Liberty School Merlot 2011, Central Coast
Cost: $15-17
I have had a love/hate relationship with Merlot over the last 30 years or so. I loved it in the 1970s and ‘80s when there was a lot of great American Merlot just coming on the market.
Then growers tried to cash in on the Merlot craze and started planting it in places where it shouldn’t have been planted. They also rushed the grapes to market. The result was really bad tasting Merlot that chased many people away from the grape.
I tried a lot of bad Merlot, but kept going back to the same half dozen wineries who didn’t cut corners in making their wine. Now the tide has turned back and many of the Merlot vineyards that shouldn’t have been planted have been ripped up and new Merlot vines have been planted in the right places. Luckily, there are many serious Merlot makers still around, and the numbers are growing.
The folks at Liberty School are more known for their Cabernet Sauvignon. They turned their attention to Merlot when Hope Family Wines president Austin Hope found the right vineyards after years of searching. This is their first release of Merlot, and it was worth waiting for.
The wine opens with pleasant aromas of strawberry and black cherry.  On the palate it is fruit-forward, with flavors of plums, raspberries and cherries. Balanced acidity gives it good structure. This is a classic Merlot, with finely-integrated tannins and a silky-smooth finish with a touch of minerality.
The 2011 season was difficult in most of California. Low rainfall, an early frost and a moderate summer meant the harvest was down in tonnage. But the best winemakers were able to salvage the vintage through hard work. The folks at Liberty School had the patience to wait for the fruit to ripen before harvesting it.
The grapes were grown in the heart of the Central Coast where  warm mid-day sun and afternoon sea breezes provide the perfect combination to produce bright, lush fruit.  Most of the Merlot comes from vineyards it he El Pomar district of Paso Robles and the rest from cooler sites in Santa Barbara County that produce fruit with rich complexity.
Liberty School Merlot
Liberty School Merlot
After harvest and crush the grapes were fermented in stainless tanks for 11 days with daily pump overs to enhance tannin extraction and color.  The wine then spent 12 months in oak barrels, 50 percent French, 50 percent American. It was racked twice during barrel-aging and cross-flow filtered just before bottling.
As the winery tries to establish a market for its Merlot, most distribution will be in restaurants.
Winery: Liberty School is part of Hope Family Wines, but the brand goes back beyond when the Hopes took it over.
Wine legend Charlie Wagner had attended the Liberty School in Rutherford, California. He created the label in 1975 as a second label to handle Cabernet Sauvignon that didn’t make it into his famous Caymus Vineyards Cab. He and his wife Lorna Belle Glos built their new home with wood from the original wood structure.
A drawing of the school appears on the label.
The Hope family became one of the primary growers for the label when Wagner’s son Chuck began buying grapes from Paso Robles in the 1980s. The Hopes acquired the label in 1996 after working closely with the Wagners to maintain Liberty School’s reputation for quality and value.
The Hope Family was one of the pioneers in developing Paso Robles into a world class wine region. They started in 1978, growing quality grapes primarily for wineries outside the region. The family began producing estate wines under the Hope Family Farms label in the 1990s before taking over the Liberty School label.
Their other brands include Austin Hope, Treana, Candor and Troublemaker.
Liberty School Merlot with John's bean soup and fruit salad.
Liberty School Merlot with John’s bean soup and fruit salad.
Goes with: My wife Teri and I had this with our friend John’s bean soup. He’s a former university president and a longtime college professor and administrator, so you wouldn’t think he’d know anything about making soup. But he has made this several times and generously shared the recipe. It is a fantastic, hearty, rich soup.
It was perfect with the Merlot, and the flavor from the meat and vegetables brought out the warm, lush fruit flavors in the wine.
This wine also would go well with grilled meat, rich stews and hearty cheeses.
Soup maker John and Dennis enjoying wine in the mountains.
Soup maker John and Dennis enjoying wine in the mountains.

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