2001 Luna Vineyards Merlot, Napa

I must have driven past Luna Vineyards about a hundred times. As it is right at the start of the Silverado Trail, I’ve been reluctant to stop on my way to places farther up the valley. Recently, though, I had the opportunity to try this wine and I’m realizing that I may have been missing out on some good wines.

Luna Vineyards might be the answer to the proverbial question, “How many high-powered wine industry executives does it take to…er…start a winery?” Luna, started in 1995, is the brain child of George Vare, Mike Moone, and John Kongsgaard, all big-time Napa veterans of one sort or another. Vare and Moone are most recently the heads of Silverado Partners, which owns Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, and Stag’s Leap Winery, (never heard of those, right?) and each has been active in the industry since the early Seventies. Kongsgaard was the much lauded winemaker at Newton Vineyards for 13 years before signing on to Luna as head winemaker and Vice President.

Luna is an odd entity, hovering somewhere between boutique winery and corporation — it’s got a board of directors (now headed by Mary Anne Tsai, former VP of marketing at Beringer) yet it’s fundamentally a small to medium-sized operation (50,000 cases or thereabouts) founded by a couple of guys with a wacky vision: to grow the best Pinot Grigio in California. Yep, that’s right. When Moore and Vare bought out the St. Andrews winery they planted all 22 acres of the estate vineyard (prime Cabernet land, if there ever was some) with their favorite white Italian varietal and set off to do something different. Despite being executives, Moone, Vare, and Kongsgaard took a very hands-on approach to their vision, traveling to Italy to learn from some of the best growers and winemakers of Pinot Grigio and then later, Sangiovese. All their grape growing is currently done organically.

10 years after their inspired beginnings, they’re making a Merlot (to appease Kongsgaard apparently, who loves the grape), a Sangiovese, and a Super Tuscan red blend in the lineup, and remain firmly committed to their shared love of Italian wines. That affection is certainly evident in this wine which, in addition to Merlot, has historically had a bit of Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc blended in for good measure.

Kongsgaard has given up the reigns and winemaking is now done by Mike Drash, formerly of De Loach, J Wine Company, and Far Niente, who according to the winery’s web site not only brings his prodigious blending talents to the outfit, but apparently a high quality Elvis impersonation as well. Drash continues to maintain Luna’s steadfast commitment to using native yeasts and co-fermentation (mixing various varietals together instead of fermenting them separately) as well as delivering wines unfined and unfiltered whenever possible.

This particular wine is made from fruit out of three different Napa vineyards, harvested at the peak of ripeness in 2001 after a late season heat spike. The Merlot is co-fermented with a small amount of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon all of which are fermented and aged for 20 months in French oak barrels before bottling.

Tasting Notes:
A deep, dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a powerful nose dominated by primary aromas of oak laced with bright plum and a hint of sweet anise. In the mouth it is very round with a nice mouthfeel and bright fruit flavors that are balanced between cherry and ripe plum, with a strong oak component as it finishes. This is a classic example of a wine that is good, but could have been great with fewer new barrels. The oak component, while it does not overpower the wine, is far too dominant in the experience to call it a well balanced wine. Apart from that, the wine is delicious.

Food Pairing:
I suggest pairing this wine with some strong red meat, like a classic steak au poivre.

Overall Score: 8.5/9

How Much?: $20

This wine can easily be found online.