Napa Valley AVA
Merryvale Vineyards began in 1983 as the brainchild of San Francisco developer, Bill Harlan.
When it comes to wine, Merryvale Winemaker, Bob Levy does not believe in compromises. “That’s why I took the job here,” he freely reveals. “I was impressed with Merryvale’s business philosophy of not compromising when it concerns wine quality. As a winemaker I found that irresistible.”
Bob Levy came to Merryvale in 1988, just three years after the winery’s inception. He came with the knowledge and experience to guide Merryvale’s reputation into the upper echelon of American wine. Encompassed in his experience is a three-tiered wine-making philosophy which he explains as Diversity, Selectivity and Yield.
Diversity is from the dozens of outstanding Napa Valley vineyards from which Merryvale is fortunate to use in selecting the grapes that go into the wines. This aspect is important for the wine’s complexity. A single vineyard or even a few vineyards are subject to wide variances in quality from vintage to vintage. Having many different vineyards to literally pick from, allows his wines to be of consistent high quality year in and year out.
To make great wine though, you have to start with high quality grapes. Therefore, selectivity is just as important as diversity. It is paramount to Bob that he have the ability to hand select from within each vineyard the grapes he wishes to use. This sometimes involves up to a half-dozen passes through the vineyard to hand pick, sort, and eliminate the grapes not meeting the standards.
Bob also targets vineyards with very low yields which is critical to a wine’s consistency and quality. It has long been understood that low-yield grape crops produce fruit with a higher flavor intensity. Vines that are stressed produce smaller sized berries and fewer grape clusters which in turn helps the fruit to mature early and more evenly. Wines produced from these type of grapes have a greater concentration of flavor and are usually softer in tannins.
Bob Levy steadfastly adheres to these principles and quietly goes about his business producing superior wines with each new vintage. His is not a high profile name, particularly on the consumer level, but in wine-industry circles he has carved quite a reputation. He has helped establish wine programs at a number of high caliber wineries including Rombauer, Forest Hill, Oakford, Livingston, and Pahlmeyer.
In the 1970s, Bob, who comes from a family of physicians, was heading toward a career in medicine at U.C. Davis. Because he had an interest in wines too, he decided to enroll in a few of the school’s world-renowned enology classes. It was then that he discovered that wine was his real passion. “Eventually my enthusiasm for wine surpassed my interest in medicine,” he says of those days.
In 1976 Bob graduated with a degree in enology then spent two years working in a southern California wine shop learning the retail side of the business. After his retail initiation he headed north to Napa where he immediately landed a job at Cuvaison Winery. There he paid his dues doing everything from racking barrels to working the vineyards. In 1982 he left Cuvaison to work for newly-formed Rombauer Vineyards. “It was at Rombauer where I really learned the business inside and out,” Bob says. As a winemaker for Rombauer, Bob spearheaded their custom-crush program. “I made a lot of different wines in a lot of different styles and with grapes from many different regions.”
Bob’s success in working with a broad geographical spectrum of grapes caught the attention of the owners of Merryvale Vineyards who were using Rombauer’s custom-crush facilities at the time. In 1988 Bob Levy was brought on as Merryvale’s Director of Winemaking.
For nine years at Merryvale Bob has had free reign to pursue and achieve positive, consistent results. His mandate from the winery owners is to produce the best quality wines possible. So as you understand Bob’s commitment to quality and the quality oriented business philosophy of Merryvale, you begin to realize why they have emerged as one of Napa Valley’s top rated wineries. In fact, last year the winery earned the distinction of one of Wine & Spirits magazine’s “Winery of the Year,” awarded to wineries producing consistently high quality wines across the board.
Merryvale Vineyards began in 1983 as the brainchild of San Francisco developer, Bill Harlan. He pooled the resources of a few of his associates at his real estate development firm, Pacific Union Co., and also brought in Robin Lail whose family once owned Inglenook. Focusing on high quality ultra-premium wines from the get-go, their start-up winery was an immediate success. For the first two years they made wine at the Rombauer facility until settling into the heart of Napa at the old site of Sunny St. Helena Winery.
The winery production quickly grew to the 10-12,000 case range where it remained throughout the rest of the decade. In the early 1990s the Merryvale owners began to look for additional investors to help finance further growth. Through a mutual friend they were introduced to a Swiss entrepreneur named Jack Schlatter. Jack had been actively looking to buy a winery so this opportunity to buy into a young growing winery seemed to be the perfect fit. In 1991, the capital Jack brought to the equation allowed him to become 50% owner of Merryvale.
orward progress was once again the order of the day. Production began to rise and additional distribution channels were opened up. The winery’s export volume which had been virtually non-existent suddenly became an important part of the business plan. Primarily by way of Jack’s connections, Merryvale wine exports to Europe and the Far East now accounts for 15% of the winery’s overall volume. “My goal is to build a brand recognized throughout the world,” Jack says.
Still not satisfied with how things were progressing, Jack increased his control of the winery to 60% ownership in 1993. And finally in September of this year he bought the remaining portion to become Merryvale’s sole owner. “I wanted to be more aggressive with building the Merryvale brand,” Jack admits. “The best way I can do that is by owning it 100%,” he followed.
Jack revealed that one of the major strategy changes for the winery would be a shift toward vineyard ownership. He has already acquired a prime vineyard site in the Napa hills and is busy replanting about 30 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. “We want to acquire more vineyards and eventually have ownership of about 2/3rds of the grapes used for our wines,” he theorizes. But because of the unusually high demand for grapes and escalating prices, he is in no particular hurry.
Meanwhile, Merryvale continues to buy only the best grapes to produce their three flagship wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Moderate amounts of Merlot, and proprietary wines they’ve named “Vinette” (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) and “Profile” (a red Meritage) are also an integral part of the line-up. Today production hovers between the 40,000 to 45,000 case mark.
“Specialty wines” such as Zinfandel, Pinot Blanc and several other varietals are offered primarily through the winery’s tasting room and to members of Merryvale’s own wine club called “Profile.” Merryvale Vineyards cordially invites Platinum Wine Club members to join their Profile Club. Profile Club members can receive monthly shipments of ultra-premium Merryvale selections along with the “Profiles” newsletter that keeps you up to date on winery events and local happenings. A 20% discount is granted on all wine orders. If you are interested call Sheila Franks at the winery—1-800-326-6069.
Jack Schlatter grew up in a wine producing region of Switzerland.
‘Drinking wine with our meals was a normal daily occurrence,” recalls Jack. ‘At a very young age I was a great fan of French Burgundy and Bordeaux,” he adds. Jack’s business career reads like a rags-to-riches story of sorts. As a young man 19 years of age and still in Switzerland, by happenstance he landed an apprenticeship in the cotton trade. The company liked what they saw and sent him all over the world to help expand their business. Jack worked his way through the ranks eventually becoming the owner.
In 1989 he started a new company in Germany called Gysler Cotton. Gysler specializes in international bartering of raw goods and textiles. For instance, in exchange for ready-to-wear clothing items made in the Far East, he receives Russian produced cotton which in turn is sold in the European market. This kind of savvy business success has allowed him to pursue other interests, like wine. In September of 1996 he bought out the remaining partners of Merryvale Vineyards and now is the sole owner. ‘I felt the winery needed to move forward at a quicker pace,” he said of his decision to purchase the winery. ‘I’m 100% in the wine business now,” says Jack.
Jack’s international connections have brought forth a respectable penetration into non-U.S. markets, mainly Switzerland, Germany and Austria. ‘In some areas of these countries the Merryvale brand is more recognized than in America!” he points out. ‘As a result of our strategy to become better known on an international level, exports will soon represent about 20% of our sales.”
Although he still lives in Switzerland, Jack travels to his Napa winery 8 to 10 times a year. His son René is now working full time at the winery learning the proverbial ropes.