Back in grade school, there was always a smartass who'd taped a sign to a kid's back. California Merlot has been wearing one of those signs for years now, and it reads "Kick Me." The 1990s boom years are long gone, even though Merlot is still popular with consumers looking for an easygoing red for $10 to $20. There are a few high-end Merlot producers like Duckhorn, Lewis and Pahlmeyer that can charge a premium, but many wineries with $25 to $50 bottles can't give them away.
But if the 2009 vintage proved anything, it's way too soon to write off California Merlot. Quality has been on a gradual upswing since 2006, as growers began weeding out the good vineyards from the mediocre and winemakers made improvements in the cellar. Pinot Noir went through a similar process years ago, and look what California achieves with it today.
Now that I've softened you up with the good news, here's the bad: 2010 is not a great vintage for Merlot, and 2011 looks even less promising. Sometimes, growing seasons just don't cooperate, especially with a finicky grape like Merlot.
The 2010s vary widely in style and quality. Some are soft and lack completion or focus, while others have firm tannins and brawny herb components, but not a lot of fruit to wrap around it. A few top producers pulled off outstanding Merlots, including Coup de Foudre and PlumpJack, but the bulk of the 2010s fall solidly in the very good range, a rating of 85 to 89 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
It makes sense when you consider that 2010 was a year of extremes, with historically low temperatures in the spring delaying the growing season and then a flood of rain around Memorial Day when many vines were in bloom. It was one of the coolest summers on record, but in late August much of the state baked in a heat wave, followed by a deluge of rain in early October.
2011 was similar but even more challenging for Merlot. Spring offered cool, soggy weather and frost, plus a big rainstorm in Northern California in early June, which led to problems with rot and mildew, something thin-skinned Merlot doesn't tolerate. A storm arrived in Napa and Sonoma the first of October, effectively ending harvest.
I've only tasted a handful of 2011s, and many of the reviews are not yet in our database, but the wines tend to be lean, quite tart and herbal. If you're looking for great structure or plush flavors, it might not be the vintage for you.