Sean Foster of the Merryvale Family of Wines
Sean Foster of the Merryvale Family of Wines Will Never Know the Smell of a Post-it
Interviewer & Writer:
Uncorked Monthly Contributing Writer, Kim Brittingham
I’ve never been a winemaker. I’ve never worked at a winery. Before becoming a professional writer, I earned my daily bread mostly in carpeted high-rise offices with industrial size Keurig machines and closets packed with surplus post-it notes.
Maybe things are different today, but when I was a corporate cog, there wasn’t a lot of leaving on good terms. When somebody quit to go work for another company – the competition – they were persona non grata. A traitor. It was a victim mentality handed down from the fish’s head. A sense of “how dare you”. And you would never, ever hear about somebody getting – gasp! — REHIRED.
It doesn’t seem to be that way in the winemaking industry. Not the way Sean Foster describes it. Which makes me wish I’d known about it when I was younger.
A great way to enrich experience
Foster is the senior winemaker overseeing production for both Merryvale Vineyards and Starmont Vineyards in St. Helena, California. He worked with Merryvale for ten years, climbing from assistant to associate winemaker. Then he left Merryvale, taking his experience with him, to serve as winemaker at another winery. Four years later, he was hired back at Merryvale.
It seems I hear this a lot. Winemakers jumping from one winery to another, gathering more experience, refining their senses and instincts, and sometimes returning to an earlier employer. And for the most part, everyone is OK with this, even encouraging of it. “Absolutely,” says Foster. “It’s a great way to enrich experience. A lot of people do work at different wineries within a region or around the world…the great thing about wine is that you could work a Northern Hemisphere harvest, and then go down to somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere and work a harvest right after. You can really build up an experience base that way.”
It all sounds so reasonable, so healthy, both for the winemakers and the wineries.
Diversity with wine and winemakers
Corporations don’t typically view their business-casual armies as artists, but maybe they should. In the winemaking industry, winemakers are the artisans. And if wineries want truly seasoned artisans working for them, it makes sense that they should encourage diversification of experience. Says Foster, “There’s so much diversity with wine and winemakers from their artistic side (that they) are often drawn to try and do different things, try different wine styles or work with different properties, different estates in different regions. Very much like an artist would want to try and experience, or go through different phases and styles.”
Not too young to be enchanted by the aromas
Foster still recalls the early stirrings of the wine artist within him. He was just a kid, tagging along with his parents on visits to wineries in the Santa Clara Valley and Santa Cruz mountains. He was too young to drink wine, but not too young to be enchanted by the aromas.
“I remember seeing tanks and barrels…but also the smell and the feeling of being inside the winery left a…lasting impression,” he reminisces. “That kind of faint winey smell…that cellar mustiness. I remember some older barrels, and if you’ve ever been around older barrels that have held wine, they’ve got a very particular aroma to them. Their wood is saturated with wine over a long time and they exude this aroma that’s…a little woody, earthy…a little volatile. These were the older (wineries) I remember…one of them was the old Paul Masson Cellar in Santa Clara Valley.”
Foster later attended UCLA for biochemical engineering and took a course in fermentation science that particularly intrigued him. It led first to some experimentation around beer brewing, but then he read an article that shifted his focus. “(The article) did a great job of expressing winemaking and how (there’s) a balance…there’s a technical side of winemaking, and then the art and crafting of something over a long period of time…it was not so controlled. There are things that are out of your control. There’s an artistic expression, and yet there is also the science.”
Describing the wines
Realizing that taste is subjective, I decided to ask Foster for some recommendations anyway. I wondered, which of the Merryvale family of wines he’d recommend to a drinker who likes a deep, smoky, autumnal, masculine wine? “It would definitely be in the Merryvale portfolio,” he says. “Potentially our Merryvale Cabernet Franc. Our St. Helena cab is very, very sophisticated. Not as smoky, but very perfume-y. We try and use the barrel. We’re getting hints of smoke…along with spice…(to) fit autumn to winter.”
But what if you’re craving a wine like a wide open blue sky? A kite flying, barefoot ambles through an orchard, late June, sun on your shoulders. Which wine feels like that?
“Our Starmont Chardonnay is very approachable…it’s super versatile so if you don’t want to think too much about it, it tastes great and works well in a casual environment…at the same time, if you want to pair it with food…it’s got enough there to dig into…For me, it’s the one I go to when I just want to enjoy and sip wine. Also, our Starmont Rose of Pinot Noir is light, lively, summer…refreshing wine. Bright and tart strawberry and watermelon.”
Then I ask him which Merryvale or Starmont wine is salty citrus, blinding sun, sex on a beach, the steady thud of waves, a woman who plays recklessly with your heart and laughs about it – but she’s still irresistible to you?
Foster is such a good sport. “I would lean more to our Silhouette Chardonnay,” he suggests. “It’s a chardonnay that’s from very select blocks of our estate vineyard, as well as fruit from the high vineyard in Carneros…very vibrant acid, intense…citrus and tropical fruit notes and it’s made of a…long, slow yeast fermentation. Develops a really complex palate and nuances. It’s barrel aged, but in a restrained kind of (way)…sophisticated French barrels that respect the acid and the sense of place. We barrel age for about 18 to 20 months…when it comes out, it still (has a) good acid core…all sorts of pastry (notes), well-developed subtle spice notes from the barrel. Little bit of nuttiness, a very cerebral chardonnay. It can play with you. It demands your attention and your focus.”
Merryvale’s historic cask room
I detect a hint of drama in these wines – and I think I like it. I suspect they taste especially good when consumed in Merryvale’s historic cask room. The room is often cited as one of Napa Valley’s most spectacular settings for special events. There’s a photo of it on the Merryvale website. Medieval in feel, it’s lined by two stories of centuries-old 2,000-gallon wine casks. At the annual Merryvale Family of Wines Portfolio Dinner (February), guests enjoy live jazz and indulge in a five-course dinner at the “king’s table” with proprietors Rene and Laurence Schlatter and the winemakers, including Foster.
Could a corporate board room be as atmospheric? I don’t think so. Can it be tasted in the wine when its makers love what they do and are encouraged to be their best at it? I’m thinking yes. Winemaking. What a lovely industry to land in. It sure beats pushing papers. I’ll bet Foster doesn’t even know what a Post-it smells like. And I hope he never will.
NEW BOTTLE EXPERIENCE REVIEW & RATING:
MERRYVALE Vineyards 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Dull appearance, with full aromas of black pepper , black currant and cherry. A full-bodied red. The finish is subtle/layered. An overall good/excellent Cabernet Sauvignon from MerryVale Vineyards a Napa Valley, United States wine.