Blackbird Vineyards is located in the heart of the Oak Knoll District in the southern part of Napa Valley and was purchased by Michael Polenske in 2003 from the Trefethen family, proprietors of nearby Trefethen Vineyards. The site used to be a walnut orchard but is now entirely planted to Merlot. When we think of this variety, we always think of Oak Knoll as Merlot grows especially well in this part of Napa Valley. Over the years, a number of premium producers have purchased grapes from this vineyard including Shafer, Viader, and Lail. The property is nearly 10 acres of which 7 acres are planted to vine.
An early success from this vineyard was when well-regarded winemaker Mia Klein created a vineyard designate from this vineyard for her 1999 Selene Merlot (her own label which unfortunately ceased production in 2020).
Blackbird Vineyards was founded by Bermuda born Polenske, a former investment banker who had success in the financial world early in his career. At age 37 he was already the head of the Private Client Group at J.P. Morgan in San Francisco; later he became President & CEO for Chase Manhattan Bank & Trust Co., Western Division. He is an entrepreneur and art collector. His father was in the U.S. Air Force and the family lived in a number of places including at Travis Air Force Base. It was while living here that he was introduced to wine country; he eventually took a number of wine related classes while in college.
He follows “the business of leisure” model, or more simply stated, invest in what you love and turn that into a self-sustaining business. He did this with Blackbird Vineyards followed by a number of interests in the art and design world including Ma(i)sonry in Yountville which he sold to Restoration Hardware in 2014.
Blackbird Vineyards was a part of the Bespoke Collection which included ÆRENA wines, Mendoza, Argentina based Recuerdo wines and art galleries and installations. In 2010 Polenske purchased the I. Wolk Gallery in St. Helena after the founder and local art pioneer Ira Wolk tragically died in a bicycling accident. Today there are ÆRENA Galleries & Gardens in downtown Napa, downtown St. Helena on site of the former I. Wolk Gallery, on the north side of the main plaza in Healdsburg in Sonoma County and in downtown Mill Valley in Marin County. One former ÆRENA Galleries & Gardens, but now closed, was in Yountville. The works at each of the galleries differ as do the artists represented. And the name ÆRENA was pulled from The Man in the Arena, a speech that Theodore Roosevelt delivered in Sorbonne Paris in 1910.
ÆRENA Gallery & Gardens, 600 Main Street Napa
ÆRENA Gallery & Gardens, 1354 Main Street, St. Helena
ÆRENA Gallery & Gardens, 115 Plaza Street Healdsburg
ÆRENA Gallery & Gardens, 53 Throckmorton Ave, Mill Valley
Photos coming soon.
The first vintage of Blackbird Vineyards was in 2003 but this was merely 90 cases as most of the grapes at that time were still being sold to other wineries. Sarah Gott made the first few vintages; well-regarded winemaker and raconteur Aaron Pott has made every vintage since 2006. Aaron’s style of wines strikes a well-balanced approach between fruit, acidity, and structure. And they are built to age.
In 2019 John and Julia Hinshaw purchased a majority interest in Blackbird Vineyards (buying out Polenske’s interest) and are now overseeing the company. They have been investors in Blackbird since 2014. They also own the 160+ acre Greeg Mountain Ranch on Hennessey Ridge in the Vaca mountains east of Rutherford (called the ‘birds nest’). This site is planted to approximately 4.5 acres of vines, all Cabernet Sauvignon, planted on three unique sites (4 blocks) at an elevation of approximately 1,200 feet. The vines were first planted in 2003/2004 with the first harvest in 2006.
John has enjoyed a successful career as an executive at a variety of companies including Verizon, The Boeing Company, Hewlett-Packard and currently as the Group Chief Operating Officer and Group Managing Director at HSBC. Julia is responsible for the philanthropic efforts for Blackbird Vineyards. And over the years Blackbird has a strong history of supporting a variety of charities – to date over 4 million dollars has been raised – primarily through a variety of wine auctions around the country.
Merlot in patois (a French dialect) means Blackbird. The growing climate and soil types are somewhat similar to parts of Pomerol, France’s prominent Merlot growing region. And all their wines have proprietary names, and a quote is associated with each wine. Some of the names or the quotes are taken from well-known songs or associated with musicians.
Production focuses on red wines every year along with a rosé blend (this tends to sell out quickly) and a white wine blend; each wine has a proprietary name. All of their red wines contain at least some Merlot. All their reds are fermented with indigenous yeast and are not fined or filtered prior to bottling. In addition to their Oak Knoll based estate vineyard (with its sometimes-rotating outdoor sculptures at the intersection of Oak Knoll Ave and Big Ranch Road), they source from select premium vineyards ranging from Carneros in the Knights Valley in Sonoma County to the north.
The one white wine produced is a Sauvignon Blanc based bottling. The 2015 Blackbird Vineyards Dissonance Sauvignon Blanc does not have any grassy or green aromatic notes. Rather the nose shows notes of pear, honeysuckle and peach. It offers somewhat tropical floral notes as well. Aptly and simply described, the palate is delicious; it is balanced with a richness of fruit tempered by bright acidity. This wine offers decent weight for being 100% varietal. A subtle minerality component complements the finish.
The 2013 Blackbird Vineyards Paramour is a blend of 52% Cabernet Franc, 34% Merlot and 14% Cabernet Sauvignon. The darkness of color complements the density of structure on the palate. Savory aromas show including mostly darker fruits including blueberry and blackberry, which are also complemented by floral notes. The tannins are sediment like, dark, brooding, complex and long lasting. This wine is well layered both in flavor and in the tannin textural profile.
Invariably with even a little bit of time spent in Napa Valley, one will hear about Napa’s “cult Cabernet” wineries, however one never hears about a Napa cult Merlot, but if there was one, Blackbird would probably be the closest fit. And based on the small size of their vineyard they do not make a lot of this wine each year.
During our first visit to their vineyard in Oak Knoll, we tried the 2004 and 2005 Blackbird Vineyards Merlot; both wines are unfined and unfiltered for maximum flavor and both wines are really true to the flavors of this variety and terroir which is a testament to winemaker at the time Sarah Gott and the vineyard source. The 2004 Blackbird Vineyards Merlot is 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a dark wine with a bright lively fruit on the nose and a palate full of ripe cherry and blackberries with touches of mocha and chocolate. The finish is long and smooth.
The 2005 Blackbird Vineyards Merlot includes a nearly identical blend, displays a deeper rich earthy aromatic profile with again a diversity of fruit flavors including plum and blueberry. It is a very well-balanced wine with nice character on the finish.
In unique offering, in 2009 Blackbird Vineyards partnered with GrammyTM Award-winning artist Martina McBride to produce a “signature series” Napa wine. Each bottle has Martina’s stamped autograph and was offered exclusively to members of her own fan club. Martina first tasted Blackbird’s wines while touring Napa Valley.
Blackbird Vineyards hosts guests at their tasting lounge and winery (the Nest) in a business park located about a 10-minute drive south of downtown Napa. Guests who make reservations can request favorite songs or genres of music to be played during their visit to the winery. Try to throw them some curveballs.
Select vintages of the Blackbird wines may still be available for tasting or purchase at Ma(i)sonry in Yountville located just down the street from the iconic French Laundry restaurant.
NOTE: this review has been identified as needing a *major* update. We will revisit and significantly update this review by the end of March 2023, including adding our tasting notes for current releases.
The wines are distributed in at premium retail outlets and restaurants in parts of the UK through London based importer The Wine Treasury. Interested individuals can join the flock in their appropriately named, Frequent Flyer loyalty program; this is not a wine club with pre-scheduled shipments but rather access to any of their wines when they are released. Higher spend amounts provide priority access to certain wines and or other perks. For more information or to schedule an appointment for a tastings, visit: www.blackbirdvineyards.com
Blackbird Vineyards, Oak Knoll
Several tasting experiences were offered at the RiverHouse (where wine was paired with art) including the Portfolio Tasting which included the current releases of Blackbird Wines and the Bento Box tasting, a Bento Box lunch prepared by their culinary neighbor, Morimoto Napa. This was paired with the current releases of the Blackbird wines. And a number of other exclusive experiences were offered including a flight, yacht tour and customized activities using the expertise of their concierge staff.
The RiverHouse opened in September 2016 along the Napa Riverfront Walk just off of Main Street (almost directly behind the Napa Valley Welcome Center). Tastings were originally conducted inside but later tastings were offered on the walkway directly outside.