Amuse Bouche Napa Valley Merlot, by Heidi Barrett

2002 Amuse Bouche Napa Valley Merlot wine with label artwork by Guy Buffet

"A winemaker's" winemaker is stepping out on her own?
Linda Murphy, Wine Editor
San Francisco Chronicle

The list of Napa Valley "cult" Cabernet Sauvignons -- the wines that are so very hard to find and so very expensive to buy even in difficult economic times -- includes Screaming Eagle, Grace Family, Hartwell, Dalla Valle, Vineyard 29, Diamond Creek, Niebaum-Coppola, Jones Family, Showket, Paradigm, Lamborn Family and Oakford. Heidi Peterson Barrett had a hand in all of them.

As one of California's top consulting winemakers since the late 1980s, Barrett has produced wine for others. She now devotes a significant part of time to her own brand, La Sirena (Napa Valley Cabernet, Syrah and Sangiovese) and to a bold wine partnership with longtime friend John Schwartz and famed French artist Guy Buffet. Respectively, they produce, market and illustrate a 2002 Napa Valley Merlot called Amuse Bouche, or "amusement for the mouth" in French. The wine sells for $250 a bottle; buyers pay now and don't receive delivery until early 2005

Bordeaux's best chateaux have sold what are called futures for years; customers buy the still-in-barrel wine at a discount, with the expectation that it will be great upon release and sell for a higher price. Some California producers offer buy-now, drink-later futures, but Amuse Bouche is noteworthy for both its lofty price (though it's the same suggested retail price as the Screaming Eagle Cabernet Barrett makes for owner Jean Phillips) and its bonus: The mandatory six-bottle order of Amuse Bouche comes with a signed, limited-edition lithograph by Buffet that is featured on the label.

The lithographs are valued at $1,500 each; as Barrett and Schwartz see it, customers buy the art and get the wine for free.

The idea for Amuse Bouche began with Schwartz; after much prodding, he convinced Barrett to be the winemaker.

"We wanted to have a good product upon which we could hang our hats," says Schwartz, who worked for 16 years for Wente Vineyards in joint ventures and import/export and now develops restaurants. "Although Amuse Bouche certainly has a niche market, we've received tremendous (sales) response. We didn't go after the collectors who have to be on every winery mailing list; we took a fun approach and appealed to restaurants to offer the wine with its artistic aspect. We want people to drink the wine, not cellar it."

Barrett admits to being cautious in putting her reputation on the line for such a high-profile project.

"Sure, it was a bit scary to do," says Barrett, an unflamboyant, level- headed type who lives in Calistoga with her winemaking husband, Bo (Chateau Montelena) and their two daughters. "It goes against everything I've ever done.

I'm conservative and this is risky, a completely different approach. But John was patient with me and I became secure about the fruit source (an undisclosed vineyard in the eastern Napa hills) and the great vineyard manager there. I looked at the property several times before deciding it had the ability to produce consistently high-quality wines and develop a definable style."

When tasted this spring, the 2002 Amuse Bouche was gorgeous, despite Barrett's hesitancy to show the "baby" at such an early stage. It's modeled after the rich, plush Merlot-based Pomerols of Bordeaux, with luscious raspberry, cranberry and cassis aromas and flavors and hints of mint, black tea, tobacco and black currant. Firm in structure, it still had soft, velvety tannins. A small amount (2 percent) of Cabernet Franc was added to the spring trial blend to enhance the wine's texture and grip; Barrett will assemble the actual blend next summer.

Schwartz and Barrett hung out together as kids in Napa Valley, and both developed a deep fondness and respect for wine and food expert Belle Rhodes, who with her husband, Barney, owns Bella Oaks Vineyard in Rutherford. Barrett and Schwartz offer a tribute to Belle Rhodes on the Amuse Bouche back label.

"I like the art aspect of the project," says Barrett, who paints in acrylics and whose works of giant garlic cloves and tomatoes hang in local eateries. "That, and the tribute to Belle."

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