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Larkmead 2016 'Firebelle' Merlot, Napa Valley, CA

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Larkmead 2016 'Firebelle' Merlot, Napa Valley, CA

The historic Larkmead estate is one of the oldest family-owned establishments in Napa Valley. Originally founded in 1895, Larkmead is now under the stewardship of proprietors Cam and Kate Solari Baker. 

Larkmead’s legendary vineyard features a remarkable diversity of soils that are more typical of a hillside than the valley floor. Winemaker Dan Petroski captures the nuance and complexity of this site by vinifying small lots according to clonal selection and soil type.

  • ​​Winemaker: Dan Petroski
  • Farming: Sustainable with Organic Practices
  • Grape Varieties: Merlot 67%, Cabernet Sauvignon 27%, Petit Verdot 6%
  • Terroir: Centuries of alluvial flow have resulted in the accumulation of ancient riverbed gravel, clay, and loam. Pleasanton Loam (clay based) is primary.
  • Vinification/Oak Usage: Aged 18 Months in 66% New Tonnellerie Bossuet
  • Scores: JS-96, RP-94, JD-94
    • Vinous 94 pooints - The 2016 Firebelle is dense, pliant and super-expressive, with terrific depth and textural resonance. Today, the Firebelle shows more floral and savory notes than it did earlier in the year. Even so, the 2016 is vibrant, focused and full of character. The firm tannins need time to soften, but there is plenty to look forward to. (Antonio Galloni)

From our Q3 2021 Serious Inquiries Bottle Club Notes:

Let’s continue on our historic journey through famous regions with a focus on Napa Valley. Larkmead Vineyards dates back to 1895, one of the oldest wineries in California. You may notice a crest on the label which is reminiscent of a fire station. Back in the mid-1800s, Lilli Hitchcock Coit, a vivacious socialite and heiress, was rescued by San Francisco’s Knickerbocker No. 5 Fire Company. This experience proved a huge inspiration to her, and she dedicated part of her life (and fortune) to honor the brave firefighters. She became known as ‘Firebelle Lil’ and became America’s first (honorary) female firefighter, and later, due to her continued support, Lilli was named Patroness of all San Francisco firefighters. She was deemed a little too wild in her youth– gambling, smoking, drinking, enjoying life the way any young man would– and was sent away to the countryside of Calistoga to “settle down”, and there she named her estate Larkmead. Here, she had gorgeous gardens and vineyards which began producing wine. (When Lilli Coit died in 1896, she left part of her fortune to the city of San Francisco. In memory of her, they erected the Coit Tower, which became a dedication to all the Firefighters of San Francisco.)

    After Lilli’s death, a family of Swiss immigrants moved to the valley and purchased the Larkmead estate, and renovated Lilli’s little wooden winery to a permanent fixture made from stone of nearby quarries. Prohibition hit the Salminas hard, but adapting by making ‘sacramental wine’ and selling fruit kept Larkmead in business.  After the death of the Salmina patriarch in the 40s, the estate swapped hands a few times before Larry Solari, another pioneering immigrant who worked in the vineyards of Lodi, purchased the Larkmead estate. Polly Solari, Larry’s wife, ran the day-to-day operations of the winery as Larry worked hard as an executive and advocate of winegrowers in the Napa Valley. Later, in 1992, their daughter Kate Solari Baker and her husband Cam would take over Larkmead and set it on a new path by completely replanting the property and matching the right clones, rootstocks, and grape varieties to the right terroirs, while also updating the dilapidated 100+ year stone winery.  Over the next two decades, they sought to not only keep Larkmead rooted in its history but to innovate and change the way the world thinks about Napa Valley. 

    Winemaker Dan Petroski (also known for his incredible Massican wines) labors to produce wines of distinction, capturing the terroir in the many different bottlings. Although Larkmead may now be most famous for their Cabernet Sauvignons, this Merlot is absolutely breathtaking. The soils in the Firebelle Vineyard (named for miss Lilli) has a cool Pleasonton clay base but are mixed with alluvial gravel and loam from ancient riverbeds that flowed through the base of the mountains. This creates a wonderful habitat for Merlot (67%), Cabernet Sauvignon (27%), and Petit Verdot (6%) which creates the blend. 2016 had lovely, if not slightly cool, weather conditions, and the grapes were able to get a little more hang-time without fear of over-ripening in what is typically a very warm Calistoga climate. Only 11 of the 115 acres of Larkmead Estate is planted to Merlot, and she is the star of this wine. The Merlot leads the texture of this wine with a plush, velvety mouthfeel and deep, rich red fruit. The Cabernet Sauvignon adds the tension of acid and tannin, plus the cooler blue and black fruit notes. The Petit Verdot adds inkiness and density, and 16 months of aging in 66% new French oak ties it all together. Black plums, blueberry, chocolate-covered cherries, and a little spiced tobacco and pencil shavings push to the front, and dusty tannins and bittersweet notes lie beneath its massive structure. The Firebelle Merlot is absolutely lovely to drink now, but we think that in another five years, this bottle will be absolute FIRE (in the best way possible, Lil!)

    And of course, Larkmead is a completely sustainable winery. Vineyard manager Nabor Camarena and viticulturist Kelly Maher work closely to ensure a balanced ecosystem in the vineyards and have been awarded the Napa Green Land certification.

    Drink with love and intention- a lot of history has gone into this bottle!

—Cara Patricia

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