Great Napa Merlots

That Velvet Devil.

There is sweet irony in the final scene of the 2004 movie “Sideways” when the main character Miles, crushed by hubris, sullenly drinks his prized 1947 Cheval Blanc after spending most of the story slamming Merlot and posing as a wine expert. He doesn’t realize that Cheval Blanc and most Bordeaux is primarily made from Merlot.

Pathetically, the American public is equally ignorant and has shunned Merlot to the point where thousands of acres have been ripped out and replaced with Pinot Noir and Cabernet. Oh, what a shame because some California regions have the terroir that makes for world-class Merlot that explodes with pure dark fruits, cocoa dust, bold but silky tannins and a combination of deliciousness and structure rare in the wine world.

Merlot, which means blackbird in French, describes the opaque grapes and the American shunning of it has created an environment where only the passionate few still endeavor to make high-end versions. It’s fortunate for the consumer because low demand, of even top versions, are available for a fraction of Cabernet prices from the same wine regions.

Merlot explodes with pure dark fruits, cocoa dust, bold but silky tannins and a combination of deliciousness and structure rare in the wine world.

Here are some stellar producers at a variety of price points. At the extreme-value level, Washington is the place to go. A yummy version is 14 Hands for less than $10 that has enough stuffing to be a bona-fide food wine. Charles Smith’s The Velvet Devil Merlot brings even more complexity for a few dollars more.

Bordeaux and Napa Merlots.

The next three wines are from Napa, which still grows significant amounts of Merlot, but blends most of it with Cabernet to sell for far more money. This means the wineries are literally turning down real moolah because of their devotion to Merlot. Markham makes a classic valley-floor version with berry flavors that also bring soft tannins and a dusty silky component that usually comes only at higher prices. However, their bottling can be had for about $25.

Robert Keenan Winery and Paloma Vineyard hail from my favorite New World Merlot terroir high on Spring Mountain. We are talking seriously structured wines that reward oenophiles even decades after release. The tannins have tamed themselves by then and these become symphonies where the fruits marry herbs, earth, wood and bold tannins to create truly great wine experiences. I strongly suggest at least a 7-year-old version to get all these have to offer.

Quality Merlots pair well with roast meats, chocolates of any kind and are a great solo sip on a cold evening. Abigail the wonder dog and I often cuddle by the fire with a stout Merlot and a good book. So, long live the blackbird.


Lou Phillips

Lou is a Level 3 Sommelier based on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, who loves traveling the wine world doing research for his writing. He also consults for collectors and businesses buying and selling fine wine and creating special events.