Marilyn Merlot produced their first vintage in 1985. However, the story begins a few years prior. owners Bob & Donna Holder moved to the Napa Valley from Berkeley in 1978. Neither were involved in wine at the time (Bob was a CPA and Donna worked at the historic St. Helena High School). It wasn’t long before the Napa allure eventually cast its wine spell over them. Along with a few friends, they began making home wine in 1980 (starting with one barrel).
Oddly, they started calling this home wine Cannibal Sauvignon – never produced it commercially and named the brand Maneater – one of their friends even designed the catchy label. Too bad they didn’t stumble across the name of one of the historic Rancho’s in Napa – Carne Humana. This all would have tied in perfectly with their original home wine.
Several years later they bottled their own home made Merlot and as good ideas often happen, was over a glass of wine. They came upon this name after drinking some of their own Merlot at dinner one evening (it was Donna who suggested this name). By that time, Holders also had some firsthand knowledge of the wine business. And in the early 1980’s they also became partners for the first time in a commercial wine venture – Manzanita Cellars.
Their first vintage was from 1985 – made from purchased bulk wine – this was 2,500 cases. With such a catchy name and using images of Marilyn Merlot (after getting the licensing rights from the estate of Marilyn Merlot) – the wines started to gain a variety of notoriety and publicity. One of their vintages was even highlighted in Life Magazine.
The wine has been a phenomenal success and is now a true collector’s wine. Some of their earliest vintages are often fetching up to several thousand dollars per bottle – although current release wines are priced quite reasonably. Each vintage has a different image of Marilyn Monroe on the label. Marilyn Merlot was their first wine although today they make several different wines.
The ultimate collector within a collector’s wine is the Velvet Collection series. The first vintage dates from 2005; they stopped making this wine in 2012. A set of 10 very sexy sultry nude photos of Marilyn were taken in 1949 and each vintage has one of these photos on the label. We have seen some interesting labels during our Napa winery odyssey but this one takes the cake. Each label is a nude photo of Marilyn (covered appropriately for the label), and has what they call a “peel and peak” protective plastic layer which when removed reveals the entire un-covered photo! Each of these wines is only available in 1.5 liters and comes in its own special box and package. This is collector wine at its best.
The release date of all wines is always June 1st – Marilyn’s birthday and each vintage usually sells out rather quickly. Their Norma Jean wines are very affordably priced and are marketed as “A Young Merlot” and features photos of a young Norma Jean before she took the name Marilyn Monroe. This is the only wine to feature non Napa fruit (the vineyard source is near the historic town of French Camp in California’s central valley).
Robert Pepi produces the Marilyn wines. Bob was winemaker and General Manager and along with his father ran Robert Pepi Winery for some 14 years, along the way earning accolades and excellent scores for their wine. They sold to Jackson Family Estates (Kendall Jackson) in 1994; their former home is now Cardinale Winery (a prominent winery located on top of a small knoll just south of Oakville).
Bob is a well-known consulting winemaker who has been involved in a consultation role with several wineries locally including Mario Andretti and Whitehall Lane. Internationally he has worked with Bodega Valentin Bianchi in Mendoza, Argentina for many years as and has also consulted for wineries in Chile, Texas and Colorado. As a result every year Bob experiences two harvests. Not a bad gig at all. In fact we caught up with him one afternoon just before he was flying down to Argentina.
Initially the Marilyn wines were produced from wine purchased on the bulk market but starting in 1997 production was from grapes purchased directly from specific vineyards. Today the focus of their Napa Valley production is from premium vineyards near the towns of Rutherford & Yountville including from the Beckstoffer Vineyards. However note that the majority of their wines, while made in the Napa Valley are from vineyard sites not located in the Napa Valley.
Napa Valley Wines
The 2002 Marilyn Cabernet Sauvignon which was among some of the older “current” releases that we have tried. Extra age is not a bad thing when it comes to wine! There are pleasant toasty characteristics on the nose which continues to the palate with nice fruit, hints of chocolate and a smoky intense long finish. As with most of their other current releases, this wine is priced quite affordably.
Note: tasting notes for the current release Marilyn Merlot coming at some point.
Non Napa Valley Wines
The 2015 Marilyn Sauvignon Blonde was sourced from Lake County (without knowing the exact vineyard source we would venture a guess this is from a Beckstoffer owned vineyard based on their already established relationship with Andy Beckstoffer in sourcing fruit from his Rutherford vineyards for other wines). This wine is medium yellow in the glass with aromas of petrol, pear, and a lemon lime nuance. Rounded in texture, with a little sweetness (perhaps from the ripeness of fruit rather then residual sugar – shows flavors of apple, melon and grapefruit. Decent acidity.
The 2016 Marilyn California Chardonnay – darker golden in the glass offers zesty aromatics, freshly cut grass, notes of pineapple, lemon meringue along with a sweeter baking spice component. Rounded and texturally soft on the palate but not oaky – shows flavors of popcorn butter, ripe tangerine and yellow pineapple. A clean finish with a richness of lingering flavor.
The Marilyn Monroe Red Wine from Mendocino County (non vintage, 13.5% alcohol) is medium to dark purple in the glass with fruit forward aromatics, a pretty union of blackberry, plum and boysenberry. A little jammy in its ripe fruit aromas. Soft and supple across the palate with a darker fruit component to the flavors. Juicy with a firm and tighter grip of textured drying tannins. Lingers with both tannins, a noticeable mouth watering juiciness and a darker spice note including notes of peppercorn.
All the wines for the Marilyn Merlot label are made at the iconic Napa Wine Co along Highway 29. For many years visitors to the valley could taste current releases at what was Napa Wine Co’s Cult Tasting room. But in early 2019 this tasting room closed to all the brands represented and now only features brands produced by the owners of Napa Wine Co.
Unlike most Napa wineries – there are older vintages for sale on their website. For more information and or to join their mailing list, visit: www.marilynwines.com