Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Let's Have A Discussion About Duckhorn

Sometimes you just get lucky, Margaret Duckhorn is saying. She'd been asked how it happened that two of the three California wines served at the inaugural luncheon of President Obama were from Duckhorn Wine Company - a sauvignon blanc from her and her former husband's Napa Valley brand Duckhorn, and a pinot noir from the company's Mendocino County brand Goldeneye.

Sen. Diane Feinstein oversaw the inauguration's luncheon arrangements, and she apparently likes Duckhorn wines, Margaret Duckhorn adds. Democratic politics? Not likely, she says. "I'm an independent. I don't know what he is today," she says of her former husband, Dan Duckhorn. But before their divorce a decade ago, they were Republicans.

Luck probably had less to do with the inauguration wine list than Duckhorn Wine Company's longevity and reliability. "When we started in 1978 we were the 40th winery in Napa Valley," Dan Duckhorn recalls. "Today, there's what, 450 wineries in Napa Valley?"

Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, their winemaker Bill Nancarrow, and company president Alex Ryan were in San Francisco's Hotel W on Tuesday to oversee both a retrospective tasting of several of their Napa Valley merlots and cabernet sauvignons and the launch of their first luxury Bordeaux-inspired proprietary blend, The Discussion.

The tasting included pours from their inaugural 1978 cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The merlot was a faded yet firm shell of its former self, while the cabernet sauvignon remains compelling with traces of sweet dark fruit and gripping acidity. Early on, the Duckhorns staked the future of their Napa Valley winery on merlot, and over the years the gamble paid off as Duckhorn evolved into the North State's most distinguished brand for the varietal. (It really paid off three years ago, when the financial investment firm GI Partners ventured into the wine trade by paying an estimated $250 million for Duckhorn. Since then, the new owners have left well enough alone, retaining the Duckhorns and their longtime principal players while sanctioning new risks, most notably The Discussion.)

In recent years, merlot's esteem and sales have slumped, but the Duckhorn crew made clear that it is sticking by the troubled varietal. For one, as some vintners jump off the merlot bandwagon, more choice plots of the grape have become available to them. Secondly, challenged by the depressed market, they're reexamining their whole approach to merlot, from the clones they select to the time they harvest. Their intent is to make even better merlot. They appeared more invigorated than discouraged by merlot's troubles. "This has focused us," says Ryan. "We're trying to rise above it. We're not giving up on merlot by any means."

While the older merlots the foursome poured underscored Duckhorn's standing for the varietal - the 1991 Three Palms Vineyard was especially sunny, complex and sharp - the authority of the cabernet sauvignons begged the question of why the winery isn't more highly regarded for the varietal. Each vintage that was tasted, from the browning yet still vital 1978 through the soft but persistent 1999, showed by their distinctive profiles why cabernet sauvignon is Napa Valley's most highly regarded grape.

By their enthusiastic endorsements of cabernet sauvignon, the Duckhorn principals made it pretty clear that while merlot will remain a key player in their extensive portfolio, cabernet sauvignon is the future, at least as far as the original brand is concerned. This is most apparent by their investment in The Discussion, largely cabernet sauvignon (53 percent) and merlot (28 percent), with supporting roles from cabernet franc (14 percent) and petit verdot (5 percent). It's a big wine, ample with sweet, spicy and minty fruit, and enough French oak for a new wrap-around veranda on an estate Victorian in the middle of a Napa Valley vineyard, a characteristic that Nancarrow is confident will tone down as the wine ages.

The Discussion - the name stems from debates the Duckhorns and their winemakers have had for more than three decades over whether to stick with varietal wines or release a proprietary cuvee - also carries a big price, $115. Dan Duckhorn, a banker before he became a vintner, acknowledges that their timing for a prestige cuvee could have been better. But the first Discussion is from the 2006 vintage, harvested just before the country's economic troubles. On the other hand, with the Dow, tax revenues and other indicators of the economy now trending up, perhaps their timing couldn't be better. "This is the apex," says Dan Duckhorn of The Discussion.


  1. I love everything Duckhorn. Can't wait to visit the vineyard!

  2. I had a couple come into my restaurant after they had just become engaged. They wanted to celebrate with a bottle of Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon. They nearly consumed the whole bottle, but after a night of drinks and a big dinner, she did not finish her last glass. As they left, I wished them good luck and congratulations. I picked up the glasses off the bar. As I lifted her glass I detected something not right. The wine was Cooorrrrkkkkeeeedddd. There was so much TCA, I nearly called the bomb squad. I felt bad that there celebratory wine was not at its level best. But, they still loved it. That's brand loyalty!


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