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10.16.2008

2006 Blackbird Vineyards "Illustration" Proprietary Red Wine, Oak Knoll District, Napa

illustration_141x349.gifAs you likely know, I make it my business to keep my eye on new California wineries, especially in Napa and Sonoma, as much as I can given the fact that I do a lot of other things besides write about wine. Whenever possible, I like to taste the first releases from these wineries. They are not always fantastic - some are good, some show potential, and some simply need to be written off as first efforts and retried again later. That's the thing about wines, just because they're not good now, that doesn't mean they won't be later, and, of course, vice versa.

It's quite rare, however, for the very first vintage of a wine to knock my socks off. But when I got my first taste of Blackbird Vineyards out of the barrel a couple of years ago, I quite literally couldn't bring myself to spit it out. I was immediately in love. And how delightful (and against all odds) that the best Napa wine I had tasted in many months was a Merlot.

Blackbird proprietor Michael Polenske is used to beating the odds unexpectedly. By all accounts he never should have gotten into wine in the first place. Spending one's teens and early twenties in a fraternity at Chico State generally favors the the cultivation of a strong affinity for beer and bikinis rather than fine wine. But in between his finance classes where you can learn about how to trade binary options, thanks in part to a roommate who turned him on to wine, he dabbled in the wine curriculum and spent weekends exploring Napa Valley visiting what were becoming his favorite wineries.

When he graduated from college, Polenske again took an unexpected turn, getting into the pragmatic financial planning industry just as everyone in that industry was moving towards more active money management. Polenske had the bright idea that he could do financial planning for people in the wine business, and so managed to find a firm in the Midwest that was willing to give him Napa and Sonoma as a territory. In addition to the territory of his choice, they also asked him if he'd be willing to cover the zip code 94025 as well.

It turned out that there wasn't much interest in wine country, but Polenske found quite a lot of both interest and money in that other little zip code, which happened to be Atherton, California, and for which he found himself the sole representative in his company. Through a lot of trial and error, a ton of cold calling, and a significant amount of elbow grease, Polenske spent 10 years building a sizable book of business in Silicon Valley, learning more about and continuing to fall deeper in love with wine in the process.

And then one day, relatively out of the blue, JP Morgan called and offered him a job as a private banker. Like a small town kid picked up out of high school by the Major Leagues, Polenske walked starry eyed into his first day at work, sat down next to his colleagues with their Wharton, Kellogg, Harvard, and GSB diplomas on their desks, and when no one showed up to tell him how to do his job, he just did what he knew how to do. He started making calls.

At the time, the average JP Morgan banker brought on between seven and nine new clients per year. At the end of his first year Polenske had 35, a figure so shocking at the time, that executives at the highest levels of the company told his manager to get him on a global conference call so they could demand an explanation. Based on that call JP Morgan changed its approach to new client acquisition, and it wasn't long before Polenske was in charge of the San Francisco office, and beginning to dabble in his other interests, including antiques (he would eventually go on to own Patina Atelier Antiques in San Francisco).

As Polenske's star continued to rise in the financial services world, he kept his eye on Napa, thinking that someday it might be nice to build a lifestyle business. But each time he nearly got to the point of buying some land, another job opportunity would come along, and he'd be swept up into running a new company, division, or fund.

After years of almost buying vineyards, Polenske eventually decided to scrap the idea, and instead simply settle for a house on a hill in Napa with a pool. He ended up with a couple of houses on the flats, and a 10 acre vineyard. These things tend to happen in the valley.

Napa has a way of turning people into winemakers overnight simply because they stumble on the right piece of property. Polenske's acquisition, as you might expect, was a little more strategic than that. Call it a compulsion to seek out the undervalued parts of the market, or just call it instinct, but Polenske found himself staring at a Merlot vineyard that was selling fruit to prominent buyers who were making 90 point wines from it, yet the prices they were paying for the fruit were below market rates. Never mind that Merlot was on the down and out. Polenske saw the raw ingredients for the perfect boutique wine brand, and his idle fantasies about building a lifestyle business instead of another hedge fund began to crystallize. The vineyard was named Blackbird, and when Polenske found out that in French Patois, Merlot means "little blackbird" the key turned in the lock and everything fell into place.

Today, with the help of winemaker Sarah Gott and winegrower Aaron Pott, Polenske farms the 10 acre estate vineyard to produce several wines under the Blackbird label (after initially launching the brand with a single "Proprietary Red"). That wine, now called "Illustration," has been joined by "Paramour," "Contrarian," and "Arise," (all varying blends except the Arise which is 100% Merlot). The winery also now produces a rosé called "Arriviste."

The 2006 Illustration contains 86% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate's 12 year old vines in Napa's Oak Knoll District. After meticulous sorting and careful crushing and fermentation, the wine ages for 20 months in French oak barrels of which 70% are new and 30% are older. The wine is bottled completely unfined and unfiltered. 1,195 cases are made.

I've been watching the Blackbird brand evolve, and tasting the wines along the way and I continue to be thrilled with them. I don't personally buy many Napa wines on release, but Blackbird is most certainly one of them.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of cocoa powder and cherries. In the mouth it is gorgeously smooth with bright cherry cola, chocolate, and juicy bing cherry flavors that dance on a lively bed of acidity. Velvety tannins sneak around the edges with a hint of sweetness and then pirouette slowly in the back of the throat for minutes. Fantastic.

Food Pairing:
Extremely food friendly because of its juicy acidity, this wine will pair well with a lot of foods. I'd enjoy it with a spiced, grilled rack of lamb.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $90

This wine available for purchase on the internet.

Comments (5)

10.17.08 at 9:38 PM

Hey Alder, I've had the old prop red and thought it was tasty, but I have to say that in this environment, a $90 Merlot has to be a tough sell regardless of taste.

Alder wrote:
10.17.08 at 9:48 PM

Taylor,

Thanks for the comments. Are you suggesting that somehow if this were a Cabernet that the price would be easier to swallow? Or are you simply saying that a $90 wine in these times is a tough sell no matter what? If it's the former, then you're simply slandering the Merlot grape, no? If the latter, well, then that may be true for some.

10.17.08 at 10:07 PM

Alder, let's be honest here. It's a little bit of both. Merlot is still a tough sell (as much as I love Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Petrus I can only do so much! ;) ). Is that good or bad? I don't know, but what I do know is Pinot is still a darling and Cab is more or less immune, especially favored Napa Cabs. Will I get flamed for this probably. The way I see it- yes $90 wines of any kind are going to be a tough sell now, which means that those few dollars that can afford that kind of wine are going to stick to what they know and that means proven Napa cab, marquee Bordeaux and marquee Italian.

To thread drift a little, I believe there is a current flight to quality (at least perceived quality) and it is going to remain so for the short term. What would you do during a contraction like this? I know I would stick to what I like and/or what I know will hold value if I am thinking of drinking a few bottles and selling the rest of the case. We bought into alot of wine during the last round of auctions and I can tell you first hand, it is soft. Sellers are getting slaughtered. Almost half the lots (of CA) at one of the recent auctions I went to sold for at or under the low estimate. Did HDH blow it out recently? Yes, but that was a special case. Frankly, If I was a buyer (wait I am) I would be buying like nuts now (and I am).

Remember what Warren Buffet says, "Be fearful when everyone is greedy and greedy when everyone is fearful." And everyone is fearful right now. I have my checkbook out and ready to snap up some good juice. Sadly, Blackbird won't make the cut this round.

rjh wrote:
02.26.09 at 9:20 PM

this is the first time i've seen anyone blog about blackbird wines. these are expensive, but they are top of my list of best wines.

Weston wrote:
10.31.09 at 11:46 PM

Just did a Trade tasting of Napa Valley Wines, and I must say the 2006 Blackbird Illustration was my Favorite wine of all that was there, and it was a Merlot, so feminine yet fantastic. Also the Contraian is Great but the Opposite more Masculine and Brooding.

I was walking around the Room and noticed the bottle, then remember your post and started remembering more of your post while talking to the ?President? or marketing guy up from the winery. Price isn't all that bad for Canadian 145$ for the Illustration"

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