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A Star Is Born

You may not know his name yet, but Philippe Melka is quickly becoming Napa Valley's hottest consulting winemaker.

Napa Valley isn't quite like Hollywood (yet), where the stars get by on a first-name basis. Even so, what serious wine collector doesn't know who Helen and Heidi are? While the name Philippe may not register so quickly, Philippe Melka is definitely a Napa winemaker to watch, a man many believe is poised to become one of the valley's hottest consultants since Helen Turley and Heidi Barrett.

And yet, Melka—whose list of clients includes highly regarded producers such as Seavey, Quintessa and Vineyard 29—is not following in anyone's footsteps. Trained in Bordeaux but passionate about California, this Frenchman has his own take on Napa Cabernet, with a signature style that, well, in many ways, is a lack of a signature.

I'll explain. Consider, for example, the Melka-made 1998 Seavey Cabernet. It's powerfully tannic and rustic, a classic old-school Napa Cabernet that's loaded with ripe blackberry and chocolate. On the other hand, there's the Melka-made 1998 Lail Vineyards J. Daniel Cuvée, a Cabernet blend that's almost Lafite-like in its elegance, with a lush texture wrapped around a discreetly intense core of cassis and earthy fruit. Then there's Melka's own 1998 Métisse, a third type of wine, which is more in line with typical Napa Cabernet. It's a big, crowd-pleasing wine with rich, supple, ripe fruit and well-integrated tannins. Three styles, one winemaker.

This kind of flexibility is what attracted Agustin Huneeus, owner of Quintessa, to Melka. Says Huneeus, "Philippe doesn't use formulas. He isn't somebody who is going to impose style on anybody, or any vineyard." In other words, Melka lets the vineyard speak for itself. While many winemakers today claim they do just that (the French word terroir is a particular favorite for describing this, especially among non-French winemakers), few are able to back it up more brilliantly than Melka.

Melka's fascination with wine began not with a drink, but with dirt. Indeed, when he took up winemaking studies at the University of Bordeaux, he was finishing his degree in geology. When most people drink wine, they might try to pick out a hint of blackberry or spice. Not Melka. He's more likely to be analyzing the soil where the grapes were grown. Robin Lail, owner of Lail Vineyards and another Melka client, explains it this way: "Geology has an influence on how Philippe looks at things. He's very much at home in the vineyard."

Born and raised in Bordeaux, Melka takes poetic license and sounds typically French when he talks about winemaking. He believes that the aesthetic of a vineyard—its portrait, you might say—is reflected directly in the wine. Describing the Quintessa vineyard in Rutherford, he also describes the wine it produces: "The roundness of this hillside vineyard gives the wine elegance, and its different sun exposures and different slopes give it sophistication. The large slope on one side of the vineyard gives the wine strength and power." Melka admits that his visual assessments don't always match the character of the wine, but it's what he aims for when he's making it.

In a place like Napa Valley, where most winemakers train at nearby University of California, Davis, Melka stands in striking contrast to his fellow professionals. His accent, for one thing, is unmistakably foreign, his profile a Gallic classic. Nevertheless, he appears to fit in quite easily. Melka believes that he is a Frenchman particularly well-suited to California because he did not grow up in a winemaking family. "You need to be open-minded here. If I came from a very traditional French family, it would be very difficult to understand what's going on here."

Melka, who admits to being only in his mid-30s, graduated with his oenology degree in 1991. Although he had internships at Château Haut-Brion and Château Cheval Blanc, he wanted to see the rest of the world. He worked in the vineyards of Chittering Estate in Australia and at Badia a Coltibuono in Chianti. He teamed up with Christian Moueix on several projects, including Dominus, and he also worked with the legendary Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards. In fact, it was while Melka was at Ridge that he met his wife, Cherie, who was the winery's lab manager.

He and Cherie both had wanted to bypass the long apprenticeships they knew would be necessary in France. "If I'd stayed in France, I'd still be in some cellar racking barrels," Melka says. "There is no way I could be doing there the sort of things that I'm doing here. That's what I like about California."

Grape grower John Caldwell attributes Melka's success to the fact that he isn't trying to make French wine with California fruit. At the same time, he notes, Melka doesn't share the obsession of many American-born winemakers with ripe, powerful and oaky Cabernets. Caldwell, who has known Melka since the Frenchman first visited California, in 1991, is currently collaborating with him on Caldwell, a red blend that will debut with the 1998 vintage this fall.

Perhaps the most consistent stylistic feature among Melka-made wines is a noticeable lack of new oak. Melka offers this very French-sounding analogy as explanation: "In France, when I taste too much oak, it's like a woman with too much makeup. But if you feel like a woman will be beautiful without her makeup, she will be beautiful all her life."

All such metaphorical flights of fancy aside, Melka cultivates a refreshingly unpretentious attitude about wine-making, calling himself "only a technician." But such self-effacement doesn't mean he isn't ambitious. And who wouldn't be when no less a wine critic than Robert M. Parker, Jr., writes: "Melka is quickly establishing a reputation as one of the finest consultants in the Napa Valley."

Melka's ambition is in fact pretty lofty. According to Robin Lail, "Philippe wants to be the next André Tchelistcheff." The late Tchelistcheff, of course, was a legendary figure in Napa Valley. As winemaker of Beaulieu Vineyards from the 1940s to the 1970s, he was one of the first to show the true potential of Napa Cabernet. He was also a mentor to generations of California winemakers. And Lail is certainly one to know the breadth of Tchelistcheff's legacy. Not only was she an original partner in the Dominus and Merryvale wineries, but her Napa-winemaking lineage dates to 1879, when her great-granduncle founded Inglenook winery.

Does Lail believe that Melka could have the impact of a Tchelistcheff? "Tchelistcheff's a great role model, a great target to aim for," she responds. "Philippe definitely has the potential. He's a young man, making beautiful wine."

Published April 2001
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