AWG Correspondent

James Houston

Duckhorn Vineyards Photos

Duckhorn Vineyards Review

Regions: Napa Valley AVA, St. Helena AVA, California

Reviewed: January 26, 2013 by James Houston
Published: February 1, 2013

In late 2007 I got a job at a fancy wine retailer in New York City. New hire training included tasting Corton-Charlemagne, Chateau Gruaud-Larose, Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir, and other wines way above my pay grade.

But then--then!--I learned I was entitled to a not-insubstantial employee discount. That very night, I went home with a bottle of Duckhorn Merlot, it was probably the 2005. I had read that this wine was very good. More specifically, I had read that Duckhorn had been setting the pace for California Merlot since the late 1970’s.

It did not disappoint, even though I probably should have paired it with something other than Thanksgiving leftovers.

So when I visited Duckhorn on a spectacular Friday afternoon in November, I was excited to bring this memory full-circle. Nestled on Lodi Lane just off the Silverado Trail, the Duckhorn headquarters has the decidedly non-commercial feel of an opulent inn or even a weekend home, full of wood and brass and porcelain.

After entering, I’m handed a glass of Sauvignon Blanc 2011, a welcoming touch. The wine itself was lush and oily, with just enough lemony acid to keep it balanced. Semillon (24%) bulks up the texture, as does aging in 100% French oak.

The hostess leads me into a large, sun-drenched atrium--the main tasting area--where busy tables buzzed with the conversations of bejeweled ladies and boat-shoed gentlemen. Glasses--full, half-full, empty--are everywhere.

Duckhorn opts for table service over bar. The hostess asks if I want to sit inside or out on the porch. It isn’t too cold and the sun is just starting to throw a 4:00 PM golden shadow over the vineyards. Porch it is.

The garden in late afternoon November sunlight is like a Thomas Kinkade painting if it weren’t a cartoon. Beautiful in the extreme. Beyond it, a small tour group moves slowly through intimate vineyards framed by woods.

A young woman brings four large, empty glasses, each with a helpful card bearing technical data and winemaker comments on the wines. She then pours the Cabernet Sauvignon 2009. Light can pass through its ruby color--I hold it up to the sinking sun and note it isn’t a typical opaque purple Napa Cabernet. The aromatics emphasize red fruits, and the palate has spicy redcurrant framed in rich vanilla, the latter disclosing the wine’s 100% French Oak aging.

Next comes the Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, a much darker wine with a pleasant, slightly cooked nose of plum, licorice and clove. The velvety texture carries flavors of blackcurrant, cocoa powder and toast.

As I mentioned in a review of nearby Merryvale, Napa tastings typically start with Merlot and whatever else as a warm-up act to the feature attraction of Cabernet Sauvignon. Not Duckhorn, whose reputation was made on Merlot. Here, Merlot is the star and their flagship 2009 is just hitting its stride. Blended with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Cabernet Franc, this multilayered red wine has great depth, opulent, oozing berry flavors and a herbaceous backbone.

While I have not yet had a whiff of Petrus or Masseto, I have a hard time believing the Three Palms Merlot 2009 couldn’t stand in the ring with them and state its case for California as a world-class Merlot region. This delicious wine explodes from the glass, momentarily scrambling my brain with its aromatic intricacy and pillowy, mouthfilling texture. Its flavors evolve over the ten minutes I sit with it, with the initial burst of ripe black cherry and fresh winter spice giving way to forest floor, raisin and toffee on the finish.

I figure the tasting is over, but here is the server again with a “bonus” glass of Paraduxx, Duckhorn’s popular and innovative Zinfandel-based blend. I allow myself a moment of cynicism and wonder if this is really a bonus or just the fifth wine in every tasting that I’ve been told is a bonus. I can’t bring myself to ask.

Although simpler, Paraduxx--made at a separate winery in Napa by a different winemaker--would make more sense at the beginning of the tasting, the spicy strawberry of the Zinfandel plays nicely with 31% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Merlot for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

As I am finishing and scribbling notes, I look up to see three men approaching my table. We exchange a few pleasantries and I ask the one it the middle to verify that I detect a New Zealand accent in his voice. It’s none other than Duckhorn’s head winemaker Bill Nancarrow, and he is indeed from Hawkes Bay, the winegrowing region on the North Island’s west coast. It’s a place I know, having worked on a vintage crew there at a now-defunct Napier winery in 2010.

Bill and I run through the inevitable list of our mutual acquaintances from the Napier-Hastings winemaking scene before he has to head back to the cellar. I leave happy, realizing two disparate threads from my life in wine--that first bottle of Duckhorn Merlot in 2007, and my first full winemaking experience abroad in 2010--have just been knotted together.

And all I had expected when I arrived were a few glasses of great wine.

Address & Contact Information: 1000 Lodi Lane St. Helena, California 94574. Telephone: 888-354-8885, email:, website: Tasting Hours: By appt..

Overall Rating:  

Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance

More information about Duckhorn Vineyards

Explore California wineries

Explore Napa Valley AVA wineries

Explore St. Helena AVA wineries