Encircled by miles of neatly planted vines that seem to stretch to the horizon, a large realm of the senses is overwhelming while lingering in Napa’s historic Bennett Vineyard with legendary winemaker Mark Herold.
The natural world of grapes, leaves, and twigs are stunning, consuming, eyes, ears, nose and fingertips with the maze of brilliant green vines, the rustle of soft leaves fluttering in the light breeze, the earthy smell of the soil, and the rough texture of the illustrious vine trunks growing out of the ground as stubborn and stiff as the gnarled legs of an ancient human. Time stands still for a moment at the heart of this vigorous vineyard, as if it is holding its breath in anticipation of the drinkable art this man creates from the bounty of nature.
The sun slips behind wispy clouds, the flight of a hawk casts a brief shadow over the restless green, as Herold, soft-spoken, introspective, and unassuming, gently touches a cluster of fledging grapes the size of small pearls. Full of promise as yet unfulfilled, they are reminders of the often-unpredictable rhythm of life in a vineyard, and a private space for embracing new discoveries, holding on to old secrets, and bearing the burden of history. Tiered hills with vines creeping skyward create a sanctuary for work and life and stewardship. Here, Herold underwent an intense journey while grappling with the sheer multiplicity of variables in Napa’s micro-climate, the changing balance of rainfall and sunshine, Napa’s 33 different soil series, the vagaries of harvesting and fermentation, a mosaic of 44 different wine grape varieties, and more. With great resolve, he created prize-winning wines with the care Van Gogh devoted to his paintings.
The Bennett Vineyard is hallowed ground where Herold first sourced the fruit from which he created the wine that launched him into the world of wine-making and earned his reputation as the founder of the esteemed Merus wine. Touching a vine and carefully examining a leaf, he said, “I like to plant so the sun is overhead. The leaves protect the grapes. You can feel the energy in the vines; it surrounds you. There is so much life here! I see mountain lions, coyotes, and migrating wild turkeys that unfortunately love the fruit.” Gazing at the rows of vines that were spread across the terrain in a mesmerizing pattern designed by a master craftsman and smiling, he continued, “For me, a vine that struggles does not make good wine. A happy vine is happy wine.”
One of five children, Herold was born in Newport, California, and at age four moved to Panama City in the early 1960’s when Panama and the United States were struggling for control of the Panama Canal and debating which flag should be flown at its entrance and exit. Herold’s father, Raymond, was a successful psychiatrist, and, along with his wife Marisa, an avid angler noted for catching world-record sailfish. “I had a special childhood in Panama,” Herold says. “I loved to bike around the city, skateboard, and fish with my parents. I was a kitchen helper and my mother was a lasting influence. My parents always entertained a lot. They served French wine at dinner and there were always lots of flowers on the dining room table and in the house. Helping in the kitchen, I thought the smells were exceedingly persuasive and memorable, and to this day I love to cook.”
Mark was fully immersed in the vibrant culture of Panama, absorbing the cuisine of his Panamanian mother, the lifestyle of a Panamanian fisherman, and the practiced skill and anxiety of casting a line into a ruffled sea. At age 16, when hormones are rampaging and life is both buoyant and intense, his parents divorced and Herold moved north to Southern California with his father. The transformation of cultures was an enormous windfall for Mark Herold. Fluent in Spanish, he now lived in a State noted among the world’s great wine producers with more than 2,000 wineries and growing. His persistent wine and vine alter ego, a tenacious shadow always lingering about, was exceedingly pleased with his new home.
Bordering on being a professional student and at one time planning to study culinary arts in Paris, Herold enrolled at U.C. Davis and was honored with a Ph.D. in Ecology with an emphasis on nutritional bio-chemistry. While at Davis, he hooked up with a professor who owned a winery and immersed himself in the fall harvest as a volunteer. Mark was finally following his heart. For two productive years, the large family-owned Joseph Phelps Winery was Herold’s stomping ground. Hired as a Research Enologist, he studied the art and science of winemaking and the phenolic profiles of grapes, which was an important stepping-stone on his path.
Sitting in his Napa tasting room, a swordfish mounted on the wall, he said, “I simply was fed up working with other people. I felt confident and thought if they can do it, I can do it.” In 1998, in a three-car garage in the heart of Napa with six borrowed French oak barrels from friends and family, he and his former wife Erika Gottl created Merus, which in Latin means pure, unmixed, undiluted and completely absolute. For Herold, it means making wine from the most carefully chosen fruit in exceedingly small quantities, with unsparing attention to detail, striving always to reach a new level of excellence. “To make it work,” Herold said, “we often shared tastings with the neighbors and particularly those who were not too happy with us, and thankfully, after a few years, we finally outgrew the garage.” Merus was a huge local and international winner offering intense complexity and color from fully mature fruit.
Mark Herold’s entrance into the world of wine was confirmed with the opening of his own Napa tasting room, and appointments as consulting winemaker at the exclusive Celani Family Vineyards and winemaker at the award-winning Kamen Estate Wines. Owner and vintner Robert Kamen, an articulate and passionate screen writer and producer of 20 major films said, “Mark Herold has to be among the top three Napa Valley winemakers. He’s consistently produced world-class wines. His wines take on a personality, and he has a close relationship with Latino growers and workers and uses Spanish every day. Mark is creative and precise, operating on two levels, art and science, and with his own form of organization allows the grapes to speak through the wine.”
The Bennett Vineyard, a Napa garden of dreams gracefully blessed with a veil of emerald green, is vibrant beneath a lively sun and the gate is always left open for Mark Herold.