April 09: Duckhorn is a good example of a winery founded by a passionate couple and brought to a level where it was internationally famous and profitable to sell out to a PE firm GE Partners which could take it to astronomical heights, with quality getting better to a point where the flagship Three Palm Merlot was chosen as no.1 wine in 2017 by Wine Spectator, writes Subhash Arora who enjoyed the Duckhorn wine dinner presented at Wasabi , at the Taj Mahal Restaurant by Marc Jolly, Director of Sales, Asia Pacific for Duckhorn Wine Company
Talk of a California Premium Merlot that was borne out of passion for the right bank Merlot in Bordeaux and the name of Duckhorn pops in right away. Dan and Margaret Duckhorn dreamt of a fine Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon and set up Duckhorn Wine Company (DWC) in St. Helena, Napa Valley in 1976 and became one of the best Merlot producers in California, when they sold the estimated 200,000 case company to a PE firm GI Capital in 2007, says Marc Jolly, Area Director for Asia Pacific for $250 million.
Duckhorn has been a happy wine supplier to the White House for the last 30 years, says Marc. In fact ‘when President Barrack Obama had the inaugural Lunch at the White House in 2009, there were 3 wines served-2 of them were ours,’ adds Marc who is extremely proud of the fact that the Three Palm Merlot from a single vineyard, produced from the very beginning, was selected at No. 1 spot in the annual Wine Spectator Top 100 List 2017. Good news is that unlike most top California Cabernets and Bordeaux reds, it sells for under $100.
The bad news is that the coveted 2014 of which only 3000 cases were made is already out of stock. One might expect that the winery would increase the price of 2015 but Marc says it has been released at the same price but future releases would perhaps be at higher prices even though the wine is under allocation.
Another piece of good news is that Duckhorn wines have found a decent market in India, says Marc, ‘Despite the fact that this is the first wine dinner or visit by the company in 10 years, we are very happy with the performance of Brindco and will make sure we are represented physically more frequently. He was very happy with the dinner which was sold to almost a full house at Rs. 8,250+ from the looks of the whole restaurant. Duckhorn wines are sold to hotels or retailed through Madhulika Bhattacharyya’s La Cave, the independent retail arm of Brindco. He confirmed that India would be included in the allocation of the No. 1 of the Wine Spectator World.
I remember visiting the winery in St Helena about 11 years ago when there were murmurs that it was about to be sold. I vaguely remember a lady being very active in the business. Apparently she was Margaret Duckhorn. It was sold again to TSG Consumer Partners in August 2016. So how do they handle staff, I ask Marc; PEs typically buy companies and increase their valuation before selling them to the next company at huge profits. (DWC was rumoured to have fetched over $600 million for its investment). ‘Out CEO Alex Ryan whose first job was in this winery in the viticulture area, has been with us for 30 years. Even my boss has been with the company for 23 years. So yes, I see a lot of old staff continuing with the company and they let us run the business professionally.’ The PE firm who are in the consumer goods business like vitaminwater, beer and cosmetics etc made the first acquisition in 2016 of the seventh winery- Calera.
How were the sales affected by the anti- Merlot movie ‘Sideways ‘ (whose chief protagonist incidentally loved the extremely expensive Merlot based Petrús) in 2004, I asked Marc who was fortunately sitting next to me at the dinner table, giving me ample opportunity to interact with him. ‘We were affected big-time like other Merlot producers. Our Merlot sales took a nose dive but we started recovering from it slowly, consistently improving our quality as well. The Wine Spectator recognition has put us at the top spot and our position is a lot better than ever.
Expansion and further plans
GI Capital which bought it from the Duckhorns, have really taken it forward in terms of expansion primarily with the aid of the existing staff. ‘We are selling around a million cases now, with around 700,000 cases being of our biggest seller Decoy’, he said.
Decoy is a younger drinking more approachable label, still selling at around $20 in the US, keeping it still a deluxe wine. Born out of recession 2008 when Americans started trading down, it had originally started as a second wine but today it commands a lot of respect from the market- both domestic and imported; it is also imported by Brindco and if wines tasted tonight and their prices are an indication, it would be an excellent value-for-money wine for the evolved consumers.
The company has been expanding with 7 wineries in its portfolio now- Duckhorn, Paraduxx (Cabernet zinfandel blend), Goldeneye, Migration (a fruitier styled wine), Decoy and last but not the least- Canvasback from Washington State, known for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Calera was bought by Duckhorn last year in August and is their only acquisition.
Calera, a Central Coast pioneer of Pinot Noir (both Duckhorn and Calera introduced their first wines-Merlot and Pinot Noir respectively in the same year 1978). It is one of the premier quality California brands for Pinot now. Interestingly, Calera is the only winery to have its own AVA (American Viticulture Area-appellation), Mount Harlan which was established in 1990 through the efforts of this owner of the winery, Josh Jensen.
Paraduxx has an interesting story-it was born with the couple visiting Tuscany in the 1990s. Impressed with the Super Tuscans and desirous of making a Super Californian blend, they introduced this label. Sangiovese would not be feasible so they decided to blend the locally popular Zinfandel and Cabernet initially. It was later tweaked to include majority of Cabernet for commercial reasons: as a Cab-Zin blend it could be listed in restaurants in the highly popular Cabernet- blend section. (In blends the name of the dominant grape is conventionally written first). Whereas Duckhorn wines can easily age for 10 years, Calera can age for up to 30 years. But all the wines today at dinner were drinking fine after decanting and keeping in the glass for over an hour.
Bought out or own grapes
In line with most respected wineries in Napa Valley, the winery buys about 75% of the grapes on the average- a product like Decoy has 90% bought out grapes while Three Palms Merlot is made from 100% owned vineyards. ‘We believe there is no substitute for having our own vineyards and are planning to buy more vine land,’ says Marc.
Wines for the evening
The evening started with Migration cool climate Chardonnay 2015 and Pinot Noir 2015 from Russian River Valley 2015. Chardonnay was nicely oaked- not overly done. Very vibrant wine with good fruit and length. Oak notes took a back seat with food-the Sea Bream Fish Carpaccio, an interesting dish.
Pinot Noir was a well-balanced wine-very fresh and complex on the palate- a classic match for the Prosciutto ham on top of the crunchy miso rice cracker. ‘It has been fermented and aged for a few months on new barriques and partly in second or third pass barrique-keeping the freshness and fruitiness with juicy blackberry and raspberry notes dominating- and an equally delicious and long after-taste.’
Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot 2014 was no Three-Palm award title winning Merlot but was a delicious and luscious wine with good structure and balance and a lot of cherries on the palate- a perfect match for the huge Sushi platter.
I was very keen to taste the Paraduxx and was not disappointed with the Super Californian. It had an interesting sweet frontal attack thanks to the 35% Zinfandel whereas the Cabernet had given it an excellent structure, body and power punch. The spicy wine had ample acidity and vibrancy to make it drinkable on its own, but was perfect with the excellent, well- cooked New Zealand chops. Canvasback from Washing State was naturally fuller and more powerful wine but I preferred Paraduxx with the Lamb.
The 5 wines were a mere introduction to the wide repertoire in Duckhorn’s armoury- enough to surmise it would be grossly unfair to label it as a mere Merlot producer-though if you love Merlot you would love Duckhorn.
A great wine evening that! The Chef and the serving staff had much to be thanked for. It was a great balance between food and wine and service and structured very well what with Marc talking about the wines and meeting different groups individually at their tables.
One day such dinners with deluxe wines matched with excellent food ought to become very common in India. But for now, this was one of the superlative dinners with wines that did not cost as much as the flavours suggested, and would stick in the memory of visitors to Wasabi at the Taj Mahal Hotel for a long time.