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Too Much to Ask? A Good Merlot at a Fair Price

Frei Brothers 2008 reminds us why we like the much-maligned California red
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 19, 2011 10:02am ET

Merlot is the whipping boy of California wine, and I've done a little flogging myself sometimes. When I find a good Merlot at a fair price, it's worth singling out and—just as important—trying to find out why it's so good.

Exhibit A is the Frei Brothers Merlot Reserve Dry Creek Valley 2008. It's focused and nicely structured, with notes of black currant, anise and cedar. I rated it 88 points, blind, and the suggested retail is $20, but you can often find it on sale for around $16.

Frei Brothers is a Gallo label so you know it isn't some small artisan winery we're talking about. More than 27,000 cases of 2008 were produced at the company's Frei Ranch facility in the hills above Dry Creek General Store outside Healdsburg.

Scott Kozel was the winemaker and he gives a lot of the credit to the vintage. "I think Dry Creek got lucky with Merlot in 2008," Kozel said. "We were able to pick at our leisure and make our own decisions about how things should play out."

Good Merlot starts in the vineyard. It's every bit as hard to grow as Pinot Noir. "Avoiding the vegetal character is one of the big challenges," Kozel said, and that means keeping an open canopy to ripen and mature the fruit, otherwise Merlot can taste a little like "tart cherry juice and cranberry juice mixed together with bell pepper and asparagus."


The vineyards at Frei Ranch were the main grape source and about 13 percent actually came from a vineyard in Russian River Valley (85 percent is the legal cut off). Kozel has access to Gallo's many winemaking tools and gadgets. About half the juice, for example, went through a computerized rotary fermentor to bring better density and darker fruit, Kozel said, and the wine was aged in the facility's football field-sized barrel room, mostly in French oak and about 20 percent new.

After about six months in barrel Kozel and his team put together the final blend. "We're generally big fans of blending early," he said. About 3 percent Petite Sirah and 1 percent Cabernet Sauvignon were added to give the Merlot more structure, then back in the barrel it went for another six months, a little longer than usual.

"We held off bottling it a couple of months to give it more time in the barrel," Kozel said. "It still tasted still a little rough after that first year."

The resulting wine has both polish and structure, and sadly all too rare for Merlot at that price point. Oops, there's that whip again.

Ivan S Robles
Jacksonville, FL —  October 19, 2011 12:01pm ET
I know that this has been said before but if you want a good Merlot for less than $15 try the ones from Washington and buy it in Costco.

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, CA; USA —  October 19, 2011 12:15pm ET
Dear Tim; Thanks for keeping the faith and looking for excellent California Merlots. It's still so incredulous that the fate of California Merlot went "South" because of Sideways. Yet, there needed to be a wake up call to the California Merlot producers to make a more "Serious Merlot" than as a commodity. Finally, it's always good to recognize vintners by name than by company for their passion and talents. Oops, there goes that winemaker mindset again.
Jeremy Overman
Wilmington, NC —  October 19, 2011 12:24pm ET
Milbrandt Traditions
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  October 19, 2011 12:26pm ET
Columbia Crest makes several that, to my mind, are both representative and great values. Grand Estates and H3 are consistently good. Ray Einbarger is my winemaker hero. A million cases of bargains are hard to deny.
Aaron Meeker
Kansas City, KS —  October 19, 2011 1:58pm ET

The issue I see with Merlot is the opposite. Plummy bordering Pruney wines with one-dimensional character. To me, Merlot when great, is generally a deeper and more complex wine than Cab Sauv. Merlot from St Helena or much of the valley floor of Napa is uninteresting.

Carneros, Oak Knoll, Spring Mtn have some pretty compelling Merlot. Cropping it lower then it wants to grow seems to yield
more intense wine while retaining the texture and soft tannins
of merlot.

I completely agree with the posts about WA Merlot. Not sure if it is the hot day/cool night that helps to retain acidity, but there is something going on up there!!!!
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  October 19, 2011 2:44pm ET
I agree with Joe on his Columbia Crest selections. Chateau Saint Michelle is another good brand, all below $12 at Costco and Wegmans.
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  October 19, 2011 4:08pm ET
Could not agree more with Joe. World Market had the 08 Columbia Crest H3 on sale for 8.50. Excellent wine.
Frank Colonna
Nanaimo British Columia —  October 19, 2011 6:02pm ET
I would agree. In Canada, liquor tax is out of this world. For example the Columbia Crest H3 Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay 750 mL “Jay mentioned this wine above my post” would cost us in British Columbia $26.99. So for us to find value in Canada is extremely difficult.. I personally struggle with the Pinot’s, I have yet to find a Pinot that I am happy with under $50.00 Canadian.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 19, 2011 6:45pm ET
Thanks for the comments and suggestions. Columbia Crest Merlot certainly has a lot of fans. Great topic for a future blog, my colleague Harvey Steiman willing.
Clinton W Mitchell
Naperville, IL —  October 21, 2011 6:38am ET
If the best example of "good" is a mass-produced, over-manipulated $20 wine from California, I'd say the answer to the original question might be "yes".
But, as others mentioned, you're looking in the wrong direction. Look to Washington, where even a large producer like Castle Rock makes a small-production Columbia Valley Merlot (5K cases) that sells for closer to $12. A solid, consistent wine, and many others like it.
Robert Lapolla
san diego, CA USA —  October 21, 2011 4:10pm ET
I dont understand all the negativity abt merlot. I love the stuff. Its got more body than pinot (the red chardonnay) but wont peal the skin off the inside of your mouth like cabernet. one just has to buy the good stuff: Plumpjack, shafer, duckhorn, paloma. these can be had for low to mid forties. Not cheap but superb wines. For less money look at Markham, st francis, whitehall lane and provenance. I bought provenance for $15 in Vons. markham and whitehall lane for $17-18 in Costco. excellent wines.
Frank Ostini
Buellton, CA —  October 25, 2011 9:46am ET
We have been making Merlot since 1998, and have mostly combined it with Cabernet Franc in our Gen Red blend. After Sideways, we realized our Santa Barbara Merlot was both unique and of high quality, so we bottled our first in 2004. Today, with our Pinot Noirs mostly dry and in barrel, we are picking Merlot from Alisos Vineyard in the hills above Los Alamos, and McGinley Vineyard in Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. Yes Tim, grown correctly, Merlot makes a serious and balanced red wine. We continue to be bullish on Merlot!
David K Welch
Galveston, TX —  October 25, 2011 6:04pm ET
St Clement usually makes a great Merlot for the money

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