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Serious Merlot
Interview and tasting with Mia Klein of Selene

(April 14, 2001) IT’S THE ONE GRAPE wine snobs love to snub and I can’t say they’re entirely wrong. Yes, most California Merlot is made into that overpriced, overcropped, flavor-free juice we have all encountered at weddings, bar-mitzvahs and the homes of well-intentioned friends who haven’t yet devoted their lives to the study of wine. But a few (very few) examples are so seriously drinkable that they outclass most Cabernet Sauvignon.

Today we’re talking to exhibit 1A in the Case for California Merlot, Mia Klein. Perhaps you’ve heard her name, because she’s been the consulting winemaker for cult Cabs like Araujo and Dalla Valle. But Mia’s own label, Selene, is one of Napa Valley’s best-kept secrets, not only for Merlot, but Sauvignon Blanc as well.

     Our interview takes place over lunch and we start by tasting the **2000 Selene Sauvignon Blanc Hyde Vineyard. With elegant floral aromas and tingling acidity, the wine has enough cut to match up with a salad, but the creamy, almost silky texture makes it equally nice as a stand-alone aperitif. The flavors range from cantaloupe to nectarine. There’s little gooseberry, no cat pee, no veggies.

 APJ: Mia, you make one of the only California Sauvignon Blancs that could please an especially  finicky wine-geek friend of mine. It’s got a crisp attack, but it avoids those “cat pee” notes that I often encounter in these wines. How do you do it?

MK:  Well, first of all, I use a special Musqué clone of Sauvignon Blanc that grows in Hyde Vineyard. It throws less crop, ripens more easily and keeps those vegetative flavors that you’re talking about more in check.

APJ: You always get the fruit out of Hyde?

MK: Yes.

APJ: What about the texture? How do you get it so silky? Do you do a malolactic fermentation?

MK: No, the Sauvignon is non-malolactic. But I keep it on the lees for the entire aging process. And I use 40%-50% new French oak. The combination helps make it so creamy.

APJ: You could have fooled me. I’m not getting that gagging acidity of a non-malolactic wine.

 MK: The acid’s there, but the extra viscosity keeps it in the background.

 APJ: I wouldn’t have guessed so much new oak either. How do you keep that in the background?

 MK: Well, I only keep it in the barrels for 5 months. And at least half the wine is aged in stainless steel barrels.

 APJ: Just to make things clear for our readers, we’re talking about small stainless steel barrels, not tanks, correct?

 MK: Right. I started making it in 1991, and for the first 3 vintages I tried used barrels for the neutral portion. Then I switched to stainless steel.

 APJ: What didn’t you like about the used barrels?

 MK: Well, especially with white wines, you can get aldehydic flavors from used barrels.

 APJ: What do aldehydes taste like?

MK: Sort of sherry-like.

APJ: Is that why so many cheap Italian whites taste kind of oxidized to me, even when they’re new?

MK: Could be. Shall we pour the Merlot now?

APJ: Oh yes!

     Now we taste the ***-1999 Selene Napa Valley Merlot. It’s very dark purple, just about black. Aromas of chocolate, plum and blackcurrant, thick texture, broad flavors – what’s not to like? This is big stuff that could blow away most Cabs.

     But the ***+1999 Selene Napa Merlot “Blackbird Vineyard” delights me even more. It’s got the scale and length of the Napa Valley cuvée, plus an extra gush of blackberries. Even blueberries. Very distinctive and complete. I’ve liked recent efforts from Pride, Paloma and Havens, and I loved the Newton and Matanzas Creek Merlots of the early ‘90s, but this wine seems to me to possess an extra dimension.

 APJ: Some California Merlots have loads of juicy fruit – others pack power and show structure – and I hardly ever find one with all the above. But these two bring it off. What’s your secret? How do you make them?

MK: It’s pretty simple. Both wines are tank-macerated. They spend 21 days on the skins and we do lots of early pump-overs. Then they go right to the barrels – 70% new French oak.

APJ: What about the fruit? Where’s Blackbird Vineyard?

 MK: It’s not too far from this restaurant, actually! [We’re at Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa, on Route 29]

 APJ: And what about the grapes in the Napa Valley Merlot?

 MK: They come from two sources. Madrona Ranch in St. Helena – and Frediani Vineyard, just south of Calistoga. If you know where Eisele Vineyard is, Frediani is nearby, on the west side of Silverado trail.

 APJ: We’ve been talking just about your wine, Mia, but I know our readers want to learn more about you personally. What attracted you to winemaking?

 MK: I started out as a cook actually – worked in a seafood restaurant. I started tasting the wine that was left in the bottles and, well, one thing led to another. I decided to go to U.C. Davis.

 APJ: How tough was it after you got out? You’ve already made quite a name for yourself in a field that’s dominated by men. That can’t have been easy.

 MK: You’re right, but I benefited a lot from the generation of women before me.

 APJ: Who in particular?

MK: Kathy Corison for sure. I became her assistant when I got out of Davis.

APJ: And then…?

 MK: I got a job at Robert Pepi, where I met Tony Soter. Then I went to work with Tony, start Selene, and I’ve picked up the consulting.

 APJ: Who else besides you is making serious Merlot in California today? What do you like?

 MK: John Konsgaard is doing some interesting things. I also like the Fisher RCF – and sometimes the Beringer Howell Mountain Merlot.

 APJ: I would imagine that your Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc have special appeal to restaurants. What proportion of your wine goes to them?

 MK: About 70%-75% of the Merlot goes to restaurants – close to 80% of the Sauvignon Blanc.

 APJ: Got plans for any other varietals?

 MK: Yes, I’ll be starting my first Cabernet Sauvignon this year.

 APJ: Can’t wait to taste it!

NOTE: I hope to speak with Mia Klein again and expand this interview in the not-too-distant future. For more information about Selene wines and how to obtain them, visit her website at http://selenewines.com .

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