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Merryvale's Cask Room: A place to raise glasses and toast good fortune

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Every winery has a special something that separates it from all the rest. For Merryvale Vineyards in St. Helena, that special something is the Cask Room, so named for the big wine casks that line either side of this showplace banquet hall.

Although empty now, each cask, when full, holds 2,000 gallons of wine. But even this figure does not convey their size and heft. Every cask stands taller than any man. These are wine barrels that would make Shaquille O’Neal feel like a runt.

The Cask Room is two stories high, it’s a relatively small space, and there are no windows. And yet there’s a feeling of grandeur to it because of these supersized casks, stacked on top of the other, from floor to ceiling, in two rows. There are sixteen casks on one side, by my unofficial tally, sixteen on the other. They convey not just size but age as well. The oak trees from which they were made were cut down early in the last century.

On the day we were there, Merryvale employees were setting a table in the center of the Cask Room for an event to be held later. It had goblets and plates for a party of 14. It was easy to picture this room at night with all the casks illumined and candelabras in the center of the table, lighting up the faces of families and friends as they clinked glasses for an anniversary or wedding or baptism. If you’ve got similar good fortune to celebrate, this is a place you may wish to consider.

Don’t let appearances deceive!

For all the drama of the Cask Room in full evening’s swing, your first look at Merryvale when you approach it from the south on Highway 29 is decidedly undramatic. That is because the winery and main buildings are turned away from the road, looking north. So your first impression isn’t formed by the lovely plaza and fountain at Merryvale’s front door. Instead what you see is a gray, even forbidding stone and concrete façade.

If you look closer, you’ll see railroad tracks running by the building. And you’ll notice that the building has two large and sturdy wooden doors, both closed. Beginning in the 1930s with the end of Prohibition, when Napa Valley and America were exulting in being able to once again drink legally, these doors were flung open for the first time. That was when Sunnyhill Winery—later renamed the much more poetic Sunny St. Helena Winery—was founded. The men of the winery would push their products out these doors to waiting train cars, which would deliver them to thirsty wine drinkers across the U.S.

A picture of some of these men hangs in the lobby near the tasting bar. They’re all posing in ties for the picture, no doubt waiting for it to be over so they could go back to some wine tasting of their own.

More drama: Redwood Barrel Room

The Sunny St. Helena Winery operated under several owners (including Cesare Mondavi, Robert’s father) until the early 1980s when it assumed its current name of Merryvale. A “vale” is a valley, so loosely translated it’s the Happy Valley Winery, in the spirit of its original tag. Swiss-born Jack Schlatter bought the winery in 1996 and his son Rene is now its president. The Schlatter family has invested resources and energy into Merryvale, including, I believe, renovating the Redwood Barrel Room. This is another special something at Merryvale, and it’s attached to but apart from the Cask Room.

The Redwood Barrel Room is exactly what it says it is: a redwood barrel—and a giant one at that. In its heyday, when it was filled to capacity, it held 22,360 gallons of wine, putting to shame those pipsqueak barrels nearby. It is just to the left as you enter the Cask Room. An iron gate swings open, and inside is a chandelier hanging above a round table. On the table are glasses, water, spittoons and bottles of Merryvale and Profile wine ready to be poured.

At our tasting winemaker Sean Foster did the pouring, while explaining about Merryvale’s winemaking practices and philosophy. “We want to make wines that aren’t chasing the [trendy] wines of today but have a consistent power, opulence and refinement,” he said. Whatever they’re chasing at Merryvale, they may have found it. One of the wines we imbibed was a delicious 2010 Profile, a red Bourdeaux blend that even residents of Haut-Medoc would have enjoyed.

Merryvale hosts Profile tastings—Profile is its signature red—in the Redwood Barrel Room; they feature the current release and three from past years ($85 per person). A cheese and wine pairing, also held there, is $50 per person.

What else to do when you visit

Merryvale is in a nice neighborhood. After or before your visit, there are lots of places to explore, all of them having to do with food and drink. Across the railroad tracks and Highway 29 is Gott’s Roadside, the hamburger drive-in once known as Taylor’s Refresher (933 Main). The last time we were there, we tried the Ahi burger ($14.99) and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Across from Merryvale’s courtyard is Pizzeria Tra Vigne, a spinoff of Tra Vigne the restaurant (1050 Charter Oak Avenue), which is next door to the winery. The table in the center of Tra Vigne’s courtyard is a kind of fountain; on it is a drinking pitcher toppled over on its side and spilling water.

Another place to try is the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch Winery (738 Main), across from Tra Vigne. If, after all this, you’re in the mood for still more eating and drinking pleasures, turn left from Tra Vigne and walk a few short blocks down Charter Oak past classic St. Helena homes with covered porches in front. At the end of the street is the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company, a little piece of Italy in the heart of Napa Valley.

‘Dirty Jobs’ footnote

Fans of Mike Rowe’s entertaining reality TV series, “Dirty Jobs,” now in reruns, should keep an eye out for the “Wine Maker” episode in which Rowe visits a Napa Valley winery to do all the grunt work involved in making wine. He picks grapes, cleans tanks and does other chores at Starmont Winery, Merryvale’s sister winery in Napa. Rowe works closely with a good-spirited winemaker in the show. That is Sean Foster.

Merryvale is at 1000 Main Street in St. Helena. Turn right into a driveway just past the gray facade and follow it down to the parking lot. There you will find the plaza and the winery’s formal entrance. Besides the events in the cask and barrel rooms, tastings are also held in the lobby wine bar, starting at $25 per person. 707-963-7777. tastingroom@merryvale.com.

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