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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
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.
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
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
APJ: You always get the
fruit out of Hyde?
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
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
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
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
MK: Yes, I’ll be starting my
first Cabernet Sauvignon this year.
APJ: Can’t wait to taste
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 .