Meet the Independent Winemakers Creating World’s Best Wines in Napa

Philippe Melka, Seavey’s winemaker beginning in 1995 and an ongoing consultant, named in December’s Robb Report written by Sara L. Schneider featuring independent winemakers creating some of the world’s best wines in Napa.

Philippe Melka at Dana Estates Lotus Vineyard. Photo by Matt Morris.

Lail Vineyards became Melka’s first custom-crush client, meaning he took the fruit under his wing and turned it into wine elsewhere, since the brand lacked a physical winery of its own. But Melka had an estate-winery client in those early days, too—the now iconic Seavey Vineyard—and to this day, the two wines are a study in contrast. Lail’s 2016 J. Daniel Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon is full-bodied and rich, with fine-grained tannins (and a perfect 100 points from The Wine Advocate), while Seavey’s 2016 Cabernet is somewhat more austere, if powerful and complex, with tighter tannins that need a few years to unwind. Each is a product of owner preference and terroir—the French term for the unique character in a wine that comes from the given soil, climate and farming choices—over any hallmark of a consultant’s often homogeneous style.

There’s no “Melka style,” Melka says, no formula. “Every wine has a different voice, and each client is independent, even though they’re part of the Atelier family. Our goal is always to make a very specific wine reflecting the geology, topography and microclimate of each site…”

The consultant now has some 30 clients, all but six in Northern California. Both Lail and Seavey are still with him, and if you consider how green he was when he started, that’s saying something. During his initial harvest at Seavey Vineyard, in 1995, after Melka pressed the Chardonnay, the owner suggested he feed the residue skins and seeds, known as pomace, to the cows. When it came time to press the reds, Melka recalls, “without thinking, I did the same—gave the pomace to the cows.” The glitch: White grapes are pressed before fermentation and red ones after, so the pomace was full of alcohol. “They had the party of their lives. The day after, they were all of them on their backs, legs up. After a few hours of sweet dreams, though, they were able to stumble to their feet and zigzag around the fields.”

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