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Move over Sideways, Merlot is back!

November 30, 2014, Chris Sawyer

As winter and the holidays arrive, it’s time to start thinking about hearty meals paired with spectacular red wines. While Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are heavy hitters in this category, it’s also time to start taking a serious look at Merlot.

Yes, I’m talking about the same grape that took the blunt from the famous lines said by lead character Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any f*#@ing Merlot."

After rising to star status in the wine industry during the 1980s and 1990s; Merlot was already going through a midlife crisis when the film was released a decade ago. Frankly, there were too many weak versions of the wine in the marketplace that were sweet, green, herbaceous, vegetative or insipid. But thanks to the sensitive message in the film, many of the vines planted in the wrong locations have been torn out and the level of quality has recently risen to its highest point in decades.

Following the 10-year anniversary screening of the Sideways at the recent Napa Valley Film Festival, the delights of these charming new wines were explored at a provocative, thought-provoking seminar aptly titled “We’re Drinking Merlot!”

Held at the Traditional Home Culinary Stage next to Barrel Room 1870 in Yountville on November 14; I joined in on tasting through the delicious wines with the allstar panel which included Jim Laube, Editor, Wine Spectator; Winemaker Tom Rinaldi, Winemaker, Provenance Vineyards; Hailey Trefethen, Trefethen Family Vineyards; Chris Carpenter, Winemaker, La Jota Vineyard Company; and panel moderated by NVFF Wine Program Manager Sean Quinn.

“I’m going to preach it, I love Merlot,” says Rinaldi, who started working with the grape variety when he became the winemaker at Duckhorn Wine Company in 1978. “It’s really versatile with a wide range of foods.”

Rinaldi says he rarely puts out wines that are 100% Merlot. Instead, he follows the Old World style by blending in small portions of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals. And through the years, he says common traits of the fruit he works with are red fruits, tobacco leaf, rum raisin, and dark tea.

Laube agreed, saying that his favorite styles of Merlot are filled with delicate flavors and texture with layers of elegance and finesse. “They are wines that are far beyond “Dumber and Dumber” for adults.”

Today, many of the best selections are made with grapes grown at the terroir-driven sites sprinkled throughout the beautiful landscape of Napa Valley. Many of these vineyards are planted in the clay soils in the cool windy region of Carneros. Some are grown at high elevations in the rugged volcanic soils of Howell Mountain or surrounded by forests in the sub-AVAs of Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. On the valley floor, others are planted on special sites feature gravelly and alluvial-based soils, warm days, and cool nights.

According to Carpenter, the rugged growing conditions of the grapes he works with winery’s estate vineyards on Howell Mountain help add more natural tannins, burliness and wild flavors to the La Jota Merlots. The end result is deep lush flavors with hints of gritty minerals and herbal accents.

The quality has also improved considerably thanks to growing the varietal in the right conditions, newer clones, angling the rows for optimum sun exposure in the mornings and late afternoons, and ultimately picking the fruit at the optimum brix with lower sugar and higher acidity.

Although the wines are not as tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon, many of them do have the ability to age. For instance, Trefethen shared a few bottles of the 1999 vintage made with fruit from her family’s estate. The wine was silky smooth and still had deep flavors of cherry, plum and subtle spices. As a result, it’s an ideal cellar selection to share with friends and family during the holidays.

“I hope people continue to grow Merlot where it works best,” says Trefethen, representing the third generation of her family, who originally started their winery in 1973. “It’s a very expressive grape with lovely flavors, supple tannins, and worthy of being back at the top of the world-class scale for drinking and cellaring.

Thanks to the combination of soft tannins and finesse, the distinct flavors of these high-quality Merlots are also very approachable and fantastic with winter dishes. Beyond pork, poultry and Turducken, Rinaldi likes to pair his Merlots with anything grilled, especially eggplant and steaks. Trefethen says the smoky character of the style of Merlot her family makes provide flexibility that allows her to pair with pastas with tomato-based sauces. And Carpenter loves to have his style of wine with leg of lamb, rosemary, and red wine reduction sauce.

With those pairings in mind, I’m going to open another bottle of Merlot.


SawyerSomm: Top Napa Valley Merlot Picks for the Holidays

Trefethen 2011 Merlot, Trefethen Estate Vineyards, Oak Knoll District ($40)

Lovely blend of 77% Merlot, 15 Malbec and 11% Cabernet Sauvignon. Festive aromas of red berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, leather and tobacco. Fresh and lively flavors of cherry, raspberry, black pepper, clove, and a long, elegant finish. www.trefethen.com.

Rutherford Hill 2011 Merlot, Napa Valley ($30)

From the Terlato family, this powerful new release is made with Merlot and small dollops of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. The aromas are deep with notes of ripe fruits, cocoa, vanilla and smoke. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied with generous notes of cherry, plum, red currant, anise, and fine-grained French oak. Tasted at the NVFF Merlot Seminar with winemaker Marisa Taylor. www.rutherfordhill.com.

Freemark Abbey 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley ($34)

Legendary Napa Valley winery known for working with Merlot over the past three decades. The latest release features lovely notes of ripe red berries, dark chocolate, clove and orange peel. Rich mouthfeel, supple texture, and long finish. Solid! www.freemarkabbey.com.

Markham 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley ($20)

Crafted by star winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls and tasted by the panelists as the mystery wine at the Napa Valley Film Festival seminar, this purist expression of Merlot is young, bright and grapey. Carpenter liked the notes of blueberry and lush tannins. Trefethen liked the spicy notes. Rinaldi liked the maraschino cherry and mushroom attributes. And I liked the lively fruit flavors, spicy layers of mint, cinnamon and clove, and how the wine opened up with more time in the glass. Young, vibrant, and very food-friendly! www.markhamvineyards.com.

Provenance 2011 Merlot, Three Palms Vineyard, Napa Valley ($65)

Dense, full-bodied wine, with aromas of dark fruits, dried herbs, mineral and cedar. Ripe and juicy flavors of black cherry, blackberry, cassis, cranberry, mineral, earth, and fine-grained tannins. Overall, a fantastic Merlot with deep flavors, elegant texture, and a long, generous finish. www.provenancevineyards.com.

La Jota 2011 Merlot, Estate Grown, Howell Mountain ($75)

Planted on red volcanic and Ryholitic tufa soils at elevations above 1,700 feet; this deep, dense wine features attractive aromas of wild berries, cocoa, licorice, wild mountain sage, and cedar. On the palate, the flavors are complex with notes of black raspberry, dark cherry, milk chocolate, mineral, roasted almonds, and allspice. Overall, the wine features rich texture, chewy tannins, and velvety finish. www.lajotavineyardco.com.

More tasty Napa Valley Merlots recommendations:

Silverado 2010 Merlot, Estate Grown, Mt George Vineyard, Napa Valley ($35)

Attractive aromas of wild berries, cocoa powder and spice. Deep flavors of blackberry, blueberry, red currant, milk chocolate, licorice, wild mountain herbs, and forest. Great wine with pork, poultry and gourmet burgers. Tasted at the Flavor Napa Valley “Grapes & Grills” event, #FlavorNapa. www.silveradovineyards.com.

Grgich Hills 2010 Merlot, Estate Grown, Napa Valley ($42)

Elegant Merlot with lovely aromas of ripe red fruits, licorice, cardamom, and roasted walnuts. Flavors of ripe plums, wild strawberries, mint, and layers of spice. Firm structure, chewy tannins, and a long, silky finish. Great wine with baked ham, roasted meats, and blue cheese. Tasted at SawyerSomm.com HQ. www.grgich.com.

Goosecross Cellars 2010 Merlot, State Lane Estate Vineyard, Yountville ($48)

This is a hidden gem from a lovely winery off State Lane east of the downtown Yountville. Made with 100% estate fruit, the wine is big, rich, and powerful. Aromas and flavors of dark cherry, wild berry, black trumpet mushroom, firm structure, chewy tannins, and great length. Get some of this wine before it’s gone! Tasted with Goosecross proprietors Christi Coors Ficeli and David Ficeli; winemaker Bill Nancarrow; and fellow wine writer Linda Murphy. www.goosecross.com.

St. Supery 2011 Merlot, Estate Vineyard, Rutherford ($50)

Dark, rich and opulent style of Merlot made with fruit grown at the St. Supery Estate Vineyard in Rutherford. The aromas and bouquet are laden with alluring notes of dark cherry, cassis, mochaccino, licorice, and pipe tobacco. On the palate, deep flavors of cherry, blackberry, cassis, plum, milk chocolate, vanilla and fine French oak. Supple tannins and velvety texture. Each sip makes you want more—it’s that good! The wine was tasted, along with a fantastic pairing of a Grass-Fed Beef Burger with Melted Gruyere, Sherry Carmelized Onions on a Brioche Bun made by Chef Adam Ross of 1313 Main Restaurant, at the Flavor Napa Valley “Grapes & Grills” event at St. Supery Winery. www.stsupery.com.

Duckhorn 2011 Merlot, Napa Valley ($54)

Elegant, complex and worthy of cellaring, this new release is made with fruit from the estate and other special sites, including the Three Palms Vineyard, which makes up about 30% of the current vintage. On the nose, stimulating hints of red fruit, roasted almonds, and cedar. In the glass, the wine opens up with lavish flavors of blackberry, black raspberry, cherry and mineral; firm structure, silky smooth tannins, and opulent finish. Tasted at SawyerSomm.com HQ. www.Duckhorn.com.

 

SawyerSomm’s Cellar Selection: Paloma 2007 Merlot, Spring Mountain District ($54)

This magnificent cellar selection was made by Sheldon Richard with Merlot and smaller fraction of Cabernet sauvignon from his family’s high elevation estate vineyard on the Mayacamas Mountains west of St. Helena. Fragrant aromas and complex flavors of fresh tobacco, violets, blueberries, cassis, milk chocolate, forest floor, wild herbs, and a long, engaging finish. Rich, supple, graceful, and eager to please! The new 2010 is equally dynamic, but requires decanting or more aging in the cellar. Tasted at the NVFF Merlot Seminar and the fantastic Spring Mountain Tasting held at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. www.palomavineyard.com.




Wine Spectator

James Laube’s wine flights

A Rare Cabernet from a Wine of the Year Winner

Paloma, known for its Merlot, made an exceptional 2009 Napa Cabernet

Posted: Oct. 16, 2012 5:30p.m. ET

 

Merlot won out, but it could just as easily have been Cabernet or Syrah.

 

In the case of Paloma, Jim and Barbara Richards’ 15-acre vineyard on Spring Mountain, it actually produced three astounding wines, any one of which could have been a star on its own.

 

That the Richards chose Merlot is perhaps surprising to those familiar with the other two grapes that excelled in their vineyard. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah reached extraordinary heights in their vineyard and even within their family, there was considerable debate about which wine to focus on. Then again, their 2001 Merlot was Wine Spectator’s 2003 Wine of the Year.  

 

Of the three, I leaned toward the Cabernet, if ever so slightly. Once the Richards chose to focus on Merlot, they curtailed a Cabernet bottling, except on rare occasions. The most recent Paloma Cabernet release from 2009 (95 points, $54) offers all the evidence of how special Cabernet can be from their vineyard. My not understates the excitement this wine presented. The 2001 was also stunning. Many Paloma fans are surprised by its existence, since it only shows up every now and then.

 

Most years the Cabernet is blended with the Merlot for color and backbone. Merlot is the most elegant and refined of the three wines they’ve made, and it remains one of the greatest Merlot sites in the world. The Richards officially dropped Syrah, too, despite its success, and started a second label for the grape, called Palomita, made from grapes purchased in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley.

 

One of the surest measures of a vineyard’s greatness is its ability to produce more than one amazing wine. Paloma is such a site.



ASCEND TO SPRING MOUNTAIN

Wine Spectator June 15, 2011

Paloma Vineyard
4013 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena Telephone (707) 968-7504 Website www.palomavineyard.com Open By appointment only Cost Tastings complimentary

    There is no tasting experience more intimate than Paloma's, in which proprietor Barbara Richards invites you into her home for a tasting on her back porch, overlooking 15 acres of vineyards she personally tends. "Most people who work in the tasting rooms have never been in the vineyards, but I've been out there for 25 years," she explains. As the hummingbirds flit by, enjoy a taste of wine while Barbara answers questions about tending the land and what it takes to make a Wine Spectator Wine of the Year, an honor Paloma received in 2003. At Paloma's elevation of more than 2,200 feet, you can admire Howell Mountain, all the way east across the valley.


A Napa Valley Merlot That's Still A Star

A Napa Merlot That's Still a Delicious Star
James Laube
Wine Spectator, Jan. 15, 2010

Paloma's 2001 Merlot is still the best Merlot I've tasted from California. Named our Wine of the Year in 2003, this remains a wonderfully delicious piece of work—ripe, rich, layered, complex and impeccably balanced. A friend uncorked a bottle for lunch the other day, which we enjoyed along with duck confit salad, and it is still showing beautifully.

What's remarkable about this vineyard in Napa Valley's Spring Mountain District is that it also made a great Cabernet and Syrah. When a vineyard can produce two or three noble wines, that validates its greatness and versatility. The owners, the Richards family, dropped those two wines to focus on Merlot, and I have mixed emotions about that.

As it stands, Paloma remains the greatest Merlot vineyard in California, and its wines can hold their own against the best Merlots grown anywhere. The 2001 is at a nice peak now and should hold another five to eight years. Still 95 points, non-blind, just as when I first rated it.

Wine Spectator.com


WINE SPECTATOR'S TOP 100 AT A GLANCE

PALOMA Ranks 65nd in the TOP 100
Harvey Steinman
Wine Spectator, Jan. 31, 2009

#65 - Paloma Merlot Napa Valley 2006 - 93 - $54 - California

The 2001 Paloma Merlot was Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2003, and quality at the winery has never waivered, with this site high on Spring Mountain, 2,200 feet above Napa Valley, consistently producing rich and opulent wines. Sadly, Jim Richards passed away this year; his wife, Barbara, and son, Sheldon, now helm the estate vineyard. 2,776 cases made

The 2002 Paloma Merlot was #48 in the WS TOP 100 in 2004.


Merlot's Mixed Messages
Overall quality is high, but middle-range values are scarce among 2005 and 2006 releases from California
Tim Fish
Wine Spectator, Nov. 30, 2009

There are two clear choices with California Merlot right now. Splurge and buy the best, or search for reliable values. Unfortunately, Merlot's middle ground is tougher terrain, because too many Merlots in the $20 to $40 price range offer so-so quality.

That's my conclusion after blind-tasting 170 Merlots since my last report on the varietal (Nov. 30, 2008). On a statewide level, the 2005 and 2006 vintages comprise a mixed bag in terms of quality, and consumers must shop carefully. One thing, however, has become clear: In the race for Merlot dominance, Napa continues to pull away from Sonoma.

For proof, look no further than the 2006s now arriving on the shelves. I've given the Napa wine a preliminary rating of 92-94 on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, potentially making it Napa's best Merlot vintage ever. By comparison, the 2006 Sonoma Merlots received 84-86, although when it comes to value, Sonoma wins hands down.

There are a number of outstanding releases this year—all from Napa— although production for many of them is limited to just a few hundred cases. With an eye to availability, most of the wines i discuss in this report are produced on a larger scale—900 cases or more. And even some of those may be hard to find.

 . . .

The outstanding Paloma Napa Valley 2006 (93, $54) is a fitting tribute to Jim Richards, who died earlier this year. Richards and his wife, Barbara, founded Paloma and blazed a trail for Merlot over the past decade, including the Wine Spectator Wine of the Year in 2003 for their 2001 Spring Mountain District. The 2006 is ripe and elegant, with fragrant currant, caramel and olive aromas.

. . .


California Merlot Struggles
Difficult weather delivers lean wines in 2003, but there are still plenty of ‘02s available
Tim Fish
Wine Spectator, Nov. 30, 2006

California Merlot remains a best-seller in the United States even though it rarely achieves greatness. That dichotomy leads to a lot of grumbling in some quarters, and the 2003 vintage gives Merlot skeptics more support, delivering wines that are lean and ordinary.
Among the nearly 70 2003 Merlots blind-tasted since our 1st report (“Napa’s Merlot Magic,” Oct. 15, 2005), only five wines rated an outstanding (90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale). All five are perennial favorites, which only demonstrates that the varieties best producers are truly first-rate, capable of proving their mettle even in an off year. (For a complete list of all wines tasted for this report, see the alphabetical chart beginning on page 187 of this year’s buying guide.)

The two top-scoring 2003s are the Lewis Napa Valley (94 points, $56), which is rich and seductive yet powerful, with pure ripe currant, sage and black licorice fruit, and the Pride Claret Reserve Sonoma-Napa Counties (94, $120), a Merlot-dominated blend that’s complex and polished, serving up tiers of ripe currant, mineral and plum flavors.

Just a notch below is the Pahlmeyer Napa Valley 2003 (90, $90), which is appealing for its supple midpalate, firm finish and broad display of fruit, and the Paloma Spring Mountain District 2003 (90, $51), a balanced, rich and vibrant red.

More telling, perhaps, than the limited number of outstanding bottlings in 2003 is the fact, that, although 31 wines merited a rating of very good (85 to 89 points), the rest—about half of the 2003s in this report—rated less than 84 points, indicating only good or mediocre quality.

Luckily, for fans of the variety, there are plenty of 2002 still on the market and some 2004s are starting to arrive. 2002 was a top year for Merlot, particularly in Napa (89 points), while the 2004 vintage (not rated yet) is showing promise, chiefly Napa as well.

One outstanding 2002 is the Luna Napa Valley (91, $32), a fleshy and harmonious wine that shows black cherry and herbs. Also recommended are the Switchback Ridge Peterson Family Vineyard (91, $50), a ripe, plush wine with vivid wild berry and raspberry flavors, and the Rocca Yountville (90, $34), appealing for its mocha-laced oak and core of spicy black cherry fruit.

Among the 2004s, the early stars are Paloma (93, $54), a supple and graceful wine with deep flavors of plum, dusty berry and mineral, and the Shafer Napa Valley (92, $45), which is ripe and juicy, with wild berry fruit and toasty oak shadings.

As for the mediocre showings of 2003 Merlots, the explanation lies in the climatic extremes of the vintage. Merlot is a notoriously difficult grape to grow. The fruit is thin-skinned—therefore more easily damaged than tougher grapes such as Cabernet—and is highly vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather, which the erratic 2003 vintage offered in spades. “I hope I never see another 2003,” says Tom Burgess of Burgess Cellars, whose Merlot Napa Valley 2003 (88, $22) is among the vintage’s better wines.

It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde growing season. April was excessively cold and soggy, and cool spells alternated with heat spikes throughout the summer months. A violent storm hit the North Coast in early September, followed by a prolonged heat wave that reached 107° F in some areas. Only the arrival of a dry and moderate weather in October staved off disaster, but in the end, Merlot had taken a hard hit.

“With all the rain and the heat, there was poor grape set in Merlot,” says winemaker Erik Olsen of Clos du Bois. “They were just scraggly little grape clusters.” The winery’s Merlot Sonoma County 2003 (87, $18) is both a good value and widely available.

When the heat wave hit in September, winemakers were forced to make a difficult decision. Many of the grapes were not yet physiologically ripe, but sugar levels, which are measured in degrees Brix, suddenly soared. “It drove up the Brix even though true ripeness wasn’t going along for the ride,” Olsen says.

Some winemakers and growers decided to pick, while others took a risk and waited, hoping the heat would pass and the fall rains wouldn’t begin. Neither decision appeared to be a recipe for success—Burgess picked early while Olsen waited out the weather—but the heat may partially explain why so many 2003 Merlots show distinctive notes of roasted herbs.

That’s the thing about Merlot—it’s a tricky grape. A handful of California winemakers producing it on a small scale have figured out how to succeed year after year, but too many of their colleagues continue to struggle with inconsistency.


Sommeliers Sample Spring Mountain Harvest
Sean Razee, wine director, the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, Colorado
Sante Magazine 2006


For 13 sommeliers and wine buyers from across the country, the First Annual Spring Mountain District Association's "Touch the Terroir" event, held October 16 to 18 in the prestigious Napa Valley appellation, proved to be an opportunity to experience harvest and crush through the winemakers' eyes. The idea was to allow participants to work side by side with winemakers and grape growers during the daily harvesting and winemaking agendas.


Each morning the visitors were divided into small groups and taken to a winery to work with a winemaker. Each participant was housed on a host property; for some the morning commute was a short walk from the vineyard house to the cuverie, while for others it was a quick trip down Spring Mountain Road to their morning host winery. Time was spent either walking the vineyards and tasting grapes for physiological ripeness (the time when grape seeds begin to turn brown and skin tannins begin o soften and sweeten) or assisting with punch-downs, pump-overs, lees stirring, and finishing. Of course, a bit of tank or barrel tasting was thrown in for good measure.


After lunch in the vineyard or the barrel chai, the small groups were escorted to another host winery to witness the finishing of the crush of the morning's harvests and the monitoring of newly fermenting tanks of grape juice to determine proper fermentation temperatures and yeast strength.
The easy evening conversation usually turned to family vineyard owners and second-generation winemakers who related stories of the "early days" on Spring Mountain. So often it is the stories and insights into a winery, a vineyard, or its family that sommeliers relate to their guests when selling a wine, and that is exactly was "Touch the Terroir" was able to impart.

 

California Merlot Struggles
Difficult weather delivers lean wines in 2003, but there are still plenty of ‘02s available
by Tim Fish
Wine Spectator, Nov. 30, 2006


California Merlot remains a best-seller in the United States even though it rarely achieves greatness. That dichotomy leads to a lot of grumbling in some quarters, and the 2003 vintage gives Merlot skeptics more support, delivering wines that are lean and ordinary.


Among the nearly 70 2003 Merlots blind-tasted since our 1st report (“Napa’s Merlot Magic,” Oct. 15, 2005), only five wines rated an outstanding (90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale). All five are perennial favorites, which only demonstrates that the varieties best producers are truly first-rate, capable of proving their mettle even in an off year. (For a complete list of all wines tasted for this report, see the alphabetical chart beginning on page 187 of this year’s buying guide.)


The two top-scoring 2003s are the Lewis Napa Valley (94 points, $56), which is rich and seductive yet powerful, with pure ripe currant, sage and black licorice fruit, and the Pride Claret Reserve Sonoma-Napa Counties (94, $120), a Merlot-dominated blend that’s complex and polished, serving up tiers of ripe currant, mineral and plum flavors.


Just a notch below is the Pahlmeyer Napa Valley 2003 (90, $90), which is appealing for its supple midpalate, firm finish and broad display of fruit, and the Paloma Spring Mountain District 2003 (90, $51), a balanced, rich and vibrant red.


More telling, perhaps, than the limited number of outstanding bottlings in 2003 is the fact, that, although 31 wines merited a rating of very good (85 to 89 points), the rest—about half of the 2003s in this report—rated less than 84 points, indicating only good or mediocre quality.


Luckily, for fans of the variety, there are plenty of 2002 still on the market and some 2004s are starting to arrive. 2002 was a top year for Merlot, particularly in Napa (89 points), while the 2004 vintage (not rated yet) is showing promise, chiefly Napa as well.


One outstanding 2002 is the Luna Napa Valley (91, $32), a fleshy and harmonious wine that shows black cherry and herbs. Also recommended are the Switchback Ridge Peterson Family Vineyard (91, $50), a ripe, plush wine with vivid wild berry and raspberry flavors, and the Rocca Yountville (90, $34), appealing for its mocha-laced oak and core of spicy black cherry fruit.


Among the 2004s, the early stars are Paloma (93, $54), a supple and graceful wine with deep flavors of plum, dusty berry and mineral, and the Shafer Napa Valley (92, $45), which is ripe and juicy, with wild berry fruit and toasty oak shadings.


As for the mediocre showings of 2003 Merlots, the explanation lies in the climatic extremes of the vintage. Merlot is a notoriously difficult grape to grow. The fruit is thin-skinned—therefore more easily damaged than tougher grapes such as Cabernet—and is highly vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather, which the erratic 2003 vintage offered in spades. “I hope I never see another 2003,” says Tom Burgess of Burgess Cellars, whose Merlot Napa Valley 2003 (88, $22) is among the vintage’s better wines.


It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde growing season. April was excessively cold and soggy, and cool spells alternated with heat spikes throughout the summer months. A violent storm hit the North Coast in early September, followed by a prolonged heat wave that reached 107° F in some areas. Only the arrival of a dry and moderate weather in October staved off disaster, but in the end, Merlot had taken a hard hit.


“With all the rain and the heat, there was poor grape set in Merlot,” says winemaker Erik Olsen of Clos du Bois. “They were just scraggly little grape clusters.” The winery’s Merlot Sonoma County 2003 (87, $18) is both a good value and widely available.


When the heat wave hit in September, winemakers were forced to make a difficult decision. Many of the grapes were not yet physiologically ripe, but sugar levels, which are measured in degrees Brix, suddenly soared. “It drove up the Brix even though true ripeness wasn’t going along for the ride,” Olsen says.


Some winemakers and growers decided to pick, while others took a risk and waited, hoping the heat would pass and the fall rains wouldn’t begin. Neither decision appeared to be a recipe for success—Burgess picked early while Olsen waited out the weather—but the heat may partially explain why so many 2003 Merlots show distinctive notes of roasted herbs.


That’s the thing about Merlot—it’s a tricky grape. A handful of California winemakers producing it on a small scale have figured out how to succeed year after year, but too many of their colleagues continue to struggle with inconsistency.

 

FOOD & WINE
By Richard Nalley

American Wine Awards,October 2006


. . . at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, October 3, 2006 . . .
When F & W debuted the American Wine Awards nine years ago, the wine scene was very different. Few in the industry used terms like “natural winemaking” and painstaking vineyard work.” However, this year’s winners, chosen by a panel of judges, share this emphasis on the grape.


Best Wines Over $20
$51
MERLOT
2003 PALOMA
The owners of this Napa winery gave retirement a new and very active meaning when they purchased 15 acres of vineyards near the top of Spring Mountain in 1983 and began producing some of the best Merlots made in California. Unfortunately, they produced only 1,900 cases of this voluptuous wine.
Paloma edit: For those of you who know us and have visited the vineyard and winery, you will know that we purchased 20 acres in 1983, cleared, and planted 15 acres between 1984 to 1987. We sold grapes until 1994 when we began making small quantities of wine at our friend and neighbor, Pride Family Wines. Finally, in 2000 we built our own winery and now produce an average of 2000 cases. Poor spring weather in 2004 and 2005 harvests resulted in just over 1200 cases, while the 2006 will result in approximately 3000 cases.


Other 2006 Awards:
Best New Winery: Sea Smoke
Best Importer: Eric Solomon
Best Wines Under $20:
• 2004 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc, $18
• 2004 Saintsbury Garnet Carneros Pinot Noir, $17
• 2004 Nelms Road Merlot, $19
• 2004 Red Car Boxcar Syrah, $20
• 2003 Twenty Rows Cabernet Sauvignon, $20
• 2004 Plungerhead, Zinfandel $16
• 2004 Saintsbury Chardonnay Carneros, $20
Best Wines Over $20
• 2005 Cliff Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc, $24
• 2003 Etude Heirloom Pinot Noir, $80
• 2003 Paloma Merlot, $51
• 2003 Behrens & Hitchcock Chien Lunatique Syrah, $60
• 2003 Merus Cabernet Sauvignon, $180
• 2003 Hendry Block 7 Zinfandel, $29
• 2003 Ramey Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, $56
Winemaker of the year: Bob Levy

Vintage California
Wine country always has something new to experence
by David Armstrong
Alaska Airlines, March, 2006


Before I met her, my wife, Georgina, lived in the heart of wine country, on a winding mountain road high above the Napa Valley. We now live near San Franscisco, about an hour's drive from wine country, and return to that region whenever we can, guided by her knowledge of the land, the people, the food, and of course, the wine. . . .

. . .

For a memorable introduction to wine, you can't get any more personable than Paloma Vineyard, a 15-acre premium winemaking operation owned by Barbara and jim Richards, who have just one full-time employee. As we drove up Spring Mountain Road on our way to Pride Mountain, a hale-looking older couple waved to us from the vineyards, where they were doing their own pruning by hand. This couple proves to be the Richards, as we discover when we stop by later. To the Richards' great surprise, in 2003 the Wine Spectator chose Paloma's 2001 Merlot as "Wine of the Year," sparking a demand that instantly exhausted their supply. Two rainy winters had further reduced Paloma's output, but its limited stock is well worth seeking out. We barrel-taste a toothsome, unfinished 2004 merlot that puts to rest all those merlot jokes in the movie Sideways. Standing in the kitchen of the Richards' mountainside home, catching whiffs of smoke from their wood-burning, we savor the lingering taste of this promising wine while watching the clouds over the Napa Valley put on an ever-changing show.

I don't know if I'll ever have another moment of wine satori quite as memorable as this, but I'm ready to keep going back to California wine country in hopes of finding it.



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