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Enjoying Wine and Beer in the Augusta GA area

Robert Mondavi Merlot Consistently High Quality

Robert Mondavi Merlot 2014, Napa Valley

Cost: $19-21

Maybe, at long last, merlot is making a comeback.

When I first started drinking serious wine in the 1970s and ‘80s, merlot was everywhere. People who thought they knew something about wine and were just getting past the basics would order merlot because it sounded sophisticated and showed you knew something about wine besides red, white and pink.

It also tasted good. With soft tannins it was smooth and approachable. It went with many different kinds of food. And you easily could find inexpensive California merlots.

As it got more popular, growers planted it in places where it shouldn’t have been planted. Throughout the ‘90s more and more shoddy merlot showed up and wine drinkers turned to other varietals.

Finally, the movie “Sideways” drove a stake through the heart of merlot producers. One of the characters in that 2004 movie raved about pinot noir while blasting merlot. He thought he was sophisticated.

The movie wasn’t solely to blame, but merlot sales dropped dramatically while pinot noir sales shot up after the movie was released. Of course, the same thing happened with pinot noir: as it got popular people planted it in the wrong places and quality went down. Now, both pinot and merlot are on the rise again.

Meanwhile, at Robert Mondavi Winery the quality of merlot remained high as the general market fluctuated. It continues to produce rich, flavorful merlot at an affordable price.

This 2014 Napa Valley merlot has everything that makes so many people love merlot. The flavors of juicy, dark fruit and a soft, silky palate make it an easy wine to approach. Aromas of blackberry with a hint of bay leaves lead to plum and blackberry flavors with a savory note. In simple terms, the harsh tannins have all been eliminated leaving you with a soft, smooth taste that lingers in your mouth.

I would say this has a medium body, with enough tannins to make me think it will do in the cellar for 4-5 years.

The blend is 98 percent merlot and two percent cabernet franc,

The 2014 vintage will be remembered for the earthquake that shook the Napa Valley just as harvest was beginning, late in August. Mondavi’s vines were not affected, but the company did lose some already bottled wine.

The majority of the fruit for this wine comes from the Stag’s Leap District, a region renowned for its velvety delivery and the smooth, fleshy mouthfeel that is so desired in merlot. The volcanic and other poor, shallow soils of the region make the vines struggle, which results in low yields, but also elegant, intense fruit. A small amount of fruit from other select Napa Valley AVAs contributed added complexity, each sub-region bringing something a little different to the blend.

The breakdown is 42 percent Stag’s Leap District, 15 percent Oak Knoll, 10 percent Yountville, 10 percent Rutherford, 10 percent Sonoma Mountain and 13 percent other areas.

The grapes were hand harvested in the cool of the morning, then gently de-stemmed and crushed. Nearly one third of the wine was fermented in French-oak tanks for soft, supple tannins and textural interest. The balance went into stainless steel tanks for purity of fruit expression.

The maceration lasted 22 days to bring out the maximum color and flavor, and to contribute to a lusher, rounder mouthfeel. The new wine was transferred to 60-gallon French oak barrels (30 percent new) for malolactic fermentation and 16 months aging to develop greater roundness and depth.

Winery: Robert Mondavi really began the California wine revolution 54 years ago when he established his winery with the belief that Napa and the rest of California could produce wine to match the best in the world. He picked out the To Kalon vineyard, which is still considered one of the finest growing regions in the state, especially for cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc.

Like the great French vintners who preceded him, Mondavi believed wine should reflect the place where the grapes are grown. He believed in taking care of the soil, and he also believed in combining the newest techniques and technology with time-honored traditions.

It was the first Napa winery to be established after Prohibition, built in a sleek and modern style. His confidence in the California terroir paid off as the rest of the world quickly learned about the amazing wines from California. Mondavi was a tireless crusader for the wines of Napa and other regions.

The winery has a beautiful tasting room and offers informative tours. It is a great place to visit if you want to find out how wine is made.

Though the business was sold long ago, the company carries on the founder’s mandate to pursue excellence and embrace change. Constellation Brands acquired the winery in 2004.

As the company grew it added other labels, such as Woodbridge and Private Selection, and added production facilities farther south in the Central Coast region to handle the grapes coming from that fertile area.

The Private Selection wines were introduced in 1994, primarily featuring California’s north and central coast grapes at a moderate price. Private Selection varietals include chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, heritage red, meritage, merlot, malbec, pinot noir, zinfandel, riesling, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc.

The Woodbridge label is the winery’s entry point, followed by Private Selection. The top tier is Robert Mondavi Winery, which is further divided into district wines, reserve wines and spotlight wines.

Michael enjoyed the soup with the merlot.

Goes with: We had this enticing merlot with ham and bean soup. I used a hame bone left over from New Year’s celebrations and added more ham as well as great northern beans and other vegetables.

This is a great soup for the cold, dark days of winter when we need something to boost our spirit. The wine is a perfect accompaniment because it is so smooth and soothing. All the warm fruit flavors blend well with the tangy ham and savory vegetables.

This wine also would pair well with duck, pork loin with a fruit sauce, roast chicken, and a wide variety of savory soups and stews. It is a versatile wine.

Here is the recipe for the soup:

Ham and Bean Soup

1 pound dry great northern beans

8 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 ham hock

1 cup chopped carrots

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 cup chopped onion

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon mustard powder

2 bay leaves

2 cups chopped ham

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

Rinse the beans and transfer to a large pot, adding the 8 cups of water and the salt. Boil over high heat for two minutes and remove pot from heat. Cover the pot and let the beans soak for at least 60 minutes.

Return the pot to high heat and add the ham bone, carrots, celery, onion, garlic, mustard and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for one hour.

Remove the ham bone and discard it after removing any bits of ham. Stir in the chopped ham and cook for another 30 minutes. Season with ground white pepper to taste.

You can vary the amount of vegetables and seasonings to suit your taste. I also usually add Morton Nature’s Seasons during the first boil.

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