When Robin Lail launched her namesake Napa Valley vineyard nearly 25 years ago, her most critical decision was whom to bring on as winemaker. The choice would be closely scrutinized, as Lail was not only a prominent figure in the wine community, having been a partner at top-tier Dominus Estate, but also a keeper of the valley’s history: Her great-great-uncle was Gustave Niebaum, founder of legendary Inglenook Estate. Sought-after winemaking consultants, with world-class labels on their résumés, weren’t hard to come by, but Lail says she wanted someone “who would make wine to match our vision and involve us in the blending process.” In fact, she started with three winemakers collaborating during that first vintage, in 1995. The competition of sorts was over within months. By January, with that first wine in barrel, she recalls, “I had made the decision that Philippe Melka would be our winemaker.” She was convinced that the French-born and -trained vintner, then still in his 20s and a recent Napa transplant, would create wines tailored to her preferences and vineyards, not mere copycats of wines he’d already made.
Lail Vineyards became Melka’s first custom-crush client, meaning he took the fruit under his wing and turned it into wine elsewhere, since the brand lacked a physical winery of its own. But Melka had an estate-winery client in those early days, too—the now iconic Seavey Vineyard—and to this day, the two wines are a study in contrast. Lail’s 2016 J. Daniel Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon is full-bodied and rich, with fine-grained tannins (and a perfect 100 points from The Wine Advocate), while Seavey’s 2016 Cabernet is somewhat more austere, if powerful and complex, with tighter tannins that need a few years to unwind. Each is a product of owner preference and terroir—the French term for the unique character in a wine that comes from the given soil, climate and farming choices—over any hallmark of a consultant’s often homogeneous style.
As it turns out, Melka was to become one of a handful of winemaking consultants in Napa Valley whose relationships with clients bucked a trend. Along with Heidi Barrett, Julien Fayard and Thomas Rivers Brown, among others, Melka has decided to stay mostly local, absorbing all he could about Northern California’s soil and climate and about his clients’ businesses. Charting the annual travels of some of the world’s other top winemaking consultants, by contrast, would require the same skill set as drawing an airline’s route map for its in-flight magazine. From Europe’s old-world wine-growing regions to South America, back to South Africa and, of course, over to our own West Coast, their aerial paths crisscross the globe as they fulfill typical contracts for dozens upon dozens of winery clients: Fly in twice a year for tasting sessions, and weigh in on blending decisions.
“Weigh in” is an understatement. When the consultant is a world-renowned master, the influence is more than considerable. And, in fact, through the 1990s and the early aughts, when critics began rewarding richer red wines with higher scores on the 100-point scale and American palates acquired a taste for lush, über-ripe reds, those consultants were roundly blamed for chasing that result and, in doing so, of flattening fascinating regional differences into a generic international style. Or their own personal style.
Melka, now 54, rejects both a single style of wine and a full-on globe-trotting schedule. With Atelier Melka—the consulting company he launched almost 25 years ago—he committed to building deep, long-term relationships (you can read a lot of face time into that) and to hands-on winemaking by his team of talented young winemakers, including his new partner, Maayan Koschitzky. There’s no “Melka style,” Melka says, no formula. “Every wine has a different voice, and each client is independent, even though they’re part of the Atelier family. Our goal is always to make a very specific wine reflecting the geology, topography and microclimate of each site or, if we’re blending different sites, work toward a style based on the philosophy of the venture.”
In fact, Melka appears to find the voice of each wine through his relationships, embedding himself and his team in the culture of a winery. Instead of semiannual drop-ins, he promises easy accessibility, and Lail confirms: “They respond to questions within the day.” That level of attention, Melka says, gives him better insight into the proprietors’ goals. Beyond vintners’ preferences and personalities, though, the diversity across the wines in his portfolio is distinctly soil-driven. Put simply, Melka is a dirt guy: He studied geology in Bordeaux before moving on to agronomy and oenology.
Soil analysis, then, is high on the list of services that Atelier Melka offers clients, in the cause of creating wines with a sense of place. But the menu is long and complicated: It begins with winery design and personnel recruitment (if there’s an estate winery in the picture) and encompasses finding great fruit sources, as well as putting Melka’s own team on the winemaking (for those vintners who have no estate vineyards and winery of their own) and even guiding a winery’s brand messaging and marketing. Atelier Melka can help get the word out.
The consultant now has some 30 clients, all but six in Northern California. Both Lail and Seavey are still with him, and if you consider how green he was when he started, that’s saying something. During his initial harvest at Seavey Vineyard, in 1995, after Melka pressed the Chardonnay, the owner suggested he feed the residue skins and seeds, known as pomace, to the cows. When it came time to press the reds, Melka recalls, “without thinking, I did the same—gave the pomace to the cows.” The glitch: White grapes are pressed before fermentation and red ones after, so the pomace was full of alcohol. “They had the party of their lives. The day after, they were all of them on their backs, legs up. After a few hours of sweet dreams, though, they were able to stumble to their feet and zigzag around the fields.”
Melka estimates that he and his team oversee about 150 wines each year. That’s quite a reach, to be sure. But there’s also a less visible influence growing in Napa Valley and beyond from the Melka orbit, in the form of the talented young winemakers he has handpicked for his team, then wished well as they moved on.
Julien Fayard, who, like Melka, is French-born, spent seven years under Melka’s tutelage before becoming a partner in Coombsville’s Covert Estate. The 42-year-old was still with Atelier Melka, in fact, when he established his own consultancy, in 2007, which he continues to run and now has 12 clients in addition to his own three brands. He describes what it’s like to “graduate” from Atelier Melka: “To work for Philippe, you have to know what you’re doing if you want to last. But the work, and the team, created this intricate symphony that I enjoyed.” His most important takeaway from Melka? “Non-interventionist winemaking,” he says. “The vineyard drives the difference.”
Fayard has established a team of his own now, based on the same close relationships with winery owners that enable Melka to create wines of singular character. If anything, he’s even more locked in with his clients on a business level, insisting on good financials and a clear brand-building vision. His model is to get in on the ground floor and help each company grow into a healthy, sustainable business—one that happens to make terrific wine.
Before Fayard, though, and before Melka, there was Heidi Barrett. The early doyenne of cult wines might describe her choice to become an “independent winemaker” (a term she prefers to “consulting winemaker”) as simply the most flexible path for a mother with two young daughters, but that is to greatly understate the immense influence she’s had in the top echelons of Northern California wine. While working with Dalla Valle in 1992, where she earned a couple of perfect 100 scores from Robert Parker Jr., Barrett noticed Dalla Valle’s neighbor Jean Phillips “playing at making wine” (Barrett’s words) down the hill. As it turns out, Phillips was Gustav Dalla Valle’s real estate agent and had bought the valley-floor property for herself. Dalla Valle suggested that Barrett go down and help out. And once Barrett took over the wine, extracting much power and layers of ripe flavors from the fruit, the allocation list for the Screaming Eagle she created gave bragging rights to the most serious collectors worldwide. The wait list is now years-long. A bottle of the current release runs in the neighborhood of $3,000—and older bottles much more than that on the secondary market.
The character of that 1992 Cabernet blend might have pegged Barrett for a certain style of winemaking. And when pressed, the 62-year-old native Californian and second-generation professional winemaker says, “I think I do have a style. It’s balanced, with great silkiness and finesse—ageable and elegant—yet power-packed if possible.” Those parameters, in her view, leave plenty of room for diversity. “My job is to make the best wine I can. But you work with what you’re given. Dalla Valle has hillside fruit, and Screaming Eagle is on the valley floor. Add in different soil, rootstock, Cabernet clones, temperature, wind, sunlight angle… and the wines will be different even if I could pick them at the same ripeness.”
Fellow prominent consultant Thomas Rivers Brown came to his impressive roster of about 40 highly regarded brands, including Outpost, Schrader, Gemstone, Pulido-Walker and Jones Family, from an entirely different direction: A wine-loving college girlfriend introduced him to her hobby. After making his way to Europe and then Napa, he worked in a top-notch wine store, establishing connections to up-and-coming winemakers and would-be vintners in the valley, which in turn brought great clients his way. Since founding his business in 2001, the South Carolina native has racked up more than 25 perfect 100 scores from Parker or Wine Spectator. And, like his cohorts, he leaves ego behind and approaches each client individually. “We don’t want to be known for a house style,” he says. “That would give consumers a chance to buy wine from one client only and still be able to check the Thomas Rivers Brown box!”
If anything, it’s Brown’s style of winemaking—not the wine itself—that’s consistent: non-interventionist, with minimal manipulation, so there’s transparency of place and variety. Take the case of Kisha and Jason Itkin, who founded Theorem Vineyards in 2012 on remote Diamond Mountain and recently finished restoring the historic home on the site. They assumed they’d be ripping out the ancient vineyard, ravaged by deer and neglect, but Brown recognized the exceptional potential. “He’s only interested in bringing out what is unique about each vineyard site and never compromises that for a specific vintage or desired wine profile,” says Kisha. Even in the cellar, she adds, Brown and resident winemaker Kathleen Ward, whom he handpicked for Theorem, “never let the winemaking overshadow the site-specific flavors and characters unique to our high-elevation Diamond Mountain estate.”
The individualized approach that Melka, Fayard, Barrett and Brown take to each vineyard, vintner and bottle not only magnifies the range of California’s wine character but also makes them uniquely equipped to respond to the next generation of wine lovers. “In the American wine business,” says Fayard, “there’s a new evolution of palates looking for fresher, less manipulated wines. I like to call it ‘American wine with old-world restraint.’ Today’s wine drinkers are in search of better balance and increased ageability from wines that are properly crafted.”
In forgoing the long-haul flights in favor of more miles on the vineyard SUV (or helicopter, in Barrett’s case), a thicker layer of dust on the boots and availability to clients, they are redefining what it means to be a consulting winemaker. No longer are the top brands subject to a celebrity’s signature style. “It’s we who need to adjust,” says Melka, “not our clients.”
And they’re amplifying the inherent diversity of the West Coast’s best wine regions—to say nothing of making our cellars more interesting.