Wine: Merlot Masterpieces

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“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

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