16th Nov 2023
16th Nov 2023
“Sometimes success is as simple as hearing your inner voice and having the courage to act on it,” says Mike Smith, owner and winemaker of Myriad. “I don’t have fancy internships or an enology degree. It was really the journey and the people along the way that led me down this path.”
Mike learned winemaking by working for some of Napa Valley’s most famous players, including Thomas Brown. Today, Mike’s Myriad wines are right up there in that rarified air of the most revered Napa Cabs, but his beginnings were down-to-earth.
Growing up in Sonoma Valley's Valley of the Moon, Mike Smith was exposed to wine and vineyards from a young age.
Mike met his wife, Leah, while studying at Oregon State University.
“I would take us on dates to the Oregon wine country, and I began to research wine and winemaking,” Mike explains. “For Leah’s 21st birthday, I surprised her with our first road trip in my parents’ old minivan. We drove from Corvallis to Calistoga and stayed at the Silver Rose Inn (which is now the Four Seasons Hotel). We just knocked on winery doors, popped in unannounced with no appointments, and were greeted with open arms. We fell in love with the community spirit, and Napa Valley became one of our favorite places.”
After college, Mike and Leah moved to Portland, Oregon.
“My love for wine grew, and I became interested in the process. But honestly, I began by making beer. After a few batches, I decided to jump into making wine for more of a challenge. So, I visited the Willamette Valley and see if anyone would sell me grapes. A few small home vineyards agreed, and my winemaking journey began in a garage in Portland.”
The emerging Portland Slow Food Movement and accompanying wine scene gave Mike access to hard-to-find wines, including sought-after labels from Burgundy and Piedmont, as well as Oregon Pinots. But what he was really yearning for was Napa Cabernets and Zinfandels.
Mike remembers, “I placed an ad on The Wine Spectator website asking to trade Oregon Pinot Noir, Burgundy, and Piedmont wines for hard-to-obtain California Cabernets and Zinfandels. Several people answered, but one stood out as having a great vibe, and he started trading me Turley wines. I finally asked him where he got all his Turley from, and he said he was the assistant winemaker. As Leah and I would visit Napa often, he invited us for a barrel sample visit. We met him at Turley Winery in Calistoga. At the end of the visit, he told me that he was going out on his own for the next harvest with some new clients, including Schrader, Outpost, Tamber Bey, and his personal project, Rivers Marie. The guy I was trading wine with was Thomas Brown. He said I should work a harvest with him, and I eagerly accepted. When I came down the next fall, he put me up in his spare bedroom, and we cruised around in his Isuzu Trooper. I worked that crush free of charge up at Outpost Winery. I came down from Oregon and worked for free for two more harvests.”
When Mike’s family business in Oregon was sold, he was at a crossroads as to where to go next. Then Leah reminded him, “You never want to look back on your life and wonder: woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
“Leah encouraged me to ask Thomas for a job,” says Mike. “I was offered a three-month crush job for $12.00 an hour. I figured $12.00 was a raise from working for free! We sold our house and moved to St. Helena with our two small daughters. My early winery experiences were at Outpost, Constant, Nicholson Ranch, and Black Sears. Thomas was my catalyst. He showed me the process but left it to me to develop my own style and approach.”
Among other clients, Thomas and Mike were making Syrahs for Nicholson Ranch. In 2005, Mike was offered some Nicholson Ranch fruit and was told he could pay them back later. This would become the first release of Myriad.
“We started Myriad in 2005 just as a resume so that I could show potential employers a wine I’d made. Myriad means 10,000 in Latin. That’s what we spent on making the first vintage. But Myriad also means ‘many things’—all the people who contribute to this wine. We didn’t want a ‘look at me’ name, and Myriad is the most ‘don’t look at me’ name we could think of. I’d rather just put my head down and make great wine.”
Word of mouth spread about the early Myriad wines, and critical acclaim followed within a few years. Today, Myriad produces a sought-after collection of mainly single-vineyard wines.
“I like to make wines that show a sense of place, hence why I love to do vineyard designates,” says Mike. “My wines are powerful and textural yet have a pillowy mid-palate. My approach is extremely present and hands-on, yet hands-off at the same time. For me, it’s really about letting the vineyards and the grape variety express their pure personality and not manipulating what Mother Nature has offered. I also take a lot of calculated risks and I’m very natural in my winemaking. Les Behrens gave me some of the best advice very early in my career. He told me, ‘Never take your hands off your own wines.’”
In 2019, one of Mike’s “bucket list” vineyards in Napa Valley offered him fruit, wanting to see what he could do with their grapes. However, he was not allowed to mention the vineyard’s name.
“We have an NDA on the source, so this is an undisclosed single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. As for what to name it, well, one night, Leah and I were watching one of our favorite shows called, ‘Billions.’ In the episode, the main character comments to his sidekick that they are in ‘Rarefied Air.’ I thought, what a great name for a wine.”
Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photography by Svante Örnberg
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