Amuse Bouche Napa Valley Merlot, by Heidi Barrett

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

The Wine Diva of Napa
Article from TIME magazine, Oct 28, 2002:

When the final bid came in at $500,000 for a 6-L bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon at the Napa Valley Wine Auction two years ago, there was a moment of stunned silence. Then the audience broke into applause. It was (and still is) the highest price ever paid for a bottle of wine. The proceeds went not to the woman who made the vintage, Heidi Peterson Barrett, but to fund social services in Napa Valley. But the sale cemented Barrett's reputation as one of the world's top winemakers.

One recent Tuesday, as the grape harvest was beginning, Barrett strolled through a vineyard, picking fruit from the sunny and shady sides of the trellis, chewing on the grape skins. In her hand was a printout of grape-sugar levels that were tested overnight. "But you can't measure for flavor," she says. "There is no hint of any green flavor, all black and red fruit, and blackberry and cherry flavors. I think we are real close, Friday, maybe."

Barrett, who has a degree in oenology from the University of California at Davis, has worked with winemakers in Australia and Germany. Today for the owners of Screaming Eagle, she makes just 500 cases a year; all are sold in advance to established customers. Resale price of a new bottle: $1,000 plus. She also makes Cabernet Sauvignon for Barbour and Showket Vineyards, among others. Her private label, La Sirena, sells for $125 a bottle.

As harvest time approaches each year, Barrett gets tense. "Screaming Eagle grapes are $4,500 a ton," she says, compared with $2,000 a ton for a typical Napa vineyard. "You have got to get the harvest date correct. Then you're halfway there." Screaming Eagle is blended from six to eight lots of Cabernet Sauvignon. Smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc are added. When the grapes are picked and crushed, Barrett must decide what kind of yeast to add and how long to leave the juice to ferment. She likes to work on her own, which is why she keeps her vintages small. After 18 months in oak barrels, the wine is blended before being bottled. "I do it with a taste test with a count of six," during which the different grape tastes should hit the drinker's palate. "I want all those stages, one through six, to be seamless and full." And Barrett usually gets what she wants.--T.M