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XOJET's Winemaker’s Guide to Napa Valley Harvest Season

This is where aristocratic Bordeaux training meets New World potential. Philippe Melka honed his craft at the haute couture of French winemaking (Haut-Brion and Pétrus), did a stint at Badia a Coltibuono, and then at the ur-Napa property, Dominus. “All of my background is in superb, traditional winemaking,” he says. It’s the way the French have always done it, which he summarizes in three words: “It’s the terroir.”

Philippe and his wife Cherie, a long-time wine professional who manages the operations of the company (and advises with blending decisions), make four wines—all beginning with the letter ‘M’—from Napa and Sonoma. The estate Cabernet comes from a two-acre vineyard in St. Helena, where they live in a cool pre-fab, corrugated-metal, modular home (see the website).

The Melka Métisse Jumping Goat Vineyard (82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot, and 3% Merlot) reflects the overall approach, as the vineyard, says Philippe, is similar to one in Graves. The flavors (dark fruit, graphite, tar, and creosote) are going to take time to mature, hence why he recommends decanting the 2014 for three hours. On the other hand, the 2013 Melka Mekerra Proprietary Red (Cabernet Franc and Merlot from a mountain vineyard) is raring to go (there are only 400 cases, so you better be as well).

THE 2017 VINTAGE

“There’s been enough water to refill the reservoirs,” says Philippe, echoing the comments of other winemakers. But despite the “crazy warm” July heat, “the yield should be pretty decent,” he says. He predicts the Cabernet harvest will go into the second week of October.

FIVE-YEAR PERSPECTIVE

“Very simple: four years of drought and now a year of massive rain in winter.”

BIGGEST HARVEST CHALLENGE

“The war is on—you have to be ready to take very quick decisions, always be ready for drama.” If there is a predicted heat wave, “should we pick prior or take the gamble?”

Also, surviving two to eight daily espressos during harvest. (Sogni Di Dolci on Main St. in St. Helena is Philippe’s caffeine spot.)

FAVORITE PLACES

“To make good wine you have to drink a lot of beer,” he says, referring to a shed he has with beer on tap. “It’s the coolest place on the estate.”

His go-to local spot is Brasswood Bar + Bakery + Kitchen, part of the Brasswood winery in St. Helena.

He and Cherie also like “a quick flight to Hawaii.”

Where do Napa winemakers dine out?

For many Napa Valley visitors, the revelation is not the wine; it’s the food. With scores of restaurants featuring farm-to-table (and sea-to-table) ingredients, it’s hard to go wrong when dining out.

But where do the folks who make Napa’s wines go for special occasions, or just a burger and (gasp) a beer? Where might visitors bump into their favorite winemaker?

We asked eight vintners to cite special-occasion and casual spots — and where they hang with their vinous homies.

The most-touted hangout: Rutherford Grill’s bar for lunch and late afternoon. If you don’t encounter a famous winemaking face while dining, at least you know that the food will be stellar.

Philippe Melka
Owner/winemaker of Melka Wines, owner of Atelier Melka Wine Consulting Company

Special occasion: “Whenever we go to Press, we know we are in for a treat. Sommeliers Kelli White and Scott Brenner always impress me with their recommendations, (and) Press has one of the most comprehensive wine lists in Napa with a number of rare older vintages/special bottles.”

Must-have menu item: “the truffle mac and cheese and bacon platter.”
$$$

Casual: “Goose and Gander is one of my favorite places to hang out and have a cocktail at the end of the day.”

Must-have menu item: “You can’t beat their burger and octopus salad.”
$$

Out of The Shadows

With his own label and winery in the works, Philippe Melka finally takes the spotlight.

Over the past 20 years, Philippe Melka has consulted on dozens of top labels—including Dana Estates, Vineyard 29, Lail, and Brand. He has received several 100-point scores from The Wine Advocate and been named by Robert Parker as one of the top nine wine consultants in the world.

Melka has established a reputation as a soil whisperer, a brilliant blender, and a titan of terroir. He uses data and analytics to get the most out of every one of his sites. But because he has spent most of his career making wines for other people, few—if any—consumers seem to even know the guy’s name.

This is about to change...

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... Cabernet Sauvignon to try: Melka CJ Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012, California ($65). Indulgent as a velvet smoking jacket, the Melka Cab is packed with ripe plum, black cherry, cassis and mocha with baking spice and tobacco. The silky tannins are soft as a kitten purring for another bite of your steak.

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Legendary winemaker Philippe Melka’s portrait dots the auction book 11 times—like the kid in the high school yearbook who was in every club. At an unofficial portfolio tasting later that day, I found out why ...

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