Merryvale Winery enjoys a highly visible location next to the train tracks and Highway 29 in the southern part of the St. Helena city limits. Its address is a prominent one (1000 Main Street). This winery has a storied history – both in its early days and much later.
The winery was built in 1933 (one of several Napa wineries built immediately after Prohibition including the nearby Louis Martini Winery) and opened and operated as Sunnyhill Winery for a short time before the name was changed to Sunny St. Helena. The winery was founded by Jack Riorda and partners (we first heard his name when we interviewed Peter Mondavi many years ago). Jack was a prominent individual in St. Helena in the 1930’s – Peter and Robert’s father, Ceasare Mondavi actually became partners with Riorda in Sunny St. Helena in 1937 (prior to the Mondavi family taking ownership of the old Charles Krug Winery).
In the mid 1940’s the winery was sold and became a cooperative for some time. By 1972 the winery was again sold, this time to Mont La Salle Vineyards (owned by the Christian Brothers) and the building was used for wine storage and wine aging. Enter modern day Merryvale. The first vintage of Merryvale was 1983, a Cabernet Sauvignon based blend. The modern Sunny St. Helena was founded by Bill Harlan and several real estate partners including Peter Stocker and John Montgomery. Founding winemaker Bob Levy would go on to form what would become one of the valley’s most prominent long term winemaking relationships with Bill Harlan for Harlan Estate, BOND, Promontory and The Napa Reserve. Bob made the Sunny St. Helena wines for several years at Rombauer Winery (taking advantage of Rombauer’s custom crush services at the time).
Bob Levy oversaw the construction of Rombauer Winery in 1982 – the construction began in June of that year with plans to handle the harvest later that year (today that would never happen in the valley with permitting – everything moves slower). Remarkably they were able to process the first harvest at the winery although they did not yet have power and Bob told us they literally had to drag a large generator onto the property.
By 1986, Bill Harlan and his partners purchased the old Sunny St. Helena winery and grounds. After a two-year restoration project, the production was moved from Rombauer to the newly renovated winery in 1988. By 1991 the winery changed its name from Sunny St. Helena to Merryvale Vineyards. Names of wineries are often chosen based on the owners’ last name – however, some namesakes are way more intriguing.
Merryvale Antiques/Memorabilia/Gaslight Building
Bill Harlan and his partner Peter Stocker founded Pacific Union Land Company in 1975 – with an initial focus of selling condominiums and developing condominium projects in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company is still very much active, based in Danville and focuses on land, residential, self-storage and commercial development. From 1980 until 1998, their offices were located in the historic and prominent Gas Light Building, built in 1893 and located at 3636 Buchanan Street in San Francisco.
Merryvale Antiques moved into the Gas Light Building in 1958 and sold a variety of antiques in rooms throughout the building and was operated by Marie Sutcliffe, an avid gardener for a number of years. During their occupancy, the grounds were renovated and the neighboring greenhouse on the south end of the property was built, used for selling plants and other gardening related items. The partners of Pacific Union Land Company used to refer to their office building simply as the Merryvale.
Current owners, the Schlatter family first became involved when Jack Schlatter (an international businessman who over the years has been involved with coffee, cotton, and real estate, among other ventures) became a partner in 1991 and built their export markets in Europe and Asia. Harlan eventually sold his interest as did the original investors – and by 1996 Jack and his family became the sole proprietors (natives of Switzerland). Jack’s son René oversees the winery operations with his wife Laurence (who is a 6th generation vintner and whose family owns Cave des Rois on the steep slopes of tiny Villeneuve not far from the shores of Lake Geneva). René and Laurence are not running the winery from afar, rather they live and work in St. Helena.
For 10+ years, Merryvale did not actually own vineyards – rather would purchase grapes from area growers. But after the Schlatters took full control of the operations, they began to acquire key pieces of land which would become integral sources for their wines.
Merryvale produces several labels including the ones they are most known for, Merryvale and Starmont. The Starmont wines in part come from the historic Stanley Ranch in Napa’s Carneros region; the focus of their production is both on well-distributed wines along with smaller lot wines. The Merryvale label includes a wide range of wines at various price points including premium Cabernet Sauvignon. And the Profile Collection, marketed as a separate brand, features two of their most premium wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon based blend and a Chardonnay.
Great care is taken in their wine making – with fruit separated out into a number of small tanks. The reason they have a number of small tanks is that they often pick their vineyards numerous times during the harvest season fermenting each picked block separately, even down to separately fermenting specific rows from a vineyard block.
Two tastings are offered in the tasting room – the Signature Tasting (featuring current release wines) and the Reserve Tasting (featuring single vineyard and more limited production wines). Other more intimate experiences are available by reservation include a wine and cheese pairing, a special library wine tasting (featuring select older vintages) and a blending experience.
Visitors should look for the historical photo taken in 1949 hanging near the tasting room, it features one of the Mondavi’s as well as other pioneer Napa winemakers. It is neat to see this photo, because these are the men that founded & promoted Napa’s wine industry after the setback of Prohibition – back when Napa was not well known and only a few wineries were in existence. The winery and tasting room are housed in a very environmentally friendly building containing large solar panels on the roof and a recycling program for the winery wastes.
Aside from the history of the property and the wines, one of the highlights is the impressive Cask Room; this is open during normal business hours and well worth visiting. It is the only one of its kind in the valley. This room evokes a time perhaps back to the middle ages with the lighted candles, giant aging casks and impressive table that runs through the center of the room. The room is a popular event venue – used for wedding receptions and corporate events.
The tasting room can be very crowded especially on the weekends as this is a popular tourist stop. Refreshingly, the tasting room also stays open slightly later than most Napa wineries. Private tours and tastings are available by reservation.
During a number of visits over the years, we have tried a large lineup of their wines, as we result we highlight only a few here.
Merryvale has long produced a Chardonnay from the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros (the first vintage we tried of this vineyard from Merryvale was 2005). Larry Hyde is one of the most well-respected growers in Carneros – incidentally Larry is a partner in Napa’s HDV Vineyards with Aubert de Villaine, the co-owner of the storied Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy. This Chardonnay is whole cluster pressed (they often use triple sorting to ensure they are getting only the highest quality fruit).
The 2014 Merryvale Hyde Vineyards Chardonnay shows citrus aromas on the bouquet including nuances of lemon/lime and hints of hazelnut. Rounded but not creamy on the palate – shows depth without being heavy. Features intense flavor but with a crispness and noticeable liveliness especially on the finish. The wine went through approximately 30% malolactic fermentation and spent 12 months aging in neutral oak – it was racked once and then bottled.
Not to be left out is the affordable priced 500ml bottle Antigua, Muscat de Frontignan (now bottled in 375ml). This is a very unique for Napa wine that has a significant historical and winemaking pedigree. This wine was originally created at Beaulieu Vineyards by winemaker André Tchelistcheff in the 1960s. The wine is always a non vintage, created using the solera process where the latest release is created from fractional blends from previous vintages and is finished with brandy.
Merryvale started producing this wine in the late 1980’s after purchasing barrels of wine that André personally made from vintages 1970 to 1983. Merryvale resumed making this wine from 1992 through 1997 – and made enough of it that for many years they still had bottles available for sale either in the tasting room or on their website. They continue to produce this wine each year.
The latest release of Antigua, California Muscat Dessert Wine (tasted in 2021) shows a medium brown color showing through the clear glass of the unique looking bottle. Offers layered aromatics which keep evolving as the wine breathes including caramel, rum soaked raisin, an orange peel zest, brown chocolate, brown sugar and chocolate cake. The bouquet is rich and one can get ‘full’ just by smelling it. Offers flavors of caramel, black walnut, and orange peel. Sweet and flavorful; these characteristics are balanced very nicely by its acidity. A wine definitely worth seeking out by dessert wine enthusiasts.
The 2011 Merryvale Late Harvest Riesling is from the Huichica Vineyard on the Napa side of Carneros. Deep amber in color, we tasted this wine 10 years post vintage date. Offers aromatics of honey, dried apricot, dried orange peel, citronella and brown sugar. This wine has aged remarkably well and its a pity we couldn’t hold it another 10 or 20 years before tasting as this has a very long life ahead. Is very flavorful, yet shows a nice cadence across the palate without any sharp edges. The sugar is in balance with the bright acidity – carrying its liveliness through to the finish. Shows flavors of candied fruit, ripe citrus and baked pear. During harvest, some of the clusters were picked which were affected by botrytis (noble rot). The wine was aged for two years in barrel before being bottled, 15% of which was new oak.
And in 2021 Merryvale released a very unique offering for a Napa Valley based winery, a 2019 Merryvale Petite Arvine from Valais A.O.C. Switzerland through a partnership with a friend in Switzerland (this white wine is bottled under the Merryvale label). It originated in Switzerland and today less than 400 acres are planted in the country. And Merryvale is growing 650 vines of this variety at their estate in Carneros.
The 2019 Merryvale Petite Arvine is deep yellow in color with very pretty fruit forward aromatics including notes of honeysuckle, citrus blossom, pineapple, banana and papaya along with vanilla. Can we be as bold to say that this smells California and not Switzerland, despite its actual origins?! Lets see more of this in the Napa Valley. Slightly creamy across the palate with flavors of grapefruit, lime and a lively mouth watering finish. Superbly balanced. First thought after tasting this wine is to pair with oysters, Hog Island please.
Merryvale makes a variety of Cabernet Sauvignon and their top of the line Cabernet is simply called the Profile. This was the first wine they ever produced. The 2003 we tried is a very dark rich unfiltered wine. It is a robust Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with grippy long lasting tannins in its youth – this wine has all the hallmarks of being able to age for many years.
Starmont is a label within the Merryvale Family of Wines. The names of the original founders of Merryvale continue on in the name of Starmont. This name was chosen by combining several letters in each of the founders last names – Peter Stocker, Bill Harlan and John Montgomery. For approximately 4 years the wines were available at the Starmont tasting room in Carneros but after Merryvale sold the winery in 2019 (but not the Starmont label), the tasting room also closed. Current release Starmont Wines can be tasted at Merryvale’s tasting room.
Starmont maintains about 40 acres planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and a tiny amount of Viognier on the Napa side of the Carneros appellation. This is part of the Stanly Ranch. The original Stanly Ranch was founded in 1856 by Edward Stanly – a lawyer from San Francisco. The original size of the ranch was over 2,200 acres. The land was passed on to successive generations. A winery operated on the property until prohibition in 1919 – the family continued running the ranch until it started being parceled and sold to outside individuals in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In addition to being home for some of Napa’s early grapevines the Stanly Ranch was also the site for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clonal trials – conducted by Louis Martini, the Wente Family and UC Davis in the 1950’s.
The original Starmont label was simply a Chardonnay label under the Merryvale wine portfolio.
Their Starmont produced wines are large production and the majority are from vineyards sourced in the Carneros appellation. In 2012 they started crafting small production wines from the surrounding Stanly Ranch vineyard – generally in the range of 50 to 500 cases per wine. While the Merryvale wines focus more on Cabernet Sauvignon, the Starmont wines cover a wide range of varietals and are crafted to be food friendly approachable wines upon release. For the short tasting notes below, note that we wrote ‘good acidity’ for all these wines – across the board these are wines that are versatile – they will pair with a variety of food.
The 2012 Starmont Chardonnay initially shows aromas of grapefruit peel with tangerine blossom. Good citrus characteristics. This wine has nice acidity – especially mid to end of the palate. Notes of lemon, lime and red apple show on the palate. Clean and with a long finish.
The 2012 Starmont Pinot Noir Carneros shows some spicy notes aromatically – a white pepper characteristic. This aroma dissipates quickly revealing earthy notes with red and black fruit – finally just a hint of mocha shows. This spice from the bouquet continues onto palate. Nice fruit shows including raspberry, strawberry and cranberry. High toned fruit rather than darker fruit.
Slightly more than 200 cases were produced of the 2012 Starmont Pinot Noir, Stanly Ranch Estate. The bouquet is rich, ripe and lively; it mirrors the lively finish on the palate. Aromatically it shows expressive layered aromas of strawberry, cranberry intermingled with nuances of white pepper. That palate is rounded and of moderate build (more tannins than perhaps expected of a Pinot Noir). Their is a sweet note of fruit on the palate but tempered by a tartness on the finish.
The 2012 Starmont Syrah, Stanly Ranch Estate has to be among the smaller or the smallest production wines of any wines made by Merryvale or Starmont. It was only 50 cases. This wine is dark in glass and our favorite of the several wines we tried. The nose is very inviting with appealing aromas – dark fruit including blackberry. The nose shows bright and lively aromatics. The entry on the palate is plush, soft and rounded. There is good acidity – perhaps not always a characteristic associated with a plush mouth feel. Broad, balanced and fine grained wood and fruit tannins linger on the finish for a long time with nuances of a chalkiness. This is a very well balanced wine for being so young.
In 2018 Merryvale converted part of their grounds to an outside terrace tasting space. While seated here, watch people line up at Gott’s Roadside across the street and or the wine train as it passes by on the tracks. And of course enjoy wines from Merryvale.
Merryvale has one of the more advanced and extensive winery websites that we have seen (we hope we aren’t to biased in this regard as we provided server space for their website many years ago). For more information and to join their wine club (with numerous benefits including access to their club lounge), visit: www.merryvale.com