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Are Napa Valley Wines Tasting the Same Because of This Star Winemaker?

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It was the Facebook post heard around the wine world. On February 26, during Premiere Napa Valley week, influential wine writer Karen MacNeil posted these words alongside a photo from the Atelier Melka tasting: “All of these wineries employ the consultant Philippe Melka. All of these wineries make plush, soft, well-structured, very expensive Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Is it a problem if many of them taste largely the same? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.” 

The post might almost have gone unnoticed outside of insider wine circles, but on in the inside, people were listening. MacNeil, the author of The Wine Bible, is no random person popping off on the internet. She lives and works in Napa Valley, and is, as wine journalist W. Blake Gray described her in an article about her comments on Wine-Searcher, “the most insidery writer about Napa Cabs” out there. Gray’s article thrust the post back into the spotlight and created a new round of buzz among wine folk.

MacNeil wasn’t dismissing Melka out of hand though. Just two days later she posted a reel from his tasting in which she describes two of the wines there alongside text calling out some of the standouts she found. Holding a bottle of Lail Vineyards J Daniel Cuvee, she said the wine reminds her “that one of the best things that a Napa Cab can be is elegant and long. This wine is so exquisitely beautiful; it’s just languorous and luscious on the palate.” With a bottle of Parallel Napa Valley 2021 Cabernet Sauvignon in hand, she mentions the “really beautiful earthiness” of Napa Valley Cab and says this wine reminds her “of all the hillsides around Napa Valley with all that chaparral and dry forest.”

So do they all taste the same? Even to MacNeil the answer is “no,” but as she told Wine-Searcher, she wanted to make a bigger point about the current state of Napa where she believes homogeneity is emerging as star consultants work for wineries across the Valley. “Philippe is a wonderful person and I think he’s very talented, but I don’t think you can have your cake and eat it too,” she told Wine-Searcher. “You can’t say the Napa Valley has 16 AVAs and is making wines that are reflective of terroir. And then, have a group of wines that all taste very similar.”

Night Pick at Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard for Vice Versa

A Night pick at Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard for Vice Versa

Geoff Hansen

But on the point of Melka’s wines, this is where we disagree with MacNeil. We attended the Atelier Melka tasting last year; we did not make it this year because of all the overlapping events, but we can assure you after having tasted many wines that Melka and his director of winemaking Maayan Koschitzky have produced, there are differences among his wines that make each one a distinct expression of its terroir, the season, and the winemaker’s hand.

Although wine country cognoscenti are always decrying bogeymen like the Parkerization or Rollandization of wine, Melka tells us he was “shocked” by MacNeil’s comments, saying he has never faced this sort of criticism before. “People are usually surprised and amazed by the differences in the Atelier Melka wines more than by any sort of commonality,” he says. Stating that he and his team are constantly learning, he explained that they taste with other winemakers, taste internally and do blind tastings of their wines next to others to see how they compare. While many cult wine brands are resting on their laurels and can’t risk a less than perfect score, many of the wineries that Melka works with submit to critics, and he reads their comments to better understand how experts perceive his wine.

Atelier Melka’s current client roster includes two dozen wineries; he and his wife, Cherie, also produce their own brand, Melka Estates. Lail Vineyards and Seavey Vineyard have been Melka clients since the company’s inception in 1995, and the current roster includes notables such as Dana Estates, Roy Estate, Raymond Vineyards, Skipstone Wine, Gamble Family Vineyards, Lithology, and Vice Versa. Patrice Breton, Vice Versa’s proprietor, says Melka and Koschitzky are “attentive and eager” for his “input and stylistic direction” on the winery’s 13 different wines, including five Cabernet Sauvignon blends and six single-vineyard Cabernets. He says one of the best things about working with them is that they “understand that the real stars are the vineyards and the wines, not themselves.”

One of the best spots in Napa to shop for wine, Cabernet Sauvignon included, is Vintner’s Collective, which has carried Parallel in the past and currently has Roy Estate and Plinth on offer. Founder and co-owner Garret Murphy believes that Melka is “highly in tune with the terroirs he works with and always tries to highlight their unique characteristics.” He recently tasted two Melka wines side by side and said they “couldn’t have been more distinctive.” He explains: “The Plinth from Pritchard Hill was rich and opulent, while the Roy Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was elegance and restraint personified. They are strikingly different, and both are so evocative of their unique locations and terroir.”

Melka Estates

Selections from Melka Estates

Melka Estates

Melka believes his wines all have unique taste profiles. “There are so many factors that contribute to our winemaking: the site, the microclimate, the architecture of the vineyard, the general winemaking philosophy and stylistic goals, and harvest pick dates,” he says. Referring to his and Koschitzky’s winemaking as “artisanal,” he points out that besides the terroir, each wine differs due to overall varietal composition, type of fermentation, choice of barrel, and oak and aging regimens. “Given all these factors, we firmly maintain that all of the wines we produce are unique to the vision of the proprietor, site, and vintage,” he says.

If all Napa Cab tasted the same, choosing one would be much easier, and people like us would be out of a job. As Melka points out, there are a lot of elements that go into what’s in your glass, “including appellations, sub-appellations, and vineyard sites, as well as farming methods. Production and volume size are another, as well as style, price, and philosophy.”

Patrice Breton says Melka’s approach, especially the collaborative effort, results in “beautifully focused, pure, and distinctive Cabernet Sauvignons, which requires a great deal of care, knowledge, and skill to achieve.” Murphy believes that “there is a considerable degree of trust between the customer and the winemaker,” and that shoppers who purchase Melka wines are looking for his experience and known quality: “They trust him to make a fantastic wine no matter the varietal, the climate, or the challenge of the vintage.” In our opinion, the best way to discover the nuances among wines made by Atelier Melka is to taste a few for yourself.


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