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Mike Havens

If you think California Merlot is overhyped — well, you're right, but there are a few ones worth buying and those from Havens are near the top of the list. Mike Havens decided to specialize in Merlot way before it caught on as a fad.

     Call him lucky or call him a visionary, but do call the winery and ask to placed on the mailing list if you want terrific Merlot at a fair price in today's scheme of things.

     The following article was written at the time he first moved into his very own building. The wines continue to be as excellent as described. I'd especially recommend his Bordeaux-blend Bourriquot or his Reserve Merlot.

REBIRTH OF A WINERY. (September 9, 1995) "Ten years ago," says Mike Havens, "when I said I was going to make Merlot, everyone said, ‘But why?’ "

     No one in Napa Valley asks him that question anymore. In 1991, he suspended production of Chardonnay to concentrate all his efforts on Havens Merlot. And this week, after a decade of renting temporary space, he unboarded the doors of the shut-down Lakespring building and started turning it into a winery once again.

     It’s a big space with lots of capacity. To get it, Mike and Catherine Havens pooled resources with another husband-and-wife team — Jon Scott and Russell Lane — and with winemaker Peter Franus, who will be operating a separate venture under his own label.

     In a flip-flop of their former situation, the partners will also be contracting their space and services to third parties. For example, they’re storing and bottling von Strasser’s new "Freestone" Cabernet, and the upcoming von Strasser Sauvignon Blanc will be crushed and fermented at Havens. It was Rudy von Strasser, in fact, who told me I should check out the happenings here.

     Quite a bit seemed to be happening when I walked past the brand-new permit notice and poked my head through the door. Phones were chirping with news from lawyers, barrels were being trundled in, fermenters getting checked out for a harvest that might begin any day. Everyone had that tired-but-wired look you often see in the faces of folks who are driving a start-up.

     Russell walked me through some of the surrounding vineyard. It’s a little south of Yountville, abutting the foot of Mt. Veeder. A nice location, but it looked to me like the Chardonnay vines here weren’t long for this world. She confirmed they were grafted on AXR rootstock, and Pierce’s disease was threatening too. In a year or two, they will all be pulled out and replanted.

     We talked about what would go in its place and she said they’re still investigating. Everyone knows by now that AXR falls prey to phylloxera — but people don’t talk so often about it resistance to other problems. Growers have to be careful when selecting new rootstock, or they could soon be in trouble all over again. (Thus Sterling, I’ve heard, is ripping out vines for the second time in five years.)

     I asked how they all got together. "We go way back," she said. "Years ago, when Mike was teaching college, we used to drive up here from Los Angeles in the autumn. We were gleaners. A tiny second crop often ripens after harvest up here, but it doesn’t pay the growers to pick it.

     "We’d gather those grapes, crush them and put the must into big plastic trash cans. Then we’d load them all into Mike’s Volkswagen bus and head on home. Pretty soon it would be fermenting and we’d have to stop the car every once in a while to punch down the cap. Mike would be up to his elbows in blood-red juice! Passers-by gave us some pretty startled looks."

     Back inside the winery, I tasted the HAVENS 1993 NAPA VALLEY MERLOT. This is the regular bottling, made for current consumption. Half the fruit is local to Yountville and the other half comes from Truchard’s Rancho Chamiles in Yountville. While this wine is not for the ages, it certainly tasted good. Deep ruby, it had a clove-chocolate nose and peppered the palate with spice. The body was light to medium, and the finish wasn’t bad. Most significant is what you won’t taste — no screech of acid, no greenery, no olives, nothing but berry-and-cocoa-scented pleasure.

     The HAVENS 1994 MERLOT is clearly a stride ahead. Tasted from the barrel today, it has the same soft character, but is noticeably deeper and longer than its predecessor. It’s 23% Cabernet Franc, fermented with 18 days of maceration and will be released in June of 1996.

     For wine-geeks, the real excitement happens in Havens’ Reserve Merlots. Selling in the low to mid-twenties, recent vintages are worth seeking out. The HAVENS 1992 MERLOT RESERVE (tasted later, back home) is chewy, dark, delicious California Merlot of an excellence exceeded in 1992 only by the likes of Newton, Matanzas Creek and Beringer.

     I still haven’t tasted the Havens 1993 Reserve Merlot yet. But I’m counting the days until February 1997 — which is when the HAVENS 1994 MERLOT RESERVE rolls out of the winery. This stuff is denser than chocolate fudge! My barrel sample was practically black, with tempting aromatics of coffee and berries adding to its sex-appeal. On the palate, all that fruit pours over the tannin in slow-motion, drenching your senses and finishing long. Watch out, Matanzas Creek.

     Finally I tasted the HAVENS 1993 CARNEROS SYRAH. With fruit from the Leigh Hudson vineyard — where Pinot Noir for Etude also grows — this inky young juice gives off tasty hints of blueberry, chocolate and game. It’s big wine, enjoyable now and could use some time in the cellar.

     Mike Havens likes Cabernet Franc as a blending grape for Merlot. The 1994 Merlot, blended last February, includes 23% CF. It clearly pays off in the lovely aromatics of these wines.

     As a winemaker, he intervenes "only when I have to" — acidifying rarely (a sign of good judgement, given the fruit he gets), fining lightly with egg whites, and when he decides to filter, the pores don’t get finer than 1.2 microns. All the Merlots are aged in 50% new oak. Reserves get all French oak, while the regular bottling gets 15% American.

     Merlot has been very good to Mike Havens and it looks like Mike Havens is going to be great for Napa Valley Merlot. Be warned, however, that Havens wines are hard to locate on the East Coast. Pennsylvania and Delaware only get a case or two. Maryland gets nothing.

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