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Musing about Merlot


I have to agree with my buddy and Wine Enthusiast colleague, Paul Gregutt, when he says that most California Merlot priced between $6-$8 is “just watery plonk.”

That’s from Paul’s Seattle Times column yesterday. Now, Paul takes seriously his job of promoting Washington State wines, often to the detriment of California wines (although he loves hanging out here during Washington’s evil winters, and why wouldn’t a grape like our climate?). In the same way, I feel obligated to defend California wines as among the world’s best. Washington State does produce some pretty good wines. I don’t get the chance to drink them a lot, but whenever I’m up there, if Paul’s around he treats me to treasures from his cellar.

But he’s right about cheap California Merlot. I’ve tasted about 200 Merlots at all price points this year. Of those, I scored around one-third 85 points or less. Now, that’s a “good” wine, by Wine Enthusiast’s definition, but it’s not really one you’d want to be stuck with over a nice meal, especially when the price is $30, $49, $56, as some of these were. Granted, none were as awful as the one I found undrinkable, which will be unidentified, except here’s the review: A horrible wine. Smells like rotting garbage, tastes like cough medicine. Even at seven bucks, it was a total ripoff. Something obviously went tragically wrong with that wine, but we can’t hold it against Merlot, the variety, when somebody starts with crappy grapes and then makes a crappy wine.

More typical of Paul’s “watery plonk” Merlots was this one, which I scored 81 points: Raw and harsh in green tannins, with bubblegum and raspberry sour candy flavors. The problem with the tannins in Merlot is that, unless they’re really fine, they stick out like a sore thumb, and rob Merlot of the velvety, sexy mouthfeel it should have. (I love Hugh Johnson’s characterization of Pomerol as “fleshy and delicious.”) When the tannins are off, so is everything else.

I will identify a typical 86 point Merlot I reviewed because, while the score isn’t all that high, it’s only $11, and I gave it an Editor’s Choice special designation: the Greystone 2009, also with a California appellation. Here’s my review: Softly delicate and dry, this affordable Merlot has lots of charm. It’s a smooth, medium-bodied wine with pleasant cherry, cola, pepper and sandalwood flavors.

Not a bad description, if I do say so myself!

Paul, however, misses the boat when he paints all of California with the same brush, arguing that “the state can’t seem to find a handle on what Merlot is, or should taste like.” He can’t have access to the best Cali Merlots, the way I do, but if he could, he’d understand that there is a California Merlot style at the high end, as exemplified by Rutherford Hill, Keenan, Duckhorn, Turnbull, Hall, Pride Mountain, Shafer, Jarvis, Yates Family, Kennefick Ranch, Carter and others, all of which have Napa Valley AVAs or sub-AVAs (except for the Pride Mountain, which is Napa-Sonoma, and the Carter, which is Napa-Carneros). These wines are rich, dense and deeply flavored, soft and lush in the mouth, and stuffed with jam fruit and cedar flavors, often enriched with cocoa. They are distinguished from their brother, Cabernet Sauvignon, by gentler tannins. They are, pace Hugh Johnson, fleshy. Wouldn’t it be great to stage a blind tasting of some of these against some of Paul’s Washington faves, such as Leonetti, L’Ecole, Quilceda Creek, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Sineann and Northstar?

By the way, the highest scoring Merlot I ever reviewed was Chateau St. Jean’s 2005 Reserve, which I gave 96 points. It cost $90, the second priciest ever, after a $100 Blankiet 2004 (95 points). Those are serious, seriously good Merlots. I think even Paul Gregutt would like them.

  1. Interestingly, just before checking in here, I read Paul’s comments about WA Merlot. He is not universally right despite his promise to his readers. But, I do agree that WA State does a far better job with Merlot than we do here in CA.

    We do not do a very good job with any inexpensive wine–not just Merlot. His analysis can be picked apart at various points, and simple comparisons between Duckhorn Merlot and CS would be instructive as well. But, that said, I find myself in general agreement at the low-end. At the high-priced end, CA and WA more or less draw as both make very good Merlots. You and Paul operate in parallel universes. I do taste both CA and WA, and I agree with Paul that WA Merlots do often rate special notice.

  2. Steve, you’ve got “meat” in this post, fun and educational. Though I’ve found a few good inexpensive Washington State Merlots (Columbia Crest Estate $9.00-$12.00 comes to mind), I found CA to have more choices available in NH.
    I probably will not be the only one commenting on some very good Merlot from CA., but here’s a few good ones at around $10.00 (What I paid in retail stores in NH) that I’ve tried and enjoyed.
    Kelley Creek Merlot 2007, $10.99,
    Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Merlot 2004, $9.50!!!!!
    Irony Napa Valley 2008 Merlot , $11.70
    Irony Napa Valley 2009 Merlot, $12.99

  3. Honest question. Are vineyard prices such that you can really compare a Washington merlot with a California merlot? Taking the extreme, it would likely be, necessarily, dreadful fruit to have a $10 Napa merlot. Not sure about vineyard prices in other areas of California though.

  4. I can’t vouch for $5 Merlot… but I would add to Paul’s comment that there is little to cheer about CA Merlot even when it is in the $30 range. I tasted through about a dozen in the last months and only found a handful over 85 points, my threshold below which are wines I describe as ‘technically well made and serviceable’. The most recent Caforo was a pleasant surprise, but considering how long he has been making wine, maybe not. At the top end of the spectrum, The 08-10 Buccella Merlot, 09 Blackbird Illustration and Kapcsandy 08 and 09 Roberta’s are all excellent, ut not inexpensive. Carneros seems to be the place where it grows best.

  5. Anthony, I think you’re onto something there.

  6. Ah, I remember the days when Merlot was King – or at least Prince! I’m not surprised that a favorite Merlot came from Chat. St. Jean. Too many in Napa in the 1990’s thought they were making Cab when they tried to make any other red varietal. But I’m remembering some of the fruity, rich Merlots from Alexander Valley. Need tannin? Blend in some Merlot from the Eastern bench, like Bob Young’s vineyard. Steve Test made some great Merlot at Stonestreet, as did Don Fraser at De Lorimier. At Clos du Bois we routinely blended Dry Creek Merlot into our Classic blue label, as well as Cab and Cab Franc when needed. I suspect a lot of the best Merlot still planted goes into high priced Meritage wines. But $6-8 for any red wine from the North Coast is a huge quality gamble.

  7. Interesting musings about Merlot. Steve’s position on inexpensive CA Merlot – and I would include most Merlots under $20, personally – is accurate, if disheartening. This is one category in which the Right Bank of Bordeaux rules. However, once we move up into premium CA Merlot, over $20, and certainly over $30, the game changes completely. In Napa, to be specific, we are finally locating the areas in which this variety excels: Pride (Spring Mtn.), Twomey (mostly Atlas Peak), Beringer Bancroft (Howell Mtn.), Swanson Oakville (the band of clay soils between Hwy.29 and Rudd/Screaming Eagle), Shafer (Napa Valley), and yes, the Blankiet (Yountville)are all solid producers of good Merlot. The post-Sideways Merlot ‘crisis’ pushed some inconsistent producers out of the market, and fortunately for consumers, the more serious producers are left standing. IMHO, the concept of good low-priced CA Merlot will continue to be elusive; Merlot grown in the right appellations, in appropriate soils, and aged in barrels, is just too expensive. “Go low, drink Bordeaux, aim high, give Napa a try”.
    Sorry for the bad poetry…

  8. Steve, thanks for weighing in. I also blogged about this yesterday, with more space and a more recent look at my 2011 merlot reviews. I think I had 82 merlot reviews in the W/E database this year, and even I was amazed at how high they scored. I never meant to say or imply that there are no good merlots in CA; of course there are, and I do get to taste some of them. But at any price point, I think WA can do better. And quite honestly, consumers (and by extension retailers) don’t give a rat’s heinie what your vineyard costs are, or if your kid’s college tuition went up, or if you really need another fancy piece of lab equipment. Your costs are irrelevant to them. Their costs are what count. What is the best merlot they can buy for $6? For $9? For $15 or $25 or $40? Can we do a taste-off? You bet we can. I will leave the logistics to you!

  9. Paul, that would be a good name for a Merlot: Rat’s Heinie.

  10. Chris, thank you for your perspective.

  11. Ron Saikowski - Wine Walk Columnist in Houston says:

    California is better suited for growing Merlots on a general basis EXCEPT the last two years much of California’s great grape regions have tried to immitate Washington weather. Wonder what the last two years of Merlots will bring to wineries who have previously produced great Merlots?

    I ran into a 2002 Pheasant Ridge Merlot produced with Texas High Plains grapes and aged nicely in oak to provide a great Merlot. Although slightly over $20 per bottle, I think it would have given a California Merlot a challenge to top. What does anyone know of these smaller Texas wineries? Thanks for the thoughts!

  12. I remember in the early ’90s that Merlot from Markham and Matanzas Creek were nearly impossible to keep around because of the high demand. I think CGCW led me to appreciate these early on. Thanks to Charlie!

  13. No question that Washington has a better QPR than California Merlots. Although both regions produce excellent Merlots, Washington gets the nod. Wineries like Northstar, Pedestal, Owen Roe and Sineann seem to hit it out of the park with each vintage.

    I vote for Paul’s idea. Let’s have a Merlot-off!

  14. Your on to something but way off at price point: Merlot between $8 and $30 is almost always the same horrible quality. $30-$40 gets you something nice but ordinary. I’ve been burned sooooo often by the swampy, murky, bell pepper-vegi flavors in Merlot, that I’ve completely given up buying ANY. It’s like and old friend that I only have memories. Someone on an earlier post mentioned Matanzas Creek Merlot from the past. I DO remember those with fondness.

  15. Chris Dowsett says:

    Great insights.. I have worked with Merlot in both CA and WA. When the grape is good, it can be astounding!
    I started in the Alexander Valley with Stonestreet Winery in the mid 90’s. At that point, Merlot from the Sonoma side of the hills was taking on the Markham and Beringer Merlots. We were competing with Gary Farrell, Matanzas Creek and Benzinger at the top end versions. When I first came to Washington, I worked for my friend John Abbott at Canoe Ridge Vineyard. Merlot was exploding up here. We were making a product that could give more than any other $16 wine, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon were making stunning top end Merlots, and many new vineyards were being established.
    After working with fruit from Walla Walla, Red Mountain and Wahluke Slope, I feel in love with Conner-Lee Vineyard Merlot. I think this vineyard produces my all time favorite American Merlot. Walking down the rows of vines, you can read a long list of great Washington Wineries using this fruit.
    If you are new to Washington Merlot, give it a try!

  16. Bring them on……that would be something to be a part of Washington versus California Merlots. I would love to hear of the results!

  17. I totally agree that the cost of vineyard land is totally irrelevant. As well as all the other toys listed – and let’s not forget that fancy new car, second house in Aspen, boat, etc. The cost of the bottle to the consumer is what the consumer looks at. And doesn’t a Washington State winery also need to buy that fancy new piece of lab equipment, while still keeping the price down? Yes, the land is cheaper in WA, more or less, so sell your million dollar Napa acre, buy 4 in the Sonoma Coast AVA (OMG, where are those AVA boundaries again?) and use the rest of the cash to keep the price down. Or move to Walla Walla.

  18. Carlos Toledo says:

    Whoooa, no one mentions Petrus… which takes just a “little” of merlot in every bottle…

    Do people in this forum just drink local wines?? You seem to behave just like the europeans, who know nothing but what they make…

  19. Carlos, in my Seattle Times article and subsequent blog post, I took pains to say that I thought that Washington merlot was superior to any in the NEW world. Clearly, Petrus (and other top right bank, merlot-based Bordeaux) remain the best in the world. When Washington makes a $1000 a bottle merlot, I’ll put it up against Petrus. As for Dino’s comment, clearly he has no clue about Washington merlots. Steve, let’s push for a taste-off at next summer’s confab, ok?

  20. If new world Merlot is what you are looking for you really need to try the Merlot coming from North Carolina. I am truly amazed at the quality for value represented when compared to the Merlot from California and Washington. North Carolina’s largest AVA, the Yadkin valley is fast becoming one of the hotteset wine regions in North America, and definately warrants some interest.

  21. I found a pleasent Merlot that is sold at Stater Brothers Markets here in southern Calif for a little over three dollars a bottle, It has a nice leg aand a simi dry bite! The brand is Forrest Ville. I’m new to the wine scene and would like any information on this wine

  22. Merlot stil my favorite varietal. I take it as a challenge to find exceptional merlots : Shafer, pahlmeyer, Paloma, robot foley, duckhorn, plumpjack, buccella, mark Ryan , switchback ridge, nickel&nickel , pride, st francis reserve are some favorites. These wines are rich, dark, fruity, highly structured but not rough or harsh.

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