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Philippe Melka began his search for the essence of the vineyards that he cultivates three decades ago. He launched his journey from the University of Bordeaux where he studied agronomy, enology and geology, then explored how soil shaped the character of Château Haut-Brion, Chittering Estate, Badia a Coltibuono, Dominus Estate and Château Pétrus varietals and blends.
“From the beginning, I felt connected to the earth,” Melka says. “I was fascinated by the fact that soil type had such a direct influence on wine style.”
Melka apprenticed for vineyard managers and winemakers in Australia, France and Italy before he returned to Dominus Estate in 1994. The winery hired him to evaluate the soil, but he soon discovered that Napa Valley wines were missing a sense of place.
A winemaker who values the vineyard as much as the winery, he has helped Napa Valley vintners establish vineyards that have yielded authentic expressions of each vintage since 1995.
“Vineyard managers have elevated quality,” Melka says, “by applying science to the planting and caring for each varietal.” They have transformed the landscape from vineyards where they flooded vines with water, fertilizer and pesticides to a marketplace where sommeliers tout the virtues of a single vineyard block.
“Before planting a vineyard,” Melka says, “I dig a soil pit, identify soil strata and evaluate key factors like structure, texture and depth.”
But as he learned firsthand, terroir amounts to more than the physical properties of the soil. It also accounts for geography, climate and choices that a vineyard manager makes about where and what to plant, and how to tend the vineyard.
For Melka – geologist, vineyard manager and winemaker – the lay-of-the-land helps shape the character of a vineyard. Hillside vineyards can yield full-bodied, yet elegant cabernet sauvignon from porous soil hundreds of feet above sea level.
“The structure, texture and depth of soil [from hillside vineyards] vary from site to site,” he says. “In general, the soil is rocky and depending on the location contains fragments of volcanic rock.”
Alluvial plains help define Napa Valley terroir, too. Vineyards straddling the Rutherford Bench can deliver cabernet sauvignon that is refined, yet full of complex aromas and flavors from alluvial soil nearer to the valley floor. A blend of clay, gravel, sand and silt, alluvium holds water in its upper layers during the growing season, then dries out as the grapes mature.
“For valley floor sites, we look for a water table that’s deep enough not to compromise the root system,” he explains. Ideally, the soil drains well, contains balanced concentrations of calcium, potassium and magnesium and ranges from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline.
“We look for a site that’s 600 to 1,200 feet above sea level,” Melka says. “It creates a wine with great structure and density without rustic tannins.” At higher elevations, wind, temperature inversions, a greater concentration of UV light and rocky, porous, less fertile soil can sap vigor from the vines.
But geography is only part of the story.
Variations in climate help explain the breadth of the valley and its most widely planted variety.
Local temperatures drive budburst, bloom and most importantly ripening. Cooler summers and temperate autumns extend the vintage, lengthening hangtime and delaying harvest.
During the growing season, hillsides can be 10 to 15 °F cooler than the valley. Lower ambient temperatures and narrower diurnal variations yield fruit that delivers balanced, complex, nuanced wine.
Higher ambient temperatures and wider diurnal ranges along the valley floor build character. Warmer daytime temperatures promise ripe berries. Cooler nights help grapes retain acidity. Together, they deliver robust fruit and the prospect of vintage cabernet sauvignon that’s crisp, balanced and approachable at a younger age.
Miles of Aisles
Today, Melka oversees an 11-acre vineyard in Saint Helena and a 25-acre vineyard at the Sonoma – Napa Valley border. As a vineyard manager, he must strike the perfect balance between temperature, sunlight, shade and airflow around each cluster of grapes.
“Listen closely enough,” he says, “and you can hear the vines talk.” At the same time, the sensors that he has placed in the vineyard let him know exactly what the vines are saying.
Wireless sensors measure sap flow, then pass it along to a computer that calculates the transpiration rate, gathers data from weather stations and stores information that Melka can access with a personal computer. From there, he can evaluate the health of the vineyard by analyzing the charts and tables that the weather stations and sensors update instantly.
“In general, we want to create moderate stress for the vines to elevate grape quality,” he says.
Restricting the flow of water once the vines begin to flower, limits growth. Unchecked – dense, crowded canopies block sunlight, reducing aromas, flavors, phenolic compounds and varietal character.
“We’ve shaped around 80 percent of the vineyards we manage into vertical canopies with cross arms,” he says. “This ensures that the canopy is wide enough [to direct] sunlight and airflow and helps us better position the clusters.”
By removing leaves to expose each cluster to half of the sunlight, the vineyard team increases the concentration of precursor compounds that yeast, bacteria and winemakers can convert into aromas and flavors.
“We drop fruit to create the perfect balance between the canopy and the grapes,” he says. But yield alone does not determine quality. Vines produce premium grapes when soil, moisture, sunlight and choices about what, where and how to cultivate the grapes align crop load with the size of the canopy.
Best laid plans
“In the past, we planted vineyards with a large space between vines,” Melka says. “Our approach has changed. With much narrower spacing, we can hang less fruit [per vine] because there are more vines per acre.”
Five –by– 3 foot spacing, for example, is three times as dense as conventionally planted vineyards. With closely spaced rows, the vines compete for moisture and nutrients. Typically, they outperform less densely planted vineyards.
“I like to recommend a variety of clones for the same site,” he adds. “The only bad combination of rootstock and clone would be a vigorous rootstock like 1103P matched with a low yielding selection like clone 6.”
Exposure helps determine the location of hillside vineyards. In the Northern Hemisphere, a hillside vineyard facing south or southeast can absorb more heat and sunlight accelerating budbreak and ripening. With cooler daytime temperatures, a hillside vineyard facing north or northwest can benefit from a longer hangtime.
“Where the soil drains well, we focus on maintaining the natural contour of the landscape,” he says. Contour farming preserves topsoil, groundwater and nutrients by reducing runoff.
Variations on a theme
A world of experience hardly matters unless the vineyard and winery crews can produce a memorable bottle of wine.
“We are looking for a balance between acidity, alcohol and phenolic compounds that gives wine its structure,” Melka says.
Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon embodies the land, the variety and the sensibilities of the vintner. In essence, it expresses the unique aromas, flavors and texture of grapes shaped by their geography, microclimate and soil.
“The diversity between these sites is remarkable,” he says.
Napa Valley winemakers can create bold, yet elegant wine from grapes growing along the coastal range, wine that is refined, yet full of complex flavors and aromas from berries growing on the Rutherford Bench or crisp, balanced wine from grapes growing along the valley floor.
“A sense of place,” Melka asks? “It’s a reflection of the vineyard and the winery. It’s telling the truth about who you are.”
By Jonathan Cristaldi
Winemaker Philippe Melka couldn't make a bad wine if he tried. He's the wine-world equivalent of an NBA All-Star who's won numerous Championship games—in his case, a string of 100-point scores—and played for all the best teams, which in the world of wine is like being the winemaker for a bevy of wealthy, high-end clients.
This past December, I paid an outdoor, distanced visit to Philipe and his wife Cherie at Melka Estates, their winery in St. Helena, California. After side-stepping around a charming, slobbery dog, and just before flipping on a tape recorder, I suggested holding off on pouring any wine. I wanted their full story: from childhood until 4:30 p.m. that day when the interview was scheduled to wrap up.
"Man, you're going hardcore," said Philippe, laughing. "I like it. But I need some wine." Sylvie Laly, Director of Melka Estates, poured us a purple-hued red, with aromas teasing me from two feet away.
Born in the city of Bordeaux, but raised amidst corn and tobacco fields south of the city, he eventually returned to metropolitan life and enrolled in the University of Bordeaux to study geology, advancing toward a Masters in Agronomy and Enology. He'd taken a research internship at Château Haut Brion to study soils (not winemaking). A chance encounter with Jean-Claude Berrouet, the technical director for Christian Moueix's legendary Château Petrus, led to Melka working for the Moueix-owned Dominus in California in 1991.
This was his first time in the U.S., and he knew about ten words in English, but he managed. After work was complete at Dominus, he did a stint at Ridge with Paul Draper. When Draper was away on weekends, his home (and hot tub) were available to Philippe, who hit it off with a gorgeous lab technician, Cherie. Philippe spoke very little English, but Cherie spoke plenty of French—et voila. Between Dominus and returning to work for Moueix in France, there were jobs at Badio O Coltibuono in Chianti in Tuscany, Italy, and Chittering Estate in Australia. But when he'd returned to work for Moueix's Château Prieuré Lichine in Bordeaux, it was on yet another work break that he'd had enough of the French work ethic—which mostly centered around breaks. He proposed marriage to Cherie; she accepted. "We had nothing else to do!" she recalled, and they returned to the U.S. and sent out resumes. He was hired at Clos du Val, and she landed work at Beaulieu Vineyards in the lab.
1995 was a watershed moment in their timeline. It's the year when Philippe and Cherie formed Melka Consulting and began offering their winemaking services. Their first clients were Lail Vineyards, Seavey Vineyard, and Constant Diamond Mountain. A year later, in 1996, the couple decided to make their own wines and introduced the Melka Wines label.
Fast-forward to the here and now, and any mention of the Melka name is often preceded by some iteration of "100-point winemaker," but the details of Philippe Melka's meteoric rise in winemaking fame should not be relegated to the pages of a handful of critics' notebooks. His 100-point scores do seem to trail him like a Grateful Dead fan club, and at this stage, he couldn't tell you how many perfect scores he's achieved.
The first 100-pointer came in 2009 for a 2007 Dana Estates Lotus Vineyard Cabernet. But points aside, next to Napa's other historical French figures like André Tchelistcheff of
Beaulieu Vineyards fame, and the flying French winemaker Michel Rolland, or the Virginia-
born Thomas Rivers Brown, much of the Cabernet Sauvignon style inhabiting bottles today is the result of other Napa winemakers aiming to craft their own Melka lookalikes.
It's a style that yields to a glass-staining, unabashedly bold, rich, intoxicating, heady, and sumptuous mouth-filling red—which always, always, bends around whatever is on your plate. Most of his creations are intended for cellaring—to shed their baby fat and develop more nuanced complexities.
"'Baby fat,' if you wish, is what the California weather can give you," Melka told me. It's the kind of love-hate relationship that all French winemakers have with the California sun, which can over-ripen grapes, unlike in Bordeaux where it's typically cool and rainy. "It's like when you see a baby photo of a toddler, and those wrinkles and folds start to go away, and you begin to see the framework of the real kid. I think that's the same thing for the wines."
In its youth, upon entering toddler-hood, a Melka Cabernet reveals sinewy, ripe, dark fruit flavors and silken textures framed by ultra-fine tannins that lap about in waves of salty minerals, turned-earth, and expensive French cedar. It just gets better from there with proper aging. But how? How does he do it? Was it the soil? He's a soli guru, so it must be the soil. Melka said he finds that the best vineyards possess a wealth of minerals and deep roots. "If the root system is very shallow, the wines tend to be much more simplistic," he said.
But what about the barrels he ages his wine in? A secret 100-point barrel? He doesn't think so but has zeroed in on about seven cooperages that he regularly uses.
I quickly realized that my attempts to get Philippe to reveal his winemaking secrets were stupidly futile as he searched in vain for answers to my questions; the truth is there is no trick. There's no secret recipe. It's the 1 0,000-hour rule in full effect, only it's up to some 260,000 hours with Philippe (double that when you add in Cherie's microbiology expertise).
Twenty-five years after launching their consulting business, Seavey Vineyards and Lail are still clients, along with roughly 30 others. Along the way, some highlights include Caldwell (1998-2005); Parallel Napa Valley (1999-present); Quintessa (1999-2002), which is also where he first met and worked with Rolland; Vineyard 29 (1999-2017); Hundred Acre (2000- 2010); Bryant (2002-2006); and Dalla Valle in 2006. The consulting business, originally called Melka Consulting, is now Atelier Melka, and their clients include Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate, Nine Suns, Brand, Davis Estates, Raymond Vineyards, Tusk, and Westwood—to name just a few.
But only in the last decade have Philippe and Cherie taken steps toward owning their own property. In 2011, they bought eight acres in St. Helena, which included a vineyard that they've since named Montbleau, as an homage to Cherie's side of the family (it's her maiden name). They've also built their dream home and converted an old cottage into a temporary tasting space that eventually became a guest house (it burned in the Glass Fire, as did the young estate vineyard, which they will replant). They'd completed renovations and the building of the current crushpad and winery in 2017, the same year the Melka Estate wines were finally produced under their own roof.
The sun was beginning to set and I hadn't yet tasted any of the wine in my glass. We dove in, swapping pandemic stories, and I scribbled quick notes about four Melka Estates wines. The portfolio is comprised of a handful of single-vineyard wines, blends, and varietal-specific wines under four proprietary names: Mekerra, produced from Sonoma Valley grapes; Majestqiue, which is sourced from sites around the world; and Métisse and CJ (named after their children Chloe and Jeremy), Napa Valley blends they've been making consistently since 1996.
During my visit, we tasted the 2016 Mekerra La Mekerra Vineyard Proprietary White ($145) from Pritchard Hill, a zippy, floral Sauvignon Blanc with tremendous richness and energy; a 2016 Métisse Martinez Vineyard Cabernet ($225) from the Pritchard Hill area teeming with violets, dark chocolate, crushed stones, and fine-grained textures; a 2017 Métisse Jumping Goat Vineyard Cabernet from Saint Helena ($195), which offered flashy dark fruit, elegant cedar, and vivid layers of bright fruit and spices; finishing with a 2017 CJ Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($95), bursting with black cherry and blackberry, tobacco, and salted dark chocolate with a silky mouthfeel.
At the end of the tasting, I pressed Philippe one last time. Had he picked up some winemaking trick from Chris Phelps at Dominus? Or during blending sessions with Rolland?
"I think I began to understand the concept of blending and how to be efficient when I worked with Michel," he mused. "Someone like Michel, they are so quick to understand the personality of the wine, and seeing that really helped me out."
But like most of Melka's success, that was just the seed he needed to plant in his own deep, gravelly bed of curiosity, because according to Cherie, one of Philippe's greatest assets is his ability to build a blend quickly in his mind, like a brilliant artist who sees the complete work of art on a blank canvas. "During a blending session, even though the group has moved on," explained Cherie, "maybe even a couple of pages of blends later, Philippe is not afraid to take two steps back to build forward. That is an art."
By Owen Bargreen
Philippe and Cherie Melka form a formidable force in crafting their stunning Melka Estates bottlings.
A sensational boutique winery out of Napa, Melka Estates relies on the talents of Philippe and Cherie Melka. Melka Estates is a limited production winery that sources from some exciting new vineyards including La Mekerra in Sonoma and Jumping Goat in Napa Valley. The wines show incredible richness and terroir as they are sourced from warm vintages and stay true to their respective sites and growing conditions. A remarkable winemaking and consulting talent, Philippe Melka is a Bordeaux native that has a master’s degree in enology. He has a long resume, with previous stops at Château Haut Brion, as well as Dominus Estate and various stops in Australia and even Chateau Petrus. He has been in Napa on a full time basis since 1994 and has served as consulting winemaker at some of the great wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Washington State. He is truly one of the great consulting winemakers in the world. Philippe partners with his wife, Cherie, to craft the wines. She also has a highly impressive resume with previous stops at Bealieu Vineyards and Silver Oak prior to starting Melka Wines. She handles all business decisions for Melka as well as helps with the blending.
The Melkas have crafted some new releases that were simply marvelous, coming from the warm, 2015 vintage in Napa and Sonoma. One of the great Merlots in California from the Knight’s Valley, the 2015 Melka Estates ‘Mekerra La Mekerra Vineyard’ Merlot (WWB, 96) has insanely good dark fruits and a silky smooth texture. This memorable wine will cellar well for the next two decades. I was absolutely blown away with the 2016 Melka Estates ‘Metisse’ Red Wine (WWB, ) which has a massive core and is only starting to hit its stride.
This winery is really gaining a lot of momentum ands learn more about this stunning project at https://www.melkaestates.comHere are my reviews of the new Melka Estates wines.
2016 Melka Estates ‘Metisse Martinez Vineyard’ Red Wine- The is the second vintage that they have sourced from the ‘Martinez Vineyard’ which is located on Pritchard Hill at 1200 feet in elevation above St. Helena. The ‘Metisse’ is a seductive blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon with 23% Petit Verdot and 17% Cabernet Franc. The deep and highly perfumed aromatics impress with creme de cassis, creosote, coffee grounds and shades of dusty terroir that all take their shape in the glass. The palate has a plush texture, showing plenty of exotic appeal. Light tannins frame the deep and dark fruit flavors that collide with shades of bittersweet chocolate, pipe tobacco and tar. While remarkable at the three year mark, this stunning new release will cellar well for the next two decades. Drink 2020-2040- 96
2015 Melka Estates ‘Mekerra La Mekerra Vineyard’ Merlot- The ‘Mekerra’ Merlot was sourced from the Knight’s Valley and spent 22 months in French oak (60% new) prior to bottling. The wine starts off with aromas of chocolate, spice box, mocha and tar on the nose. The mouthfeel and texture to the wine is phenomenal. Mocha,anise, crème de cassis and blueberry compote flavors all come together marvelously in the glass. The texture and viscosity is sumptuous. Drink 2019-2035- 96
ELEGANT DESIGN IN AN UNDERSTATED PACKAGE
Sometimes the most elegant design solutions come in small, understated packages. Such is the case at Melka Estates, just off Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail. A simple form derived from the agricultural vernacular of the California wine country, the dark barn-like structure is nonetheless a dramatic fixture set against the green and gold hillsides of the Napa Valley. Humble and unassuming yet arrestingly beautiful, it is a perfect expression of the dynamism and the humility of both its owners and its architect.
Philippe and Cherie Melka and their architect, Juancarlos Fernandez, are perhaps three of the most recognized names in the Napa Valley, known for their talent, their intense commitment to their craft, and their humility. Maybe that is why they get along so well.
As business partners, the Melkas’ pedigrees are lengthy. A native of Bordeaux, with a degree in geology and a master’s degree in agronomy and enology from the University of Bordeaux, Philippe is as connected to wine and the land as it is possible to be. He began his career at the top, at Chateau Haut Brion, then worked with Moueix Company, Chateau Petrus, and numerous wineries in Italy and Australia. Armed with a degree in microbiology, Cherie began her wine-making career at Ridge Vineyards, training under the legendary Paul Draper and working as the winery’s enologist for five years. In 1991, their worlds came together with a chance meeting. While interning at Dominus, Philippe was visiting Ridge Vineyards to meet Paul Draper and taste his legendary wines when he walked into the lab and met Cherie. “Paul Draper was our matchmaker,” laughs Cherie.
After spending a year and a half in France, the couple returned to the United States. Cherie worked with Beaulieu and Silver Oak Cellars. Philippe founded his company, Atelier Melka, and has spent over twenty years as a wine-making consultant to some of the Napa Valley’s most prestigious family wineries, including Lail Vineyards, Dana Estates, Raymond, BRAND Napa Valley, and others. They cofounded Melka Estates in 1996, but it wasn’t until 2017 that their wine venture had a home of its own.
The wine-making community in the Napa Valley is close and connected, as it is in the wine-making regions of Sonoma County and California’s central coast. Since moving to the valley, the Melkas had lived in downtown St. Helena, raising two children and becoming deeply ingrained in the community.
But by 2011, they were looking for “less house, more land.” A hillside site fronting the Silverado Trail, planted with two acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, offered just what they were looking for. They began by building a house on the hillside—a prefab modular home by Bay Area–based Blu Home—overlooking their vineyards and the valley floor. Next, they worked with Juancarlos to renovate an existing barn on the property to serve as a hospitality space with an airy upstairs tasting area, and a large ground-level space for events. Juancarlos brought in Blasen Landscape Architecture to tie the structures together with landscape.
“Juancarlos was our touchstone for everything here—the house, the renovated barn, the new production winery, the landscape,” says Cherie. “We don’t make any design decisions without him!”
They continued making their wine elsewhere until 2014, when they approached Juancarlos about building a new production facility on the site. Completed in 2017, the new winery is a simple barn-like structure with an emphasis on functionality and efficiency. Set parallel to the adjacent Silverado Trail, it is comprised of two prefabricated buildings painted a deep shade of charcoal. A landscaped berm lining the front of the site runs visual interference between the winery and the adjacent roadway. “The stealth dark color and the simplicity of the design reflects Philippe’s humble and reserved personality, but at the same time it makes a bold statement, similar to the wines produced within the building,” says Juancarlos.
The new winery totals just 2,000 square feet of interior space and 1,400 square feet of covered exterior space. Three separate HVAC systems allow the winemaking team to move the wine from place to place as it progresses through fermentation and barrel aging—a French approach to the wine-making process. Mobile cooling units can be relocated from place to place. “In a small winery, it’s all about efficiency,” says Cherie.
Set on axis with the hospitality building, the two prefabricated structures that comprise the production facility are augmented on nearly every side with covered space formed by extrusions of the standing seam roof. Over the hospitality-facing facade, a deep overhang creates a covered crush pad that Juancarlos calls “a modular cave.” Two screened breezeways, one original and one added about a year later, provide flexible indoor-outdoor space along long facades to the east and west. A motorized shade protects the western facade from the intense afternoon sun.
An existing oak tree to the east defines the winery’s central point—the intersection of two strong axial relationships. Set on axis with the grand oak and perpendicular to the road, a breezeway between the two structures forms a vaulted cavern equally well suited for production or events. In fact, the flexible spaces within the barrel rooms, under the extruded roofline and between the hospitality and production buildings, provide a variety of areas for entertaining, which the Melkas do often. “We have amazing events here,” says Cherie.
The Melkas made their first vintage on-site in 2017, a fall season that saw some of California’s worst wildfires ever erupt in Napa and Sonoma counties. It was a tough first harvest, but everything was saved. “We waited twenty years to do this,” says Cherie. “It was a long road getting here, but we’re really happy.”
Author: Annette Hanami
AFTER DECADES of making coveted cabernet for other wineries, Philippe Melka enlisted Juancarlos Fernandez of Signum Architecture to design Melka Estates, a new winery in Saint Helena created for his own personal label. Having worked with Melka in the past, Fernandez knew how to reflect his client’s personality as well as the highly rated wines.
For his French-born client, Fernandez looked to Europe for inspiration, particularly the northern climes, where clean-lined barns are designed for snowfall, equipped with few protrusions and steeper pitches. At Melka, Fernandez concealed the gutters, raised the roof and lowered the walls to create a barn that’s more contemporary thanvernacular.
Blending the roof and walls, Fernandez minimized the language from peak to ground with a continuous standing seam. Spanning two storage rooms, the 2,000-square-foot vaulted cavern follows the contour of the valley.
The linearity is broken by a central breezeway that frames the view of the old oaks and mountains. On one end where grapes are received for crush, a veil of perforated steel allows for air circulation without losing the seamless look.
The all-black color appears organic against the dark powder-colored concrete floors and the native plantings in the landscape. Warm Brazilian hardwood doors and delicate bent plywood chandeliers were brought in to soften the entrance creating a warm energy.
To meet the client’s requirements, the winery is prefab, designed to Signum Architecture’s specifications. With each new project, Fernandez says, “We keep learning how to get the best use of prefabricated metal buildings as a tool for great design, instead of seeing them as a limitation.”