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Fear and Loathing with California Merlot

Calm down, there are plenty of good wines if you're a smart consumer
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 4, 2011 11:00am ET

I’ve been drinking California Merlot for 20 years, and it still makes me crazy. It’s one of the most popular red wines in the United States, but so much of it is damn boring.

The funny thing is, I still like drinking it. As Wine Spectator's lead critic for California Merlot since 2005, I’ve come to appreciate the challenges.

Merlot’s reputation as a soft and supple red is only partially deserved in California. In the 1990s, wineries and growers all over the state planted Merlot with the assumption it would thrive. It didn’t.

California learned what France found out long ago. Merlot is a persnickety grape, good for blending but challenging by itself. It’s every bit as difficult to grow and just as finicky about the growing season as Pinot Noir.

Merlot, if allowed, will produce a huge crop of insipid wines, so growers need to carefully manage production through techniques such as pruning and green harvest. If the region is too cool, Merlot’s trademark hint of herb or tomato leaf turns hard and vegetal. If it’s too warm, it can become a freaky blend of cooked cherry and stewed veggies.

But thousands of acres are still out there, either planted in the wrong place or tended by growers who are unwilling or financially unable to make the difficult choices.

I do taste some consistently outstanding California Merlots: Pahlmeyer, Pride, Shafer, Switchback Ridge, Selene, to name a few, but they cost $50 or more a bottle and production is limited. If your budget allows, buy them and you won’t be disappointed.

Many California Merlots that sell between $40 and $20 just aren’t worth the money. No matter how hard wineries try to develop complexity and extraction through techniques like soaking the juice with the grape skins for an extended period, or how much new French oak they use to gain richness and toastiness, some Merlot vineyards just can’t be great.

The biggest chunk of Merlot sold in America is $15 or a lot less. These days you’ll recognize them on discount shelves by their cute labels. Most of them are so-so, rather generic and a hint sweet to hide any flaws, but it’s possible to find a decent bottle for the price.

I’ve recently given good to very good scores to under-$15 Merlots such as Estancia Merlot Central Coast Keyes Canyon Ranches 2008 ($12), Bogle Merlot California 2008 ($9), Angeline Merlot Russian River Valley 2009 ($14) and Pennywise California Merlot 2008 ($12). (WineSpectator.com members can read full tasting notes and see scores.)

So are you pro or con on California Merlots? Are they underrated or overvalued? What are your favorites?

John I Hanbury
Hattiesburg, MS —  May 4, 2011 12:10pm ET
I've never liked Merlot for the very reasons you stated. They were just too light with little or no structure. I've been similarly disappointed with the right bank bordeauxs that I have tried. But I have enjoyed the Pride and Shafer Merlots, along with Northstar from Washington.
Matthew Slywka
Seymour, CT —  May 4, 2011 12:25pm ET
I have enjoyed the Whitehall Lane Merlot for a few years now and you can usually find it for around $25. Usually has a lot of complexity and some terrific Napa characteristics.

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, CA; USA —  May 4, 2011 12:29pm ET
California Merlot is undergoing an identity crisis. Tim; your correct in the assertion there was alot of Merlot planted in the wrong soils and climates due to the popularity in the 90's until Sideways. Certainly, that movie didn't help Merlot sales either! I am astounded how many Merlot growers also chose high yielding clones w/o consideration of diversity for qualities sake. That being said; I do feel this is an opportunity for Merlot wine growers to rip out or T-bud if the grapes make a mediocre Merlot(grape prices are way down!). Finally, the pressure to produce Merlot is much less so, and wine growers can now concentrate with green thinning and vigor reduction to achieve higher quality. Thanks again Tim for holding out hope for California Merlot.
Ryan Schmied
Miami, FL. USA —  May 4, 2011 12:51pm ET
The 2007 Burgess Merlot for $15.00 is also a wonderful, easy drinking wine that also displays plenty of varietal character. I am currious to why Burgess doesn't get a lot of love on WS. I find their wines wonderful for the money. I just recently purchased their 1987 Cabernet at the winery and it was the best aged Cali Cab I have ever had!
John Wilen
Texas —  May 4, 2011 1:54pm ET
The fact that there are only a few good producers of CA merlot makes it easier, not harder. We only buy and drink: Buccella, Robert Foley, Lewis, Pahlmeyer, Paloma, Pride, Shafer and Switchback Ridge.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  May 4, 2011 3:58pm ET
Tim - another great blog!

I think you hit the nail on the head with the comparison to Pinot Noir - it's really difficult to produce a world class version for less than ~$40. Not that many people don't try, and even succeed now and then. But IMHO that would be the exception and not the rule. Decent, easy drinking wine? You bet. But not exciting.

Of course, that doesn't mean that Cali Merlot is a failure. It's just a recognition of its limitations. Which is one reason why I think the selection of the Paloma 2001 Merlot as the Wine of the Year in 2003 was such an outstanding and well deserved choice.

And the fact that it is such a valuable blending variety means it should continue to be one of the most important grapes planted in Cali :)
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  May 4, 2011 4:29pm ET
I'm pro-Merlot. Buccella and Lewis are my hands-down favorites. Expensive at around $75/bottle, but when I want Merlot I want Merlot!
Graham M Pratt
Atlantic Beach. NC, USA —  May 4, 2011 4:57pm ET
Although a Cab drinker by profession, I did recently find one Merlot that met my standards-- Ghost Pines, produced by the Louis Martini family.
Jennifer Tincknell
Healdsburg, CA —  May 4, 2011 5:01pm ET
Hi Tim,
I tend to agree with and often avoid ordering Merlot when I'm out unless I know the producer well. My benchmark for CA Merlot has always been Cuvaison from Napa Valley back in the 1990 where John Thatcher made terrific wines. Last week I tried Kimmel Vineyards new 2008 Potter Valley Merlot which costs about $38 a bottle and was very impressed by its balance and restraint. Even at this young age it has a lot of depth of flavor and you can tell that it will only improve with age. A real boutique winery well worth seeking out.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  May 4, 2011 5:50pm ET
Great comments all around, thanks for adding to the conversation.
Ron Lippitt
Warwick, RI —  May 4, 2011 5:57pm ET
You are so right, most CA merlots are mostly uninspiring, but there are a few gems that I absolutely love. I am a huge fan of the Pride merlots, especially the regular Napa-Sonoma bottling. Try the 2002 if you want to be blown away. recently I have discovered the 2008 Plumpjack merlot; an awesome bottle of wine for about $45.
Dana Mcclellan
Las Vegas, NV —  May 5, 2011 7:01am ET
I wonder if some of the better merlots result from blending? This reminds me of a question I've wanted to ask: why tasting notes of varietals don't more often include the blend percentages?
David Hebert
Holly Springs, NC —  May 5, 2011 4:30pm ET
Good Blog!

I am never disappointed with Lewis, Switchback, Paloma and Buccella. I sometimes find Switchback for less than $50....so that is a relative bargin. Speaking of Buccella, Tim, I have yet to see some of your tasting comments on the Buccella merlots. What gives?
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  May 5, 2011 5:10pm ET
Dana, a good suggestion but it probably has something to do with space limitations. David, I haven't tasted Buccella is several vintages but Jim Laube has given excellent reviews to the Cabernet. Thanks for the comments.
Louis Robichaux
Highland Village, Texas —  May 6, 2011 12:06am ET

To Dana's question, and following up on your recent Twitter comment, Realm's "The Tempest" is a Merlot-based Napa Bordeaux blend that has been fantastic for the past several vintages. A relentless focus on appropriate terroir for Merlot is no doubt a major factor. The Tempest is in the price range of the other top end wines mentioned above, but an option to keep in mind when pondering how good California Merlot can be.

Chris Haag
vancouver, bc —  May 6, 2011 12:45am ET
The Bucella merlot is better than the cabernet. The grapes come primarily from the Hyde Vyd and it is awsome stuff, albeit expensive......Agree on Pride, Pahlmeyer and Switchback.
Daniel Sherer
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  May 6, 2011 10:07am ET
Tim, you are so right…California Merlots are tricky. For years I have been saying why spend $40+ on California Merlot when you can get a Cabernet for $25 with ripe fruit, body and good balance of wood. Some, not all, but some of the more expensive Merlots taste like a 2”x4” wood plank was inserted into your glass. The generic taste profile of Merlot and its blueberry/cherry fruit can be very appealing, but when I have to fight through the extract, the tannins and oak to find that pleasant fruit it makes me tired. I have found an affordable Merlot that is very agreeable….Sebastiani Alexander Valley 2006. I can usually find it under $15.00 and it was, in fact, rated highly by YOU! Other “affordable” Merlots I like are: Ramsay 2008 and Coppola Diamond Label 2008
Heath Chapman
SAMMAMISH, WA —  May 6, 2011 6:21pm ET
The easy solution is to drink Merlots from Washington State. There are plenty of good and affordable ones to choose from.
Jeff Johnson
Costa Mesa Ca, —  May 8, 2011 11:27pm ET
My wine that hooked me was the 1983 Newton Merlot a steal at 17 bucks a bottle. But others that I enjoy include Bravante on Howell Mt. Tom Farella's Merlot is always a great value. And to Heath's point Reininger.
Megan J Robinson
Michigan —  May 9, 2011 7:52am ET
I now live in Connecticut and have become a fan of Long Island North Fork Merlots-they do a nice job with the grape, especially in warmer years such as 2007.
John Tallarido
royal palm beach, fl ,usa —  May 9, 2011 6:11pm ET
Hall and Whitehall Lane 2006 merlots are very good and can be found for under $25. Fielding Hills merlots from Washington State are very good as well and typically score 90 and above from WS and others.
Chaya Levin
New York, NY —  May 9, 2011 6:40pm ET
I'd always enjoyed Rutherford Hill Merlot which can be found for about $17/bottle. I don't pretend to have your level of knowledge, Tim, so could you tell me if you've tried it and what you think. Everyone else, your input is invited as well. Thanks!
Dick Lantier
CLEMSON,SC —  May 9, 2011 7:39pm ET
I love merlot, but won't spend the $50-75 for the big names. I've tasted a lot of them and discounted the foreign imports despite the crazy rating from you in South America. I've settled on Rodney Strong as my table wine which sells at $15, but, discounts to $10.97. Only let it breathe in the glass, cap the bottle immediately or you will lose it. My palate goes quickly so it is best if I cleanse with a Marlborough SB before the red.

Of course you can trust your 90 ratings from Washington
H3 from Columnia Crest and always Ch. Ste Michelle Indian Wells or their standard Merlot.
Pinnacle Imports
Missouri —  May 10, 2011 11:18am ET
I miss Michael Havens.
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  May 10, 2011 3:24pm ET

You are spot on with the H3 and Indian Wells recommendation.
Don Nichols
Rochester, NY USA —  May 10, 2011 3:37pm ET
K-J Highland Estates Taylor Peak Merlot 2004: maybe not sublime, but very VERY good! For about $35-40 range, as I recall. Sebastiani generally does well at easier to live with prices...
and my go-to region would be Washington. Cheers!
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  May 10, 2011 4:30pm ET

You are spot on with the H3 and Indian Wells recommendation.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  May 10, 2011 5:26pm ET
If Merlot isn't suited well for California what would be a better option? Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc or more Southern Rhone grapes?
Michael Myette
Sacramento, CA USA —  May 10, 2011 11:53pm ET
IMHO more grenache and syrah would be ideally suited to California, especially the warmer regions like the Sierra Foothills.
Jeff Phillips
SF, CA —  May 24, 2011 2:57am ET
I agree with the previous comments that it is quite hard to find a California Merlot that is worth its price tag and that often Washington kicks California's butt when it comes to this varietal.

Recently, I have enjoyed the 2008 Paso Robles Merlot from Ancient Peaks that Tim gave 88 pts. I'd score it at 89 and scored it at Costco for $9.99.

A few months back I loved the 2007 Rockpile Vineyard Merlot from Paradise Ridge which I would give 92 pts to. It was amazing and perhaps the darkest Sonoma Co. Merlot I have ever seen.

But, before that I'd have to go back to June 2009 when I fell in love with Romabuer's 2004 Napa Valley Merlot which I'd also have given 92 pts to. Unfortunately, it is a bottling they no longer seem to make.

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