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Chapter 2: Philippe Melka and Château Haut-Brion

Chapter 2: Philippe Melka and Château Haut-Brion

A harkening back to where Thomas Jefferson had been mesmerized.

This story leads us back to France and Château Haut-Brion, but this time more than 200 years have passed. It’s the summer of 1990, a sweltering one all over Europe, destined to ripen a great wine vintage.

A young man hunches over in a field of vines, with gravel constantly crackling underfoot as he strides up and down the rows. Using an electric set of clippers wired to a battery pack on his belt, he clips hard green clusters of underripe Cabernet Sauvignon grapes like a surgeon, dropping them on the ground, one by one.

This young man, armed with a degree in geology and a master’s in agronomy, is hard at work in his new position as an intern at the famous Château Haut-Brion, where Thomas Jefferson had been mesmerized 200 years earlier. The young man is working on his first assignment from winemakers Jean Delmas and Jean Philippe Masclef: an experiment in crop thinning, to see how timing the green harvest affects specific blocks.

That young man is Philippe Melka, a native of Bordeaux and who we know today as one of the Napa Valley’s most acclaimed and sought-after winemaker. During the five months he spent at the first-growth Haut-Brion, Melka’s eyes were opened to not only how great a wine from Bordeaux could be, but also the importance of small minutiae in viticulture and winemaking.

He took his knowledge with him and built upon it again and again, first at Dominus Estate in Yountville, Château Pétrus in Pomerol, and then at Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And he was only getting started.

One of Melka’s signatures is that he is first and foremost a man of the soil. His goal is simply to let the earth express itself in the glass and maximize the expression of ripe fruit. Taste the range of his work and it becomes apparent that nothing is overdone; his wines exalt freshness, structure and finish in contrast to power and fruit, much like the wines of Bordeaux, but with the influence of California sunshine.

In order to craft something uniquely special we looked to our past so we might create a wine for the future. – Philippe Melka
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Chapter 1​: The Story of Amlés Begins With Thomas Jefferson

Chapter 1: A Story of Place and Time

The story of Amlés begins with Thomas Jefferson.

Amlés Wines is a story of place and time; from the 2000-year-old vineyards of Bordeaux, to the first vineyard plantings of 18th century central Virginia, to the coming of age of the vineyards planted in the 1800’s in the Napa Valley. Old-world, new-world. Tradition, modernity.

Amlés Wines is also the story of an estate called Selma in Loudoun County, Virginia. The first home on the estate was built in 1810. This story, however, begins even earlier—with Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson spent six years in France from 1784 as the fledging American Ambassador, replacing the esteemed Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson’s French wine education came from sitting at the dinner table with old Ben and enjoying Ben’s knowledge of wine while sampling the wines from his cellar.

Jefferson traveled the French countryside for many months in 1787, from Paris east through the Burgundy region, south through the Rhône valley, on to Marseilles, and finally heading west towards the Atlantic coast to Langon, home to what became his favorite white wine: Château d’Yquem. Finally, Jefferson arrived in Pessac, Bordeaux in May of 1787.

On the 24th of May, he visited Château Haut-Brion, which would become his favorite red wine. After tasting the famous wine, Jefferson purchased 24 cases for shipment to his home at Monticello in Albemarle County, Virginia. Today, in the cellars at “Obrion” there is a plaque and a bust of Jefferson to commemorate the visit and his promotion of the quality of the wines of the Bordeaux region.

Prior to Jefferson’s time in France, he dreamed of starting a vineyard in the hills around his Virginia home with the aim to one day to create a wine that would rival the wines of France. In 1773, he and Italian viticulturist Filippo Mazzei planted 2,000 acres of European vitis vinifera vines. While they did have some early success, it was unfortunately short-lived. After a few years and with the Revolutionary War underway, the vineyard soon succumbed to the ravages of pests and neglect.

This story leads us back to France and Château Haut-Brion, but this time more than 200 years had passed. It’s the summer of 1990, a sweltering one all over Europe, destined to ripen a great wine vintage. A young man hunches over in a field of vines, with gravel constantly crackling underfoot as he strides up and down the rows. Using an electric set of clippers wired to a battery pack on his belt, he clips hard green clusters of underripe Cabernet Sauvignon grapes like a surgeon, dropping them on the ground, one by one.

Wine brightens the life and thinking of anyone. - Thomas Jefferson

Portrait by Ron Rundo