As 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 it was 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, 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 strange universe that is Napa real estate.
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 thanks to a stupid comment in a movie about Pinot Noir. 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 Aaron Pott and consultant Sarah Gott, Polenske farms the 10 acre estate vineyard and buys select grapes from around the valley 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” and “Contrarian,” as well as a lesser priced wine called “Arise,” (each a Bordeaux style blend with a greater or lesser emphasis on Merlot). The winery also now produces a rosé called “Arriviste.” All the wines are made meticulously, in relatively small quantities, and are bottled without fining or filtration.
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. The wines are excellent across the board, but interestingly, for the first time, the Merlot dominated Illustration blend is not my favorite of their wines this year.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2007 Blackbird Vineyards “Arise” Bordeaux Blend, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of dark black cherry, tobacco and wet earth aromas. In the mouth it is velvety and nicely balanced. A core of black cherry fruit, with expresso notes and great acidity make for a juicy core of fruit. Lightly grabby tannins creep in on the long finish. 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. 772 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $50. Where to buy?
2007 Blackbird Vineyards “Illustration” Bordeaux Blend, Napa Valley
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of tobacco, black cherry, and wet wood, with an aspect over time that is almost dusty. In the mouth it is exceedingly juicy and bright, with amazing acidity and fantastic black cherry and black plum flavors. Light tannins, a hint of tobacco and whisps of vanilla and cola twist and turn through a lovely finish. 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. 1324 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. Where to buy?
2007 Blackbird Vineyards “Paramour” Bordeaux Blend, Napa Valley
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a rich nose of cherry, black tea and light floral aromas. In the mouth it is smooth with lightly velvety tannins and joyous rich cherry and plum fruit. Cocoa powder, along with a nice muddy earthiness linger in the finish which is long but subtle. 50% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. 534 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. Where to buy?
2007 Blackbird Vineyards “Contrarian” Bordeaux Blend, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cocoa powder, cherry, and that light hint of green vegetable that suggests the Cabernet that plays a more dominant role in this wine. In the mouth it is an incredibly smooth, cherry driven, juicy wine, with cocoa powder, pipe tobacco and cola notes that emerge, with some light tannins, on the finish. This is a confident beauty of a wine. 46% Cabernet Franc, 34% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. 538 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90.