Aspen Times Weekly: Duckhorn Wine Company — KJ’s 2013 Winery of the Year |

Aspen Times Weekly: Duckhorn Wine Company — KJ’s 2013 Winery of the Year

Selected wines of Duckhorn

Margaret and Dan Duckhorn founded their eponymous vineyard in the year of America’s bi-centennial. With wines like these, they may well be around for the tri-centennial.

2009 Duckhorn Vineyards ‘The Discussion’ Napa Valley

A red blend from Duckhorn’s finest Napa estates.

2011 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot

The reputation was built on Merlot. I can vouch that this works with gumbo and pie.

2010 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

Winemaker Michael Fay is helping change the focus for Pinot-philes from the Russian River to the Anderson Valley.

Those who read this column know I eschew rating wines or ranking winemakers and wineries. This is because other writers and publications do it better than I, and because in the world of food and wine I believe all who endeavor deserve credit rather than rankings.

That said, for the first time in the seven years of writing WineInk, I am naming a “Winery of the Year.” Drum roll, please. The 2013 WineInk Winery of the Year is … Duckhorn Wine Company. Applause here.

Duckhorn has long been a favorite of mine. It is a winery I have admired not just for their wines, but for the smart and efficient way they run their business. Selfishly, however, my recognition for Duckhorn as the WineInk Winery of the Year emanates from the multitude of serendipitous encounters with Duckhorn-related people, places and things that I have had in the past few months — the very stuff that I cherish about wine.

The capper came this week in New Orleans. After Marvin made me a Monday morning Sazerac in the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone (yes, I promised Miss Denise that I would have one before I left), I went across Royal Street to Mr. B’s Bistro for a pre-flight cup of gumbo and a piece of pecan pie. Needing a palate cleanser from the Bourbon and Rye cocktails consumed over the weekend, I asked Dean, my bartender, for a glass of red wine. “We have a great Merlot from Duckhorn,” he said as he poured me a glass. Ah, Duckhorn.

Over pie and Merlot, I went back in my mind’s eye to my many Duckhorn encounters of 2013.

The first came on a cold and windy January night at my dear friend Laura Werlin’s magnificent San Francisco home. After canceling reservations to a SF hotspot to stay in and cook, we were unexpectedly visited by another friend, the fishmonger Jim Galle, who had a cooler full of shrimp and a red snapper fresh off a plane from the Gulf. Or as he put it, “they were swimmin’ this morning.” The grill was lit and a feast was had.

The coda on this symphony from the sea was a 2006 Duckhorn Merlot-Three Palms Vineyard that Laura pulled from her downstairs “cellar.” A cellar, by the way, that is simply a collection of some the coolest wines imaginable stacked on the floor of chilled guest bedroom. The Duckhorn Merlot with the char and spice of the grilled fish, were among the best pairings I had all year, proving red wine and fish can be magical together.

Three days later, I found myself sitting in a semi-circle with a group of wine journalists at the Mondavi Winery surrounding Margrit Mondavi as she regaled us with tales of the “old” Napa. She named the Duckhorns among those who, along with her husband Robert, were instrumental in creating the hospitality that has made Napa so inviting. Then she spoke of the really old days.

“During Prohibition, you know, the winemakers and grape growers had to be resourceful to survive,” she said with a twinkle. “The people from San Francisco would drive up to buy their wines and liquor and they would secretly meet the people with the goods.” She paused, then added, “You know those tall palm trees you see like the Three Palms where Duckhorn gets their Merlot? Those were there to let the people know where to find the bootleggers.” She rolled her head back in laughter and the hardened journalists laughed along with her. Now, whether that is true or not I may never know. But I take it as gospel coming from Margrit and I’ll never look at, or taste, Three Palms again without thinking of that story.

The sweetest month of the year, October, found me driving through the night from Healdsburg to Booneville in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. “It will be windy,” they told me as I left Sonoma, but that didn’t really begin to describe the curves, dips and doodles I had to navigate in the dark on Route 128, aka, the Redwood Highway.

My destination was an old apple-drying shed on the property of Goldeneye, Duckhorn’s Pinot Noir project in the Anderson Valley. “It’s not luxurious,” said Carol Reber, Duckhorn’s Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer. “But you’re welcome to stay.” When I arrived at the wooden shed, surrounded by vineyards that shone yellow under the moon, I felt as if I was at the most luxurious place on earth. The shed had been renovated into a guesthouse that housed both the history of this apple-growing region and its future as a wine destination.

The next three days were spent discovering new wines, new vineyards and new people in the heart of a wine region that I look forward to experiencing many more times in the future — both in person and in a glass.

A highlight was a visit to the newly finished Goldeneye winery facility and lunch with winemaker Michael Fay. It was the morning that the last grapes of what will likely be an incredible 2013 vintage had been brought to the winery. The staff had been working 20-hour days for the past week getting the grapes in and that satisfying feeling of exhaustion and accomplishment hung in the air, mingling with the smell of the freshly picked grapes.

Over a lunch of brats and a glass of Migration Pinot Nor with Michael, we talked about wine, the Anderson Valley marijuana trade, the difference between Davis and Cal Poly winemakers, life in Booneville and a plethora of other topics. It was an honor to spend this special day with Michael and the guys, and I will never forget it.

Finally, just a couple of weeks ago, the folks at the Duckhorn Wine Company made another announcement that resonated. Earlier this fall, I made a trip to see the Washington State wine country for the first time and became much enamored with a region called Red Mountain. Tiny, blistering hot and blessed with amazing soils and sun, my moment atop the hills with Ryan Johnson, vineyard manager at Ciel du Cheval and proprietor of Force Majeure wines, was revelatory. This is also a place of the future.

So it was no surprise to read that the Duckhorn Wine Company is producing a wine from Red Mountain grapes. It was announced in November that under the tutelage of Bill Nancarrow, vice president and executive winemaker for Duckhorn, a Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from four vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA will be released next year.

I love these guys. They are my 2013 Winery of the Year.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at

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