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10 California Merlots for $20 or Less

The 2009 vintage offers both quality and value
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 24, 2012 3:50pm ET

California Merlot falls into three basic categories: the easygoing values, the expensive Cabernet-wannabes and that big void in the middle that’s a stylistic roll of the dice. For my annual Merlot report, I tasted nearly 200 wines, and I give the lowdown in the Nov. 30, 2012, issue of Wine Spectator.

Since the high-tech proletariat seems to throw around the most weight on the Internet, I thought I’d focus today on Merlots that cost between $10 and $20. In years past, that has not always been easy, but the 2009 vintage is so good that even the value Merlots are tasty. (A few early-release 2010s show promise as well.)

These aren’t wines that will blow your mind with complexity. The best rated 89 points on our 100-point scale, just shy of outstanding. No, these are generally soft, juicy Merlots that offer just enough depth to keep them interesting. In other words, the sort of Merlots that soar off retail shelves.

My favorite of the 10 is the Buena Vista Merlot Carneros 2009 (89, $20), which is supple and elegant, with layered cherry flavors. Alexander Valley Vineyards Merlot Alexander Valley Wetzel Family Estate 2009 (88, $20) is a fine old-school Merlot that shows good structure and lively dried cherry and herb notes.

Bogle, as usual, delivers the best bargain this year with its Merlot California 2009 (88, $10) that’s a zesty quaff. The folks at Gallo created a Merlot for Zinfandel lovers with the Frei Brothers Dry Creek Valley Reserve 2010 (88, $20). And the Napa Cellars Merlot Napa Valley 2010 (88, $18) and Tangley Oaks Merlot Napa Valley Lot # 10 2009 (88, $15) demonstrate that–yes–bargains can be found in Napa.

Four other well-priced Merlots you can look for:

Goldschmidt Merlot Dry Creek Valley Chelsea Goldschmidt 2010 (88, $18)
Rancho Sisquoc Merlot Santa Barbara County Flood Family Vineyards 2009 (88, $20)
Sebastiani Merlot Sonoma County 2008 (87, $17)
Steele Merlot Clear Lake 2009 (87, $17)

WineSpectator.com members can read the full reviews by clicking on the review links, but this free chart offers a taste of all my reviews in the annual Merlot report.

Do you have a favorite value Merlot? What do you expect from a Merlot that sells for less than $20?

Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA USA —  October 24, 2012 4:20pm ET
Doug Margerum's 2010 Happy Canyon Merlot, $16.99. Big blueberry flavors with the tannic structure that's the hallmark of the Santa Ynez AVA.

Jim Kern, Wine Buyer, Holiday Wine Cellar
North San Diego County, California
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 24, 2012 6:32pm ET

Thanks for the recommendation. Cheers.

William Matarese
Florida, USA —  October 25, 2012 12:20pm ET
There's only one California Merlot that I consider well worth buying, but even on closeout (at around $25) it still falls just outside of the "value" category. It's the Beringer Howell Mountain Bancroft Ranch Merlot. Both the 2005 and 2006 vintages were excellent, interesting wines that even Cabernet lovers might enjoy.
Jack Fleming
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA —  October 31, 2012 12:25pm ET
I find using an aerator / pourer in most of the "inexpensive" wines really gives them a smoother taste, and I too like the Bueno Vista Carneros. There are so many nice choices!
Jack Fleming
owner, www.WineScwwag.com
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA
Bryson Gappa
North Texas —  November 5, 2012 1:37pm ET
Lapis Luna Merlot typically retails for $15 or less and is one of my favorites. I make a ROCKIN' Sangria with it in the summer! Rich blackberry, dark cherry and plum with a touch of spice - love that.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  November 15, 2012 10:31pm ET
Why worry about California Merlots under $20, when up in Washington there are dozens of excellent Merlots to be had in that price range?

But actually for a great Cali Merlot - check out McManis Merlot at about $9.99

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