Malk Family Vineyards was founded by Brian and Nancy Malk in 1998 when they purchased eleven hillside acres in the heart of the Stags Leap District. They began planting their vineyards a year later with premium Cabernet Sauvignon clones – from both Spottswoode and Diamond Creek (two premium Napa producers). Their first vintage dates from 2003 and the wine has been crafted every year since their inaugural vintage by winemaker Robbie Meyer. The two-acre vineyard is planted on the hillside and is located at the edge of where the Vaca Mountains meet the valley floor. The Malk’s carefully manage this vineyard having earned a Fish Friendly Farming designation from the California Land Stewardship Institute, a non-profit organization located in Napa Valley.
Brian is originally from South Africa; he nurtured the idea of owning his own vineyard for a long time. His grandfather owned a vineyard in the prominent wine region of Franschhoek, near Capetown. After exploring the possibility of buying a vineyard in this area while simultaneously weighing the burden of taking 27 hour flights, common sense soon prevailed. Their primary home is near San Diego, and wanting both a vineyard and a place to visit for relaxation, they chose Napa Valley rather than South Africa based on Napa’s quality vineyards as well as proximity to southern California.
It is interesting to note that where Brian and Nancy settled is just down the road from Chimney Rock Winery. The design of this winery is Cape Dutch Architecture and looks just like any of a number of buildings in the Western Cape of South Africa, from when the Dutch settled this province in the 1820s.
Vintners often talk about a “sense of place” in regards to their vineyards. Brian told us about the “sense of space” one gets from his hillside vineyard and home located above it. Beautiful vistas overlook a sea of grapes in all directions broken by small hills rising from the valley floor. The landscape in this part of Stags Leap District is primarily vineyards with very few homes and wineries in the area, as a result sees few visitors. Malk’s hillside vineyard sits at the eastern edge of the appellation; as one continues east the land becomes entirely natural, wooded, rugged and steep – backing up to the rocky picturesque Stags Leap Palisades.
It is always a rare treat when we meet a Stags Leap based producer or winery as relative to the total amount of time we spend on the Napa Wine Project, the proportion of time we spent in the Stags Leap District is quite small. The reason for this is there are very few producers and wineries in the region; as of our latest update to this review, only 16 producers are members of the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association. Furthermore its not an appellation that has seen an influx of new producers in the last 10-15 years like many of the sub appellations in Napa Valley. Vineyards in this appellation are fairly well established.
The label was originally called Griffin Vineyards, named after their Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Griffin. Wanting to trademark the name, Brian soon found out there were at least 150 other wineries with the word “griffin” in their name making wine commercially. Discovering this and with the passing of Griffin after 15.5 years, the name of the brand and wine was changed to Malk Family Vineyards. However, Brian cleverly incorporated the name “griffin” onto their wine label and a likeness of Griffin appears on every bottle of Malk wine. And the estate vineyard is still named Griffin Vineyard.
Wines from this region helped put Napa on the map in 1976 with the Judgment of Paris wine tasting in which nearby Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars won top honor for their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, beating out other Napa and top French wineries. Some of the districts most premium producers include Shafer and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars; Robert Mondavi and Joseph Phelps also have vineyards in the appellation.
Malk Vineyards produces several wines each year, an estate Cabernet Sauvignon (their flagship wine), a beautiful Sauvignon Blanc and more recently a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. The first vintage of the Cabernet Sauvignon was from 2003 and their inaugural Sauvignon Blanc was in 2006.
The Malk Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc has already earned quite a following. In its first year only 100 cases were produced and somehow Robert Parker was able to taste it. He wrote a glowing review in Business Week saying Malk’s Sauvignon Blanc and Araujo Estate’s were some of the best wine from this variety coming from Napa. The original vintage was from a small vineyard in an appellation not known for its Sauvignon Blanc – Mt. Veeder. Needless to say this wine sold out rather quickly. The vineyard source has since changed – it is now from a small vineyard in the Oak Knoll district.
The 2019 Malk Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc is from Ryan’s Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District. The wine is medium to deep gold in color; immediately upon opening offers a pineapple like sweetness, honeycomb, ripe apricot picked and eaten straight from the tree on a warm late spring day, orange mango and very deep into the aromatics, hints of brown sugar. Shows floral notes especially as it evolves in the glass including honeysuckle and jasmine. Let it continue to breath and it will offer notes of lemon zest. If one can use hedonistic to describe a particular Sauvignon Blanc, we will take the liberty to do so with the bouquet on this bottling. Supple and creamy across the palate – this very balanced shows flavors of honeycomb, crème Brule, ripe pear and Golden Delicious apple. Drinks very nicely by itself. Whole cluster pressed and then fermented in neutral French oak barrels using non inoculated yeast; it was aged sur lie. Malolactic fermentation was inhibited.
The 2010 Malk Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, while being a very young wine at the time of our tasting was already very well balanced. The nose is rather complex and layered. White peach and notes of pineapple round out the bouquet; as it evolves shows additional aromas of browned sugar and honeysuckle. The palate is clean and some mineralities as well as notes of Meyer lemon linger on the supple finish. This wine was fermented and aged in neutral oak barrels.
The 2018 Malk Family Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon (100% varietal) is dark ruby in color; this wine offers powerful aromatics including ripe black cherry, blackberry, boysenberry, black licorice, cassis, and a beautiful mulled spice note. Offers showy and opulent aromatics that are primarily focused on the fruit. Reveals an intensity and ripeness of fruit across the palate but without being over ripe. The textural balance is a key to this wine, featuring ripe, soft and supple tannins which are almost chalklike in their feel. And deeper into the finish, lingers with light notes of dried tobacco leaf, dust and a persistent brightness of fruit. This wine was aged 22 months in French oak, 70% of which was new.
The 2007 Malk Family Vineyards Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon (100% varietal) shows a slightly smoky nose with concentrated yet elegant fruit. Dark berry aromas, black cherry and even black fig show as the bouquet evolves. The palate is balanced and smooth and finishes with structured yet moderate tannins and the afterglow of vanilla and caramel. Like their Sauvignon blanc this wine was allowed to ferment using indigenous yeasts.
If not the smallest single vineyard in the Stags Leap District, Malk Vineyard is certainly one of the smallest. This 2-acre vineyard was recently replanted and it will be several years before it will start producing again. For the next few years, Brian has located fruit from several blocks in a premium vineyard located just north of his own vineyard and will continue to make wine under the Malk label until his own vineyard is back in production.
With only several hundred cases comprising their annual production they are not widely distributed. You can find the wine locally in St. Helena at ACME Wine shop and several restaurants around the valley. They are also in select locations in San Francisco and a number of restaurants in San Diego. Malk Vineyards participates in the once a year V2V (Vineyard to Vintner) event always held in April. This event is produced by the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association – all winery members participate and the event includes dinners and open house events. For more information and to join the mailing list visit: www.malkfamilyvineyards.com