and re-planted with more suitable varietals.”

I have heard this line of reasoning before.  Makes sense from the big picture perspective, but if you were a premium Merlot fan, it appeared tragic… For me it manifested in a personal cause never to accept the comment, “but, I don’t like Merlot!”  I have converted many a “Merlot hater” over the years.  Recent figures from the U.S. International Trade Organization show that 9% of all wine sold in the U.S. is still Merlot and it is the 4th most sold wine in the U.S.  This is down substantially from 16% in its heyday.  I still believe there is too much Merlot grown in locations like the Central California inland valleys and made into inexpensive red wine. Personally, I am a big fan of wine made from Merlot grown in the mountains above the Napa Valley floor.  If you love big, bold Merlot look to the Howell and Spring Mountain areas.

On Winemaking

In my experience, Bill is a departure from most New World winemakers.  He talks like a Bordeaux wonk: “Flavors look out for themselves in wine” and “focus on the structure”.   I can really connect with his point of view. In a warmer (getting warmer too) climate growing area like Napa, the fruit is going to be ripe and intensely fruity, but structure is not always easy to find.  No purist winemaker wants to add acid, or ferment reds with a large quantity of stems to get tannins…  If you focus on structure first in Napa, the flavors are more likely to follow on their own.  Although Bill feels Oak is important to “rounding-out” a wine, he tries to stay away from too much new American Oak and is not a fan of over-oaked whites, OR reds.

I like his thinking on a common wine style controversy: “Drink Now” vs. “For Bottle Aging”.  It is very difficult to make wines that can succeed at being both.  Bill firmly believes it is better to make the two different styles separately, rather than make a single wine capable of both.  This kind of approach can produce more consistency year over year.  Especially, when considering how vintage variation can effect wine style.

 On Blending

In Bill’s view, vineyard designate wines can be somewhat problematic.  They can be very singular in their approach, missing the complexity of blended wines.  We talked about same varietal blending across vineyards and across individual blocks.  We also touched on varietal blending to add complexity.  You can hear the conviction in his voice during this discussion.  It is obvious this is his element.  When I asked him about his favorite activity as a winemaker, he answered immediately:  “in the winery, making the wine and blending for flavors/aromas.”   He says, he still has not made the “perfect wine” and it drives him to continue searching, experimenting and blending to achieve his goal.

 On Terroir

With a more scientific approach to wine, it was not a surprise to hear a more objective approach to the mystical French idea of terroir.  When posed with the question… after a pause, he noted, “There are probably no flavors imparted by soil in the vineyards.  The climate, environment and access to water are more likely to be important factors.”  I agree.  The supposed controversy surrounding terroir’s impact on the character of wine is ridiculous.  Terroir by definition is not just about soil, it is the complete vineyard environment defining the conditions under which the vine grows and ripens fruit.  There is too much empirical evidence supporting the specific influences to take the naysayers seriously.

 Goosecross Cellars

The winery was sold earlier this year to Christi Coors (Golden Equity Investments -no, not Coors Brewing Company) and the winery began looking for a Head Winemaker. Bill was soon selected as a great fit for the new ownership. Geoff Gorsuch one of the previous Owners and Winemaker for the past 28 years and Colleen Topper (Tasting Room Manager) will stay on for the first year, providing some continuity.

“A “house style” (style of wine a label is known for) can be a goal, to a degree, but not so much that it drives extensive winemaker manipulation, especially to mask vintage variation.  Wines must be allowed to express where they are from “, according to Bill.  “Manipulated wine can be too generic”… never the goal of a premium wine. Goosecross has 9 acres of estate vineyards off State Lane in Napa Valley and Bill is looking forward to capturing the location in the wines.  The soil is rocky and the terrain is hilly, creating micro-climates that can cause variation in the fruit profile.  He believes this area East of the river produces Cabernet Sauvignon with blueberry and/or violet aromas.  A unique characteristic compared to the balance of the valley floor.  We also talked about fighting the urge to make generic Chardonnay.  It sells well, but is missing any uniquely recognizable character. He prefers the very acidic, less manipulated style, which pairs well with richer foods.

Goosecross sales currently are 100% direct to consumer, but there is a plan to introduce a new label next year that will be intended entirely for the distribution channel, focused primarily on the restaurant trade.

 The Future

You can hear the energy in his voice when he talks about the future at Goosecross.  It seems Bill is excited about the challenge and ready for the opportunity to put his stamp on future vintages.  Good luck and I look forward to tasting your new wines!


Please note, while Bill spent many years with Duckhorn, he was not the winemaker in 1999 when this wine was bottled.



1999 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard

California, Napa Valley

Wine Tasting Note:

After One Hour Decant

The alcohol is blowing off now. The nose is of black plum and blackberry, with a spicy cinnamon and clove character. Rather simple on the palate. The fruit is subdued, but in front still, with a mid-palate of powerful clove. The medium length finish is a mild, bitter dark chocolate. The bitterness becomes sour at the very end. The tannins are still present, but minimal and the acidity is still medium high. I was disappointed by the texture. The mouth-feel was a touch watery. This is a few years past its prime, but is not tasting oxidized yet. Still enjoyable and will definitely pair well with the beef that will be accompanying it.

After Two Hours Decant

The wine is still changing. The fruit is continuing to subside on the palate, but the flavor of sour strawberry is beginning to appear. The texture is continuing to evolve. The finish is lengthening and adding black pepper. The tannins are now a bit chewy. The acidity is becoming more prominent and the mouth-feel is building softness. Patience is paying off and the potential of this wine is starting to show. Amazing that a 15 year old bottle of wine can continue to evolve for two hours in the decanter!

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