Tim takes a break from making crab cakes.











What: Merlot is an often-maligned wine that can be spectacular. After all, Petrus, which is predominantly Merlot, sells for about $4,000 a bottle for the 2009 vintage. California Merlot sells for considerably less than that, but it can still be very good.

To see how good California Merlot can be my friend Tim and I gathered a convivial group at his gorgeous house last weekend for a fun, boisterous, thoroughly satisfying tasting we dubbed “Merlot Madness.” The madness probably came from the fact that we pulled 14 Merlots out of my cellar, and then Clint showed up with a 15th. But we managed to work our way through all of them without any mishaps, except for the fact that I forgot to take photos until near the end.

That's my baby.

The main reason to have a Merlot tasting was to compare some good wines with a Merlot I blended last year at Hope Family Wines in Paso Robles. The winery supplied a few wine writers with samples and let us put together our own bottles of Candor Merlot. Candor blends wine from several vineyards and multiple vintages, so we got to play with the samples and select a blend we thought might be memorable.

Tasting the wine a year after it was bottled, I was pretty pleased with myself. Of course, when you are given great component parts, it’s pretty hard to screw up the final blend. The blend the winery made, Lot 3, has yet to be released, but Lot 2, the current release, is an outstanding bargain.

I have loved Merlot for years, ever since a good friend introduced me to Duckhorn Vineyards on my first Napa trip in 1981. It was fun to pull out those old pictures and see what the Sterling and Phelps wineries looked like then.

(There even were photos of my friends Ed, Sandy, Jane and me at a tailgate party before a Bears-49ers game. There we were, me in my Walter Payton Bears jersey and hat, all of us sipping wine while Ed cooked on a hibachi. My Chicago friends would have been embarrassed by the wine at a football game. One other memory of that trip is Jane getting a frozen daquiri at an Angels-White Sox baseball game. Frozen daquiris at a baseball game? I knew then we were near the end of civilization.)

Sorry about the trip down memory lane, but I also found a wine list from Phelps where you could buy a “fifth” of their 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon for $10.75, or $116.10 for a case. The case price is about what you’d pay for two bottles today. Eisele Vineyard and Insignia wines were $25 each.

Crab cakes need lots of attention.

For Merlot Madness night I wrapped all the bottles in brown paper bags and pulled off the neck foils so no one could identify the wines. I don’t do blind tastings very often, but people get swayed by labels, thinking certain wines ought to be good because they cost more. So we wanted to give all the wines a fair shot. We drank the wines two at a time so we could make some comparisons. I tried to find similarities when doing the grouping, such as two from Sonoma, or two in the same price range.

You might ask which wine was the “winner,” and I couldn’t tell you. We didn’t rank the wines, but the real winner was the Merlot grape. All of the wines were great. Everyone’s personal winner depended on personal taste and how much you are willing to spend to get a great bottle of wine. The most interesting thing was to see what each winemaker did with Merlot. They definitely were not all the same.









Here’s our lineup, with the approximate cost of each bottle:

Gundlach Bundschu 2004, Sonoma ($30)
Bartholomew Park 2007, Sonoma ($32)

Buena Vista 2006, Carneros ($25)
R Collection Merlot Lot 3, 2007 ($15)

Candor Lot 2, Paso Robles ($18)
Candor Lot 3, Paso Robles (Priceless–it’s my blend)

Darioush 2007, Napa ($46)
Robert Sinskey 2007, Napa/Carneros ($34)

Duckhorn 2002, Napa ($52)
Decoy 2008, Napa ($25)

Saddleback 2000, Napa ($38)
Trecini 2007, Russian River Valley ($28)

Pride Mountain 2008, Napa ($56)
Paloma 2008, Napa ($50-60)

All the wines were good, though clearly some had received a lot more personal attention, and thus, cost more. Generally, I thought, the higher priced wines were worth the extra money. They tended to be silkier, with bold fruit gracefully mixed with strong tannins. But there were some great wines in the bargain category, as well.

I particularly liked the Candor, which at $18 is a steal. And the Decoy was a nice substitute for its parent, Duckhorn.

If money were no object (and that was the point of a blind tasting), I’d rank these wines together in the top tier: Duckhorn, Paloma, Candor, Pride Mountain and Trecini. The Saddleback might have made it, but it was well past its prime. I waited too long to open the bottle.

Of course, you need food to help you appreciate the wine, and we had plenty. The menu included Tim’s special crab cakes (He said this was the first time he made them, but they were too perfect for that to be true.), Argentine marinated steak, Jamaican jerk pork and chicken breasts marinated in Chilean Merquen and other spices. Brian manned the grill expertly. We also had other munchies like pretzels and cheese, so we were well fortified.

Tim wows us all with his beautiful piano playing.

At the end of the evening, while some of the men lit up cigars on the porch and pretended we were Southern gentlemen, Tim fired up his piano and played beautifully. As usual, the wine was fun, but the fellowship and friendship made the evening special.

It’s great to see such good Merlots because there was a time in the 1990s when the grape became so popular that growers were planting it everywhere, often in places where it didn’t produce great fruit. Wines were rushed to market and often were bland and unappealing. Consequently, consumption dropped.

That has turned around. California Merlot consumption has jumped from 2.8 million cases sold in 1994 to 19.3 million cases in 2009. And quality has gone up considerably. Merlot also is among the top three or four in acreage planted in California. It has become a good transition wine, taking white wine drinkers (and white Zinfandel drinkers) into the red wine camp. It’s softer, more approachable than many Cabs and Pinots, and often easier on the wallet.

So what are you waiting for? Go out and grab a couple of bottles of Merlot and do your own tasting. You’ll enjoy it.

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