When Robert Parker awards your first wine a 95, you know you’ve made something special.
But don’t let that number bias you toward Patel Winery. It’s more of a treat if you taste the Napa wines without any preconceived notions. That’s how I came to meet owner Raj Patel, at last year’s High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction. His wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon and the Red Wine, a Bordeaux-style blend – were among my favorite discoveries at the event. When I found out that Raj was returning for this year’s auction, I couldn’t wait to meet with him and taste his current releases.
Raj founded Patel Winery in 2006. He secured fruit and a custom crush facility in 2007, and made some wine in 2008. In 2009 he joined the Napa Valley Vintners Association and submitted his Cabernet for review with Robert Parker. More recently he brought on Luc Morlet, one of Napa’s top winemakers. Patel Winery sources its grapes from six vineyards and makes the wine at Luc’s winery.
I could go on for several paragraphs about how the Patel wines are intense yet elegant, with layers of fruit and earth notes that end in a long finish. But here’s all you need to know: Patel wines are really really good.
Over breakfast the morning of the 2015 High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction, Raj and I spoke about Patel Winery, what makes the wines unique and what’s next.
Amateur Gastronomer: How did you get started in the wine business?
Raj Patel: I was at UC Davis and I needed a summer job, and I went and worked at Robert Mondavi. I knew nothing about the wine business, absolutely nothing. I was a biochemistry major. I knew how to work in a lab, so they hired me as a lab tech.
On Saturdays Tim Mondavi and a few people would teach us how to taste wine. But at the end of the day I was a lab tech that just learned. From that I started collecting wine and making some on my own. And as time went by, I got more and more into it.
AG: When did you decide to start your own winery?
RP: It was 2005 when I really decided to do it. Before then there was no custom crush facility, there was no shared proprietor of a facility. Growers pretty much sold wine, they had their own vineyard or they sold to big wineries.
AG: How did your wines start getting attention?
RP: In 2009 I submitted [the Cabernet Sauvignon] for a wine review and joined the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Robert Parker had never done this before, where he reviewed the wines of small producers at the Napa Valley Vintners Association. There was a meet and greet with him and so he talked with me. He had tried my wine before that day and said it was a fabulous Cabernet. We got a 95 our first vintage, and then it just took off after that.
It grew by word of mouth. We went from 100 cases to 300, 500, 800, one thousand. We’re in 30 states and have four or six countries that we ship to.
AG: So a labor of love quickly turned into a second full time job, in addition to your career in finance.
RP: It’s fun, but it’s a business. And people don’t realize that. The wine has that romance to it but at the end of the day it is a business. There’s a spreadsheet behind it.
AG: Especially because of how involved you are with your winemaker, Luc Morlet.
RP: When I sit with Luc we’re sitting there for five hours blending. It’s work. And no one is allowed in that meeting, it’s just my winemaker and me. And he likes it that way. At the end of the day we’ll make 20, 30 samples in different ways. And then as an owner you get to sit there and say ‘ah, I like this blend.’ We’re signing off on this. And once we sign off we start blending, bottling, that’s it. So that’s the nerve-racking part.
In 2011 as an example, with the Cabernet, I was nervous about it. Originally when we bottled it, there was a green note in there. And even when I tasted it in December I thought this is not what I wanted. But now, when you decant it, it seems to blow off. And the next thing you know, today I taste it, and I’m willing to say a year from now the 2011 is going to be a stellar Cabernet. It’s just going to take some time to turn.
AG: At this year’s High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction you’re pouring your current releases, the 2012 Red Wine and 2011 Cabernet.
RP: We always release our Cabernet one year back, so next year it will be the 2013 Red Wine and our 2012 Cabernet.
The Cabernet ages around 18 to 20 months in barrel, depending on the vintage, and then about 18 months in bottle. So it really gets good time before the customer gets it. It’s almost four years old by the time they get it.
With the Red Wine we’ve always put in some Cabernet every year. In 2012 we didn’t put any Cabernet in it. The 2012 has 80% Merlot, which is the highest percentage of Merlot that we’ve ever had. And people love it. The rest is Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. I believe in 2013 the Red Wine will have all five varietals.
AG: What do you look for when making your wine, year after year?
RP: One of the key things that I like is making sure that the bouquet and the nose are in harmony with the flavor. We look for balance in the wine, make sure there’s not too much acid and make sure it’s not too flabby. As for the actual flavor, Mother Nature gives us something different every year so it’s hard to say exactly. We don’t like to over-ripen the berries. It does bring out some bright fruit notes, but we do look for the darker fruit notes like the blueberries, the fig type, the coffee notes. Every vintage it changes, but the thing is the wine that we make isn’t over jammy. It’s food-friendly wine.
We have four different cooperages that we use, so that makes up our style profile. We use Vicard very specifically. Those are heavy toasted barrels. Those are the ones that are used with something that may be a little bit ripe, maybe the Cabernet, and we use it just to get that espresso note. So then we’ll have two barrels of that out of fifty so it’s literally like a spice rack. We may use one barrel in the blend. So it’s very specific in that nature.
The good thing about Patel wines is that we started always making elegant wines. For a period there was a shift toward the fruit bombs and I’m glad we didn’t do that. So in our case while everyone is doing a style shift back to elegant, we’ve always been there. That’s how we’ll always be. So the future wines they’ll just be a little more elegantly made.
AG: What’s next for Patel Winery?
RP: We’re going to make AVA designated wines. We’re also going to be making a Malbec. We may come out with a Cabernet Franc Cabernet blend, or we might go completely Right Bank style where it is Merlot and Cab Franc only. I haven’t decided.
As long as it fits ‘is this delicious and yummy?’ then we’ve achieved it.
To purchase current releases from Patel Winery, sign up for the mailing list on their website. In the Atlanta area Patel wines can be found at Cherokee Town & Country Club, St Cecilia, Taka Sushi and Uncorked Marietta.
For more information visit www.patelwinery.com.