I was in the midst of a perfect night, the lingering hours of my son’s 11th birthday celebration, with our closest friends and family. We had enjoyed a day at the park, riding bikes and eating cake, then hop-skipped to our house to pass around wines and take in an outdoor movie under a heat lamp and stars.
It wasn’t until I settled my son into bed, that I happened to swipe through my phone to check on the Warriors score. Instead, my heart went limp, my head in shock.
There was news of a deadly car accident in Yountville, a place I frequent often in the course of my job. Well-known winemaker Denis Malbec had been killed. His passenger, Josh Phelps of Taken Wine, another familiar face and wonderfully charismatic presence in the wine world, had survived.
It was Denis’s wife, May-Britt, who on the night of April 16, had posted the first thing I saw about the terrible event. A photo of a simple, peach-colored rose, in honor of Denis. How could she be so strong, so available emotionally to the world?
I first met Denis and May-Britt in 2010, I’m pretty sure, as they were set to launch Captûre, a Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon project sourced largely from Tin Cross Vineyards, a wild patch of land at 2,450 feet elevation on Pine Mountain, north of Alexander Valley.
The afternoon spent with the couple was inspiringly warmhearted, Denis possessing the elegance of a Bordelaise without the expected pretense. Northern California fit him well, he was so open, kind and eager to smile. I remember he had a gentle sense of humor and so much love for May-Britt and for the work they did together.
As has been widely reported, Denis grew up at Château Latour in Pauillac, France, where his father, Jean-Noel, served as cellar master, and his grandfather, Camille, was vigneron. As a young boy he learned to ride his bike through the vines. He went on to study viticulture and enology in Bordeaux and then Reims in Champagne.
In 1993 Denis started working in the cellar at Chateau Latour, becoming the enologist and cellar master the following year, positions he held until 1999. In 1995 he met May-Britt, a European Master Sommelier who had been hired to take on public relations at Latour. In Sweden May-Britt had worked in many of Stockholm’s highest-end restaurants before opening her own, Le Bateau, on the Royal Star, a yacht built for King Frederic of Denmark.
Together the Malbecs had decades of experience in viticulture and winemaking, as well as marketing, making them a sought-after and well-loved pair in the wine-consulting world. They moved to the United States in 2000, setting up base in St. Helena, working for such clients over the years as Charles Krug, Kapcsandy Wines, Respite Wines, Sodaro Estate and Medlock Ames. They also made Aliénor.
The wines will live on despite the heartbreak and shock of Denis’s passing. May-Britt continues to post remembrances and thoughts of her husband online, with the persistent support of friends, family and colleagues around the world. An instance of social media bringing us closer together when grief and interminable sadness are involved.
Instead of that first picture of a rose which relayed the very bad news of the accident, I choose to conjure up in my mind a subsequent image posted by May-Britt—one showing dozens and dozens of bouquets of flowers left on her doorstep all this week, a nod to Denis’s passion for gardening and the enduring love this Napa/Sonoma wine community will always have for them both.