OK, for a second, let’s pretend you’re a reasonably young man of independent means and you want to make a life and living from your passion, the wine business. What would you do?
Well, if you are playing according to Hoyle, you would go to Napa Valley, find 10 acres or so of prime land in a hot appellation, hire a great team with a history and a future, and plant some cabernet sauvignon grapevines.
And that’s exactly what Michael Polenske, a reasonably young man of independent means with a passion for wine, did. Well, all but the last part. And that may be the most intriguing thing about the wines that his Blackbird Vineyards are making today.
You see, rather than producing cabernet sauvignon, the holy grail of Napa grapes, Polenske has indulged in his fantasy of producing “Pomerol inspired” merlot-based wines. That’s right, he eschewed Hoyle and played the contrarian’s card.
By making a varietal that has been lambasted by Hollywood (surely you remember Mile’s diatribe in the film “Sideways,” where he assures his companions that he will leave if anyone orders “@#$% merlot!”) and largely ignored by other Napa luminaries with both dollars and sense who have placed their bets on cab, Polenske made the determination that his wines would echo the acclaimed Chateau Petrus and the great merlot wines from the right bank of Bordeaux’s Gironde River.
That’s not to say that others have not made the same bet and prospered. Trefethen Family Vineyards, for example, has produced some excellent estate-grown merlot wines in the southern end of the Napa Valley in the Oak Knoll District.
In fact, the Oak Knoll District, where Polenske bought his 10 acres, has a long history with the grape, which, despite the relatively recent downturn, is still one of the most popular red wines in America. Oak Knoll achieved the status as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2004 and has fully a third of its acreage dedicated to merlot.
Aside from buying land in the friendly confines of Oak Knoll, Polenske also hedged his bet by putting together a team to make and market Blackbird’s wines that does, indeed, come with a pedigreed past and a bright future. Winemaker Sarah Gott (who made an appearance in this column last year for her work with the Clifbar Wines) was inked as Winemaker, and Aaron Pott was signed to take the very cool title and position of winegrower.
Gott and Pott (that should be a label) both spent time at Quintessa making lush wines for Agustin Huneeus before joining Blackbird. And Pott has been in amongst ’em in Bourdeaux, having become (I use quotation marks, as this comes straight from his bio at Quintessa) “head winemaker and general manager of Chateau La Tour Figeac, giving him the distinction of being the only American to ever serve as winemaker for a Bordeaux Grand Cru Classe.”
Managing the operation and pounding the proverbial pavement with a bag full of juice is Paul Leary. Leary knows from merlot, having spent the six years before coming to Blackbird as the VP of marketing for the Duckhorn Wine Company.
Leary recently came through Aspen with some samples of the 2004 and 2005 Blackbird Vineyards Proprietary Red Wine (both are more than 95 percent merlot with a remaining taste of cabernet sauvignon) and the 2005 Paramour Napa Valley Proprietary Red Wine, a blend of 50 percent merlot and 50 percent cabernet franc. At a tasting, all three wines were exceptional early efforts and will only get better.
Both merlots had dark, inky intensity and a basket or more of blackberry and black cherry on the nose. They were silky smooth in the mouth. I have not had the pleasure of drinking a Chateau Petrus, so I will leave it to more experienced palates to make those comparisons.
Personally, I found the Paramour to be the most enjoyable of the three and thought the wine benefited greatly from the blending with the cabernet franc. But, to each his own. All of the wines sell in the $80 price range, not cheap for a Napa merlot, but certainly less than a Petrus.
If Paul Leary has his way, there will be Blackbird wines on lists and in stores throughout Aspen soon. And, when they are, you should take the opportunity to taste Michael Polenske’s passion for yourself.
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