Wine of the Week: Duckhorn Vineyards

Duckhorn Vineyards 1978 Merlot Three Palms Vineyard Napa Valley California         97

Duckhorn Vineyards, founded in 1976 by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, released its first wines two years later, from the 1978 vintage: 6,000 bottles each of a Cabernet Sauvignon and this Merlot. Mind you, the vineyard from which the Merlot came, the Three Palms Vineyard, had been planted by the Uptons a decade earlier. Duckhorn was the first American winery to focus on high-end, high-quality Merlot. Dan Duckhorn recalled on the winery website how he first became intrigued by Merlot, “I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color . . . the fact that it went with a lot of different foods; it wasn’t so bold, didn’t need to age so long, and it had this velvety texture to it. It seemed to me to be a wonderful wine to just enjoy. I became enchanted with Merlot.” The rest is history. The popularity of Merlot took off, in part because Duckhorn showed how majestic a wine it could be. Currently, Duckhorn lists seven Napa Valley Merlot on their website: one labeled simply, Napa Valley; one from the Carneros region of Napa; one from Atlas Peak; and then four single vineyard ones, Stout Vineyard, Rector Creek Vineyard, Hyde Vineyard, and the now famed Three Palms Vineyard.

The 83-acre Three Palms Vineyard, owned entirely by Duckhorn since 2015, lies in the warmer Calistoga AVA of Napa Valley. Sloan and John Upton originally planted the vineyard, but before that it was a residence of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a prominent San Francisco socialite (think the Coit Tower). The vineyard’s name came from the three palm trees left on the estate after Coit died. The poor, rocky and well-drained soil contains river wash—an alluvial plain—that force the roots deep, which is thought to bring more complexity to the wine. The covering of volcanic stones hold heat and radiate it back to the grapes at night, aiding ripening. Though other Bordeaux varieties are grown in Three Palms Vineyards, Merlot is the one that gave the vineyard its fame and comprises two-thirds of the plantings.

Duckhorn’s 1978 Three Palms Merlot, at 45 years of age, remains a magnificent wine. The initial aromas after pulling the cork and decanting the wine were funky, which is a fairly common trait in wines that have been couped up in a bottle for 40+ years. They need to breathe. After about 15 minutes, glorious aromas of mature wine—leafy and earthy notes—emerge.  Similar savory hints combined with nuances of fresh and dried fruits explode on the palate. A suave texture and brilliant acidity just amplify the wine’s stature.  Still fresh and alluring, it continues to expand in the glass. All of this comes with a stated alcohol of 12.9 percent! I bet Dan Duckhorn had no idea how his initial bottling would evolve. He would be pleased and proud. Drinking window: 2024 – 2030.