Best Wineries
Duckhorn Vineyards Estate House exterior.

Duckhorn Vineyards in St. Helena

By Published On: April 14th, 2023

From the vibrant gardens to extraordinary wine service, Duckhorn Vineyards turns every visit into a grand experience.

Established in 1976, Duckhorn Vineyards is the dream of Dan and Margaret Duckhorn. Dan was inspired by the wines of St. Emilion and Pomerol in France, most notably the Merlot-based wines.

In 1978, Duckhorn’s founding winemaker made their first two wines, a Merlot from Three Palms Vineyard, and a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1982, they made Sauvignon Blanc using grapes from Marlee’s Vineyard, which is named after Margaret.

Today their team farms nine estate vineyards throughout several appellations, and partners with growers to craft an array of wines.

We interview Renée Ary, Duckhorn Vineyard’s Vice President of Winemaking to learn more.

What type of wine do you specialize in?

Renée Ary, Duckhorn Vineyard’s Vice President of Winemaking: We have been championing Merlot since our debut 1978 vintage.

In fact, years ago, our founder Dan Duckhorn was hailed as Mr. Merlot in the New York Times. While our Merlots are recognized as among the world’s best, especially our Three Palms Vineyard Merlot, we also make an array of acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignons, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from Napa Valley.

Dan Duckhorn, founder of Buckhorn Vineyards.
Dan Duckhorn. Dubbed “Mr. Merlot”, Dan is a highly respected leader in the wine industry. Photo Courtesy: Duckhorn Vineyards.

Share a popular tasting experience?

Renée Ary: Guided by our founder, Margaret, Duckhorn Vineyards played a key role in establishing a more intimate and elevated approach to hospitality in Napa Valley, and that continues today.

Margaret Duckhorn in the vineyard.
Margaret Duckhorn was known for her commitment to the wine industry and philanthropy. (1939-2022) Photo Courtesy: Duckhorn Vineyards.

We took things to the next level when we established our stunning Estate House and Tasting Room in St. Helena in 2001. With its traditional wine country aesthetic, wraparound veranda, beautiful gardens and picturesque views of Marlee’s Vineyard, it is an unforgettable place to experience our wines.

Duckhorn Vineyards Estate House Interior.
Duckhorn Vineyards Estate House Interior. Photo Courtesy: John Sutton.

While we offer guided seated tastings of our Duckhorn Vineyards wines at the Estate House, I often recommend our Portfolio Tasting. This tasting features both Duckhorn wines, and sought-after selections from some of the other wineries in The Duckhorn Portfolio, which includes Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Migration, Decoy, Canvasback, Calera and Kosta Browne.

If you like a diverse tasting experience, the Portfolio Tasting is not to be missed.

Duckhorn Vineyards tasting with cheese pairing add-on.
Duckhorn Vineyards tasting with cheese pairing add-on. Photo Courtesy: Bob McClenahan.

What makes your wine unique?

Renée Ary: Duckhorn Vineyards has been focused on producing classic, full-bodied, food-friendly, age-worthy Napa Valley wines for over four decades, and because of this focus and dedication, we have a lot of experience doing what we do.

Just as important, we have never chased trends. We have always remained true to our style and will continue to make wines that are classic and timeless. I strive to make wines that are both approachable now but also have the ability to age.

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot Three Palms Vineyard.
2019 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot Three Palms Vineyard.

What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?

Renée Ary: We have an amazing company culture across The Duckhorn Portfolio, and that started with Dan and Margaret. From my first day at Duckhorn, I was treated like family, and that family culture permeates throughout every department still today.

Duckhorn Vineyards Estate House.
Duckhorn Vineyards Estate House. Photo Courtesy: Bob McClenahan Photography.

Describe your winemaking approach.

Renée Ary: My winemaking philosophy has always been from more of a traditional approach. I don’t like to be too heavy-handed in the winemaking process.

Winemaking is a delicate balance of being hands-on and hands-off and knowing when to intervene. We make wines that represent time & place while always showcasing the unique varietal character.

Too much manipulation can change that expression quickly. I like balanced, food-friendly wines that are complex and timeless.

Duckhorn Vineyards winemaker Renee Ary with wine glass.
Renee Ary with wine glass. Photo Courtesy: Wildly Simple Productions

You’ll hear this from a lot of winemakers, because it is absolutely true. Winemaking starts in the vineyard, so sourcing is key. As a winemaker, I am incredibly fortunate to work with nine remarkable estate vineyards, as well as grapes from some of the best winegrowers in Napa.

I believe that the little details make a big difference and that striking a harmonious balance in life is essential – this can be especially true when crafting wines.

Duckhorn Vineyards Tasting Room Outside.
Duckhorn Vineyards Tasting Room Outside. Photo Courtesy: John Sutton Photography

What do you love about winemaking? 

Renée Ary: I love that winemaking is the perfect blend of art and science. I’m captivated by seasonal shifts in winemaking, and that no two vintages are alike.

I also love the tradition that comes along with winemaking and all of the pieces that go into the process, from farming to harvesting cork and wood for barrels. So many hands touch the process. It is truly unique.

Duckhorn Vineyards tasting with cheese plate.
Duckhorn Vineyards tasting with cheese plate. Photo Courtesy: Bob McClenahan.

Do you remember the first time you fell in love with wine?

Renée Ary: It was more about a feeling than a single wine that made me fall in love with wine and the industry. Working my first harvest, I discovered a deeper appreciation for wine and all its complexities. The excitement and energy that took over the valley once harvest started was something I will never forget.

At that moment, I knew winemaking would be a lifelong career and I haven’t looked back since!

Duckhorn Vineyards Winemaker, Renée Ary walking in Three Palms Vineyard.
Duckhorn Vineyards Winemaker, Renée Ary walking in Three Palms Vineyard. Photo Courtesy: Wildly Simple Productions.

How did you get started in the wine industry? 

In college I earned a degree in chemistry and art. I was fascinated by the intersection between science and art, which ultimately led me to winemaking. I started out in the laboratory of Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, where I spent four years working closely with Genevieve Janssens, Steve Leveque, and Richard Sowalsky.

When I came to Duckhorn Vineyards in 2003, I worked closely with Mark Beringer and really began to understand the nuances of Merlot, but also gained a better understanding of blending and vineyard operations. In addition to this invaluable hands-on experience, I augmented my understanding of winemaking and viticulture through classes at UC Davis and Napa Valley College.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the winemaking process?

I learned my work ethic from my dad at an early age. He was extremely hard-working and taught me that it’s important to enjoy what you do and that if you love your work, it will bring forth a sense of pride. I have been lucky to find a career that embodies both my love of art and science.

Duckhorn Vineyards Winemaker, Renée Ary writing on board.
Duckhorn Vineyards Winemaker, Renée Ary. Photo Courtesy: Wildly Simple Productions.

As far as lessons learned in the winemaking process, I learned early on in blending that 1+1 doesn’t always equal 2. Wines do interesting things when you blend them together, and that’s really where the artistic side of winemaking comes into play. 

Do you have any winery traditions with your team?

Renée Ary: My two favorite team traditions are the blessing of the grapes and the harvest party. Harvest is my favorite time of the year, and I love that we celebrate both the beginning and end of harvest with a celebration.

Every year we toast the first fruit of the season with sparkling and donuts on the crush pad, and we do it together as a company. It’s important to celebrate the new vintage together, and the first fruit signifies the hope of another great vintage to come.

The harvest party is a celebration of all of our hard work throughout the year, not only harvest time, but also the work vineyard teams do throughout the growing season to get us the best quality fruit possible.

Duckhorn Vineyard grapevine.
Rector Creek Vineyard is planted to 6 varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Photo Courtesy: Duckhorn Vineyards.

How does your team help you as a winemaker?

Renée Ary: I am incredibly fortunate to have such an amazing team who are passionate and always keep quality at the top of their priority list. Duckhorn Vineyards winemaking requires an immense amount of detail, and the team is great at tracking the many little details that make our wines so special.

The team is also flexible, which allows us to respond to any challenges Mother Nature throws our way. 

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