Napa Talk Winemakers

Napa Talk with Matt Parish

Matt Parish recalls the first wine he ever made.

“Merlot, in my opinion, is coming back – if it actually ever left!”

When traveling winemaker and New Zealand native Matt Parish strapped his well-worn backpack to Napa for the first time, it wasn’t to make a wine you’d expect. The wine that brought him here in the first place? Blackstone Merlot.

1. What’s the story behind Blackstone Merlot?

My first job when I moved to the US in 2003 was making Blackstone Merlot, which at the time was the largest selling red wine over $10 in the US. It was so popular it was even mentioned in rap lyrics.  While the main offering was a wine blended from across California, there were special offerings from Sonoma and Napa, in fact we made these wines at what is today the Naked Winery in Kenwood – talk about full circle.  It was during this time I got exposure to Merlot throughout the state and honed my Merlot winemaking craft.

2. What makes Merlot a great grape variety with which to work?

Merlot – when made well – is all about pleasure – lovely ripe plush dark red, blue and black fruits on the nose and a plush, round, juicy palate. This is why it is such a popular variety. While the movie Sideways took a shot at Merlot – and the variety subsequently took a back seat to Pinot Noir and Reds blends – the reality is these varieties/blends became popular because they shared many of the desired traits, and in fact, many red blends include Merlot. Also, few people appreciate that in Bordeaux the majority of wines are based on Merlot. So while many have avoided asking for Merlot because of the Sideways stigma – the reality is they still love the taste.

3. You make Naked’s first and only Napa Merlot, your Special Bottling Merlot. Did your previous experiences making Merlot shape how you make this wine?

I enjoy making Merlot and my approach is a mix of techniques – for example, I see many similarities in making Pinot Noir and other Bordeaux reds, and hence, I use a combination of techniques for both.

4. What makes Napa a special place for growing Merlot?

Being a Bordeaux variety Merlot certainly does well in Napa. Unfortunately a lot of Merlot has been removed over the last 20 years as Cabernet Sauvignon demand and pricing soared and Merlot suffered the “Sideways effect.” But the key to great Merlot in Napa is to find those cooler sites because the variety doesn’t express itself best when there is too much heat. For that reason, I have focused my sourcing on two vineyards for this wine in Southern Napa – both are established vineyards – one in Carneros cooled by the San Pablo Bay and the other in Oak Knoll.

5.  What do you want customers to know about your Napa Merlot?

This is the second vintage of this wine – vibrant and stylish with a lovely dark claret color – with lifted violet, cherry and toasty oak fragrances giving way to a soft, elegant and seamless palate as you would expect from a top-notch Napa Merlot. The Merlot was hand picked, fermented in small stainless steel fermenters and left on the skins for over a month post fermentation to make sure all of the goodness from the grapes was extracted. The wine was then matured in French oak barrels (around 25% new) for 18 months. The final blend is 92% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon with a balanced alcohol of 14.2%.

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