Philippe Melka - The Doctor’s Son

Philippe Melka is one of the most respected wine consultants in the United States. Some of his clients, past and present, include Dana Estates, Moone-Tsai, Brand, Hundred Acre, Dalle Valle and Bryant Family Vineyards, to name just a handful. When I sat down to chat with Philippe Melka earlier this year, I felt I should apologize to him for some inexplicable reason, for an article that had appeared in the Wall Street Journal about wine consultants just prior to our interview. The journalist who wrote the piece seemed more focused on the number of clients each consultant had, and how much money they were earning, than on the actual day-to-day nuts and bolts of the services they provide clients.


In the article, the perception that certain consultants produce monolithic, homogeneous wines was, at least in my mind, somewhat supported by the journalist. She at least made this topic prevalent in her piece. It’s so easy to jump on the bandwagon and state that wines made under the guidance of consultants like Michel Rolland or Philippe Melka all taste the same. One has only to spend real time tasting through even a sliver of their client portfolios to realize that the wines upon which they place their astute imprimatur are distinctive, many of them memorable and reflecting the land where they found their provenance.

We touched upon this topic, and a few others, when I sat down with the soft-spoken and intelligent Philippe Melka.

RH Drexel: What does a wine consultant do?

Philippe Melka: Well, it’s hard work. The wine business is 24/7; that’s how I feel. It’s very consuming. Consulting is a little different from what winemakers do, I would say. Technically, consultants do less labor, and we drive a lot more. [Laughs.]

RHD: I have to say I was pretty disappointed in that Wall Street Journal article. It felt too focused on how much money wine consultants earn, rather than delving into the services they provide clients.

PM: You know, over the years, she [the journalist] has been kind to me, so the article was unexpected. You don’t really ask people those kinds of questions – how much money do they make and that sort of thing. And, you know, it was very uncomfortable, because from client to client, things are a little different. There are so many factors. Some clients I have had for fifteen years, so my relationship with them might be different from a more recent client. The difficult part was feeling like people think you want to be a consultant just to make money. Consulting is a very complex topic. I don’t think I’ve ever read a good article about wine consultants. This idea that it’s just to make money…To tell you the truth, that is not it at all. It is a job that suits me very well. It fits my strengths. Rather than working with the same wine every day, or managing an estate, my strengths are better suited to working with a number of different clients.

The most important thing for me is to love what I do. My dad was a general practitioner in the old days in France. That meant he did house calls. He would visit people in their homes, morning and night. He helped many patients every day. He would go to the local hospital to assist in births and so on. He loved to help people. I have this same need as my father had: to see this movement of life; to see different people, in different environments, and to help them if I can. This concept of helping is very important to me. For me, this concept of helping someone to achieve their dream is the essence of consulting. My dad’s job was much more important as a doctor. He took care of people. I just make wine. But maybe I help someone to realize their dream.

 

RHD: How much of your job is managing client expectations?

PM: This is not so much a factor for me. I am working mostly with people who love wine. They understand that theirs is a long-term project and they are willing to work hard to get there. They are very focused. But there is a small percentage of clients…I don’t know what that percentage is, but I have to kick their ass a little bit. I have to tell them, ‘Don’t let us do everything. You really have to be a big part of this if you want to be successful.’ So, there’s a little bit of that going on. And, as you know, we’re in the Napa Valley, so we are dealing with very small, mom-and-pop kinds of wineries. This is not their full-time job; they came from another business, so for some, their idea of being in the wine business is this lifestyle, you know…to have fun. They come from a very naïve place, which is good in a way, because if they knew how hard the business really is they would never get into it in the first place. So the lifestyle attracts them, but then, hopefully, they learn to work hard for success.

Most of my clients, though, they are in this for the very long term. They are building something for their children. These kind of people, you know, they are not so concerned about high scores and all of that. 

But I work for the score-types, too – the ones that want the high scores. I have to admit, though, that very few people nowadays mention scores to me. I think part of it is because so many people want direct sales these days. So they are more focused on how to capture people who come into this valley and introduce them to their story and their wines, and build a relationship with the customer. Most of the people that come into Napa Valley…I would say 80%...don’t know or care about scores. The people who care about scores are already in the wine business. They are retailers, wholesalers, distributors. 

RHD: Are the days of scores mattering over?

PM: I don’t know. I think they can still help to educate people if they need it. I wish people would focus more on the descriptions of the wines, which can be wonderful and helpful, instead of just the number. There are a lot of good wine writers who really know how to describe a wine. And this helps the consumer if they don’t have time or money to sample everything. 

RHD: Have you run into this phenomenon wherein someone who has made a lot of money in another business just assumes that they’ll also make money in the wine business?

PM: Yes! Absolutely. They don’t realize at all how different the wine business is from any other business. I have to say to those people, ‘We are not making soup!’ Sometimes a client will want me to come in and blend a wine that day, and I have to explain to them that blending does not work that way. The wine has to be in a good mood. I have to be a good mood. Things have to be in sync. The wine needs to show well, and personally, I need to want to blend that day.

Sometimes they think I am just a machine. So it’s part of their education for me to tell them that in order to create those special, high-end wines, everything has to be in sync. And, also, everyone needs to be excited about it. You need to have that true excitement, and that takes time, and it needs to come from everyone involved.

A lot of what makes up the wine business is almost counter to the American mentality; it’s counter to what they have learned and what they understand. It doesn’t make sense to some people that they have to wait, wait, wait in the wine business. They have to plant their vines, and then wait for the fruit, and then wait for the wine to be in the barrel and then wait for it to age in the bottle. This is a difficult part of consulting – teaching people to wait for something special when they are used to getting what they want right away.

 

RHD: Is it possible for you to fall in love with a wine, even just as consultant…when you do not own that wine?

PM: Oh, yes. At the end of the day, they are still my babies. I am very proud of them. I guess the toughest part for me is having people critiquing your style, but I understand that. But, it’s like someone critiquing your children, whom you love and worked hard with. What people don’t realize is that, as a consultant, it takes time, at least for me, to really get into a project. I need to be able to feel the owners, feel the vineyard, feel the reaction of the wine. You put so many years into a wine. When you create a wine, it’s also made of brain cells and human relationships and pride. That’s why it’s difficult to accept criticism, but you know some criticism is good. You can learn from it.

RHD: Do you feel like you have a certain winemaking style?

PM: That’s an interesting question, because some people might say that I have a style, but my real reputation is for not having a specific style. What I bring to the table is that I want to tell the truth: the truth of the estate, the truth of the wine’s concept. In order to tell the truth, you have to remove yourself as much as you can. 

Bob Levy said years ago that if you give two winemakers the exact vineyard sources, the same grapes, they are going to make two different wines. And this is true, you know, because even if one harvests ten days later than the other, this is already a big difference. So, yes, we all have our choices, how we’ve been raised, the foundation of our life, that affects the kinds of wines we make, but I still try to remove myself from this as much as possible.

My personality is to let other things shine, not me. I am more comfortable being in the back ground. I was very shy originally; that is also part of me just being me. And this personality trait fits well into consulting because I want the wines to shine, and not to be famous, necessarily.

RHD: Are there vineyard designates or sub-appellations of which you are especially fond?

PM: I have to admit that I have a few spots that I really like. They make sense. If you’re thinking purely of classicism in Napa Valley wines, if you go from Yountville on the east side, starting with Dominus, and you go up North, including Vine Hill Ranch, To-Kalon, Stag’s Leap, Scarecrow, Inglenook…this section for me represents very classic wines. And also Harlan is very classic. Hillsides bring exception to wines, too, like Pritchard Hill. That is a very intriguing place for me.

RHD: What is your definition of a good wine?

PM: Great texture. Length. A great foundation, structure. Complexity. Sophistication. Age-worthiness. For me, I always work with texture and structure much more than with flavors. The feeling of the texture…it can be soft, edgy…the weight and length creates the harmony of the wine. Of course, I want a positive impression of the flavors, but I look for texture, structure.

In the ’80s and ’90s, many winemakers were all about pushing the envelope. They were all about concentration. This younger generation is more about an intellectual approach to winemaking. Their palates are a little more evolved. They’re eating better than we used to, so they look more for weight – not based on sweet or fat, but maybe on structure. And they look for minerality.

My feeling is that the Napa Valley is on a great track. I think the wines being made in Napa Valley today will excite the market again.


RHD: What do you think of the sommelier culture?

PM: I have not had much luck with sommeliers. They seem to want a lot of recognition and so they seem to go for crazy wines, unusual wines. That is okay, but the best way to learn is to start at the beginning – to understand the basics and the foundation. You want to taste the classic wines from Bordeaux and Napa, you need that basic foundation. Then, after you have the basics covered, you can go a little insane. I’m sure that in the world of sommeliers, there are many amazing ones. No doubt. But there is a tendency among them to be against Napa Valley wines for some reason. In particular, sommeliers in New York and San Francisco seem close-minded to Napa Valley wines.

RHD: Did you have a mentor in the wine business?

PM: My American mentor is Paul Draper. There is also a sentimental side to this story, because I met my wife while she was working in the lab at Ridge. I was working at Dominus at the time when I met Paul Draper. I still think he is…I don’t know… He is a man of mystery. He is a philosopher. He has an open mind. He always wants to learn more. He is fantastic.

And it might surprise you to learn that I have a weird respect for Helen Turley. She’s very controversial. On a personality level, it’s hard to understand her sometimes. But I have to respect her for what she has done for consulting. She has elevated the role of the consultant. All consultants should respect what she has done for the field. And she has made some beautiful wines.

Editors Note: This article was originally published in Loam Baby Volume 3.

--R.H. Drexel