Wine: Merlot Masterpieces

“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude,” wrote

Friedrich Nietzsche. Whether the gratitude in question is that of the artist

toward the forces that created him, or that of the audience toward the creative

genius who has bestowed on them his imaginative bounty, is unclear. Yet for

restaurateur-turned-vintner John Schwartz, the line aptly summarizes the guiding

principle behind Amuse Bouche, the boutique Pomerol-style wine that Schwartz

produces with former Screaming Eagle winemaker Heidi Barrett.

“Usually, if

you appreciate wine, you appreciate art,” explains Schwartz, “because wine is

art. Part of what we set out to do with Amuse Bouche from the beginning was to

put the two elements together.”

Schwartz refers to Amuse Bouche’s lithograph

program, which evolved, in part, out of Barrett’s passion for art. When

Schwartz, a childhood friend, first approached her about producing a wine

together, he suggested that they commission an original work of art by a

contemporary artist for each vintage. Each painting, which would be reproduced

for the wine’s label, would express the unique character of the particular

vintage. Moreover, Amuse Bouche would include with each allocation of wine a

signed and numbered lithograph of the original work produced in France on a

19th-century hand-pulled press. “The concept really got my attention,” recalls

Barrett, “because I’m kind of a fledgling painter. We’ve been getting to meet

all these really famous artists, like Wayne Thiebaud. I’m such a groupie; I love

his work.”

For the debut 2002 vintage the work of French artist Guy Buffet

graced the label: a bacchanal peppered by black tie–clad waiters (a signature

Buffet motif) serving, one assumes, Amuse Bouche to the thirsty throngs. Buffet

also painted the 2003 label, a play on the wine’s name in which a parade of

wine-bearing waiters marches forth from a mouth-shaped portal. Napa Valley

artist Ira Yeager created the 2004 artwork and Thiebaud painted the 2005 label,

also alluding to the wine’s name with his depiction of an array of colorful

confections against a sienna-colored background. Louisiana artist George

Rodrigue will favor the 2006 vintage (released this month for $1,200 per

six-bottle case) with his painting (Schwartz’s favorite) of an electric blue

dog, quizzical yellow eyes wide open, seated as if to dine at a white

linen–covered table.

While Barrett was enthusiastic about the art, she was

at first skeptical about making a pure Merlot. “Merlot can be a very nice wine,”

she says, “but a lot of Merlots are just kind of mediocre. I thought that if I

could find the right grapes, it could be done.”

She succeeded in locating

four acres in the east Rutherford Hills that offered the natural concentration

she sought. “This vineyard makes a very concentrated plum and cherry fruit in a

very pure way,” she says. “The berries are really small, so you get more

flavor.” Certainly the 2006 vintage is not lacking in the latter: Silky,

elegant, and smoky, this California take on Pomerol is, like its mascot, the

blue dog, cooler than, say, the bright, berry-filled 2005 vintage, showing more

dark plum and earthy spice. Yet the wine’s structure and style are pure Barrett,

which is to say, they are pure artistry. 

Amuse Bouche, 707.251.9300, www­

Photo by Olivier Staub
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