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Magical Merlot

Winemaker Sarah Gott Creates Varietals with True Character


Thursday, March 16, 2006

While Sarah Gott attended UC Davis, she had every intention of becoming a veterinarian. But, once she caught the wine bug, while exploring the viticulture and enology programs there, she changed her major to winemaking. “I’d spent a lot of time in the wine country with family friends when I was growing up. Food and wine had always been a part of my life, so becoming a winemaker seemed like a natural progression.”

Flash forward to present day, and Gott is the winemaker at Blackbird Vineyards, the much-buzzed-about merlot producer in the Napa Valley that has drawn comparisons in the press to Château Petrus, and is owned by Michael Polenske. The 2003 Blackbird Vineyards merlot received a 95-point score from Vintrust, and this is in no small part due to Gott’s approach to winemaking. “The importance of the vineyard is number one,” according to Gott, and her level of humility in the vineyard has led to great artistry in the cellar.

It would be too easy to describe Gott’s merlots as “feminine.” Her wines exhibit layers of complexity, a broad flavor profile, and exquisite balance; all descriptors that defy easy definitions within categories that invoke one’s gender. Instead, Gott’s wines can best be described as issuing forth true varietal character. This means that Gott is able to translate the fruit of the vine into the bottle, with minimal interference from stylistic flourishes, as is often the case with other winemakers. “The quality of the fruit is what drives the quality of the wine,” Gott said.

To meet Gott herself is to have a better understanding of her winemaking style. When first introduced to her, in a room full of wine industry folks, I realized that I had mistaken her for one of the lovely young women who were hosting the event, and whose purpose it was to make certain the guests were all finding their way to the Sarah Gott Reception. She hung back from the rest of us and smiled politely to all the guests who entered the breezeway. But, once Gott started speaking about her wines, she assumed a commanding, competent presence. She knows the kinds of wines she likes, the kinds of wines she’s trying to make, and how to speak articulately about both. I couldn’t help but think that Gott’s approach to the Blackbird Vineyards merlot is the same — hang back and watch the fruit mature in the vineyard, observe what it is the fruit has to offer, and then lend a level of competence and focus to the wine, to allow the fruit to find its true voice in the bottle.

Gott is no novice to winemaking. She has had successful stints at world-class properties, and has held winemaking positions at Joseph Phelps Winery and Quintessa, in the Napa Valley, and Wirra Wirra, in Australia’s McClaren Vale winegrowing region.

Gott seems to have found a great home at Blackbird Vineyards, and is especially fond of the fruit source with which she gets to work and create. “Blackbird is in a unique location, in the renowned Oak Knoll AVA of the Napa Valley. It has deep soils, which lead to early ripening, and that’s especially good for merlot. It’s cool enough so you get some longer hang time. But you also get the ripeness you want in terms of extraction and flavor and tannin development,” she said.

The 2003 Blackbird Vineyards merlot has underpinnings of eucalyptus, chaparral, sage, and wet earth on the nose, with an abundance of elegant briar patch fruit, cedar, and rose on the nose. The mouth feel on this wine is amazing. For such a young wine, the tannins are very finessed and elegant, yet the overall power of the wine hints at a healthy longevity in the cellar.

4·1·1 To learn more about Sarah Gott and Blackbird Vineyards, visit www.blackbirdvineyards.com.

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