Recently we talked about my passion for Merlot wines and a great Napa Valley winery that masters the wines they produce with this varietal, Duckhorn Vineyards. Today we will talk to its winemaker Renee Ary.

Duckhorn owns seven estate vineyards in Napa Valley, spread over different areas as Carneros, Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena and the much coveted Howell Mountain. They have almost 200 different vineyards lots and once harvest is done, the wine is barrel-aged by separately vineyards. If this seems to be a challenge, aging the wine like this to later proceed to its blending, keep in mind that they use 25 different types of oak from 13 different producers.

Good morning, Renee, and thank you for your cooperation. It seems like a huge challenge to combine that many vineyard lots and then processing them through 25 different oak barrels.

Blending can certainly be challenging, but it is where the art of winemaking comes into play and it is a creative and exciting process. When we source fruit, we source for a specific program based on varietal, site, and style, among other factors, so that we have a general idea of where that fruit is going to go. With that being said, since we keep everything separate through fermentation and aging, there is a lot of room for blending flexibility. In the end, a particular lot may end up working better in a different wine than it was originally intended for. The key is to taste often so that we know our wines extremely well. The blending process starts in January, and goes all the way to July, so it takes time to finalize the blends. In the end, though, it’s exciting to see how they evolve into a harmonious, finished wine.

In all the vineyards you work with, where do you think the Merlot offers its best character?

Our Three Palms Vineyard. Three Palms is without question one of the New World’s great vineyards. It is a wonderfully unique site, and I am continuously impressed with the character, complexity and distinctiveness of its Merlot.

Is it very different from one vineyard to the next?

Yes. There can be substantial differences in Merlot expression from one vineyard to the next and that is directly related to differences in soil and climate. Our Howell Mountain Merlot is very different than our valley floor Merlot and likewise, our south valley Merlot takes on a different feel than our up-valley, warmer-climate Merlots. They are all still Merlot underneath, but they offer different expressions of the varietal, which is something that has always fascinated us here at Duckhorn Vineyards.

You do your blend by instincts and tasting rather than using formulas. How do you do this?

We have an amazing portfolio of vineyards to work with and because of this, I let those vineyards do the talking! When I sit down to a blend tasting, all of the wines are evaluated in a blind setting, so each wine can be individually assessed without bias. After each tasting is complete, we refine the blend based on our findings and eventually it evolves into a fully finished wine. It’s a process, but a fun and creative one!

How’s your work in the vineyards?

We have an exceptional estate farming and grower relations team who I rely on to mind the day-to-day operations in the vineyards. With this being said, it is 100% collaborative and we work together to make sure we are all on the same page and working to achieve the same goals, which is to make the best wines possible. I spend the most time in the vineyards during harvest, when I very closely monitor every block, both to determine when the fruit is ready to pick.

And in the winery for deciding the right blends every year?

Much of my job is a juggling act, but I spend a lot of time at the winery overseeing the daily cellar and lab operations. From fermentation and aging to blending and finally bottling, I am completely hands-on throughout the process, which allows me to make the best possible decisions. I spend the first half of the year getting to know each lot on an individual basis, which starts in the vineyards. We keep everything separate at the winery until we are ready to blend just prior to bottling, so the wines evolve on their own. It is then my job to determine how best to assemble the blends so they are consistent and the best representation of that wine in a given vintage.

The Duckhorn plots are scattered over a major portion of land. What kind of soils can you find?

The Napa Valley is one of the smallest winegrowing regions in the world, yet it is also one of the most diverse, which is what makes it so unique. There are numerous microclimates and soil types found throughout the valley, and because of this, we are able to grow many varietals in many different styles. For our estate vineyards, we have a wide range of soil types. Up on Howell Mountain, we have a mix of red clay and volcanic ash, also known as tufa. It is classic Howell Mountain and part of what makes the AVA so special. Our valley floor ranches range from extremely rocky soils (Three Palms), to slightly heavier, but deep and well-drained alluvial soils. Down in South Napa, at our Corktree Vineyard, you will find what’s known as a Haire loam. Haire loam is described as moderate to well-drained soils on old terraces and alluvial fans, which typically contain a clay sublayer. However, our Corktree vineyard has more of a cobblestone and gravel sublayer.

You are the winemaker, then you have working with you an enologist and a vineyard manager. How do you work together as a team in terms of the responsibilities for each of you?

Winemaking is a team effort and there’s no way I can do what I do without the help of my team. There are clear responsibilities, but the process is collaborative. We are all trying to grow and make the very best quality wines possible.

How do you work with independent growers to make sure their fruit is up to your required standards?

Through good communication, clear expectations, and well established relationships. We have long-term relationships with many growers in the valley and we value those relationships. They also value working with us. Good communication is key, and it allows us to work together to maintain the highest standards and to reach our ongoing goals.

What is your winemaking philosophy?

My winemaking philosophy has always been from more of a traditional approach. I don’t like to be too heavy-handed in the winemaking process. We make wines that show a sense of place and varietal character and too much manipulation can change that expression quickly. I like balanced, food-friendly wines that are expressive and timeless.

You’ve been working at Duckhorn since 2003. Has your approach to winemaking changed in this time?

I don’t think it has changed, but it has certainly evolved over time. I think refinement is perhaps a better term. I continue to learn about the vineyards and what they can do under different circumstances. We have Mother Nature to thank for vintage differences, which both keeps me on my toes and brings interesting new challenges and opportunities each growing season. Over the years, I have become more knowledgeable, more flexible, and I have a better understanding of what it takes to react to vintage differences.

What did you learn from the three winemakers who came before you at Duckhorn?

I have learned a lot from all three winemakers, whether that be directly or indirectly. I never worked with Tom Rinaldi but his influence here is strong and deeply rooted in our winemaking philosophy. Mark and Bill have taught me to be creative and how to balance the many aspects of my job.

Which vineyard plot are you most comfortable working with?

I am comfortable with all of our estate vineyards, but they are all a different and respond differently under different circumstances. The more vintages under your belt, the more comfortable you become. I just finished my 14th vintage at Duckhorn, so even though I certainly haven’t seen it all, I have experienced a lot.

And what about the varietals?

I am extremely comfortable working with all of the red and white Bordeaux varietals and I am becoming more and more comfortable with Chardonnay as we move into our fifth vintage making a Napa Valley Chardonnay.

Which is the wine you feel proudest of producing, a personal favorite?

I am proud of all of our wines. Our Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorite wines to make and while sometimes people feel that white winemaking is easier, I don’t necessarily agree. White wines are less resilient and much more transparent. They will show all your flaws, so you really have to be on top of things. I love making our Three Palms Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot because that site is so impressive to work with, and yields such incredible wines.

Do you have a different approach to Merlot, rather than for example Cabernet Sauvignon, now that you mention it?

In the winery, every single lot is treated uniquely, whether it is Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot. All of my decisions throughout the winemaking process are done on an individual basis. They are like your children; each one has different needs and takes on a different personality along the way. With this being said, the overarching winemaking process is the same for Cabernet and Merlot. All of our reds are hand-picked, hand-sorted, cold soaked, pressed, racked, and barreled down, but the type of barrels, the length of cold soak, the press pressure, etc., will change with each lot. The same can be said for our approach in the vineyards. The general process is the same, however, the two varietals are treated differently with regards to their individual needs. For example, Merlot is a thinner-skinned varietal and because of this, we have a different approach on trellis set-up, canopy management, irrigation, etc.

Do you have a personal touch in your wines?

I am very committed to clean winemaking. While flaws are sometimes regarded as unobtrusive winemaking, to me they are a sign of laziness. It’s easy to be hands-off and lax on quality control. It’s much harder to stay on top of every little detail. I also have a lot of strong feelings about oak and what types of barrels I use on my wines. I strive for harmony between the fruit and oak.

Which wines you do like to enjoy when you are not at work?

One of the great things about working for Duckhorn Wine Company is that we have five other wineries I really enjoy drinking: Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Migration, Decoy and Canvasback. Outside of our Duckhorn Wine Company wines, I am a big fan of Hartford. They are focused and makes wines of place. I also like Stuhlmuller and Dutcher Crossing. I have spent more time in Washington lately and really like L’Ecole 41.

Thank you very much, Renee.

Photos © by Duckhorn Vineyards