California Merlot

California Merlot

The Fifty Best California Merlot Tasting of 2017


The Tasting:
The Fifty Best held a “blind” tasting of 13 recently released California Merlot wines with 11 members of our wine judging panel. Strict tasting rules were applied. The order of service was established beforehand by lottery. Each of the wines were poured into fresh wine glasses from new sealed bottles and served at room temperature. Only ice water and white peasant bread were available to cleanse the palate.

The judges wrote down their impressions of each wine on score sheets. The scoring was done on a 5-point system, with 5 as the highest. Double-Gold, Gold and Silver medals are awarded based on a set range of final point scores received from the judges. There were no Bronze medals awarded for this tasting.

The tasting notes that follow are summaries of the judges’ opinions, with all replicated commentary eliminated. The appelations are identified for each brand. Prices indicated do not include tax.


Merriam Vineyards
Windacre Vineyard Merlot 2014

(Russian River Valley, Sonoma) $34

This wine was made from a blend of Merlot (85%), Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) and Cabernet Franc (5%) harvested from a vineyard on the eastern edge of Russian River Valley which experiences cool morning fog. Following fermentation, the wine was aged in French oak (25% new).

Aroma: Cherry, red cherry, black cherry, red raspberry, fragrant cassis, dried fruit, red pepper, licorice root, mineral, earthy, grain mash, old leather, Old World.
Palate: Black raspberry, red raspberry, blackberry, plum, blue plum, anise, earthy, leather, hint of cedar, oak, good minerality, good acidity, sophisticated Old World balance, body that could stand up to a ribeye steak, expressive, elegant.
Finish: Cherry, tart cherries, toasted cinnamon, earth, vibrant acidity and tannins, well made, balanced elegance, rich, velvet finish.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal

Merriam Vineyards Windacre Vineyard Merlot


Ty Caton Vineyards
Upper Bench Merlot 2016 – Caton Vineyard

(Moon Mountain District, Sonoma County) $38

This 100% merlot was made from sustainably farmed grapes.

Aroma: Black cherry, classic cherry, ripe cherry, plum, rose petals, slightly smoky violets, roast asparagus, young vegetables, grass, canella, buttery, oak, elegant.
Palate: Cherry, tart cherry, raspberry, blueberry, dark berry, plum, Kirschwasser, vegetables, tobacco, oak, sturdy tannins, very lean, good structure, Loire style.
Finish: Black cherry, ripe cherry, raspberry, herbs, mineral, tannic, tannic oak, Old World style, rich, pleasing.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal

Ty Caton Vineyards Upper Bench Merlot

Reynolds Family Winery
Merlot 2015 – Estate 200 Series

(Stags Leap District, Napa Valley) $54

Following fermentation, this wine (made from a blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes harvested from The Annapurna Vineyard) was aged for 18 months in French oak (45% new, 55% neutral) before bottling.

Aroma: Black plum, cherry, blackberry, blueberry, dark briar fruit, rose petal jam, olive oil, leather, mild oak, Bordeaux-like, elegant.
Palate: Red plum, plum, blackberry, dark berry, strawberry, bright cherries, boiled cherries, blackcurrant, sandalwood, mineral, cigar, woody, slightly chewy, balanced, well-structured, Bordeaux-like.
Finish: Black cherry, blackberry, herbs, stony, old oak, nice tannins, excellent length, soft, smooth.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal

Reynolds Family Winery Merlot Estate 200 Series

2014 Napa Valley Merlot

(Napa Valley) $68

Made from 84% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and smaller amounts of Malbec and Petit Verdot (grown in vineyards on Mt. Veeder and the Napa Valley floor), this wine was aged for almost two years in French oak barrels.

Aroma: Big black cherry, cherry, raspberry, blackberry, plum, dense and deep red fruits, red grapes, faint dried fruit, dark chocolate, violet, light tobacco, mineral.
Palate: Black cherry, sweet cherry, blackberry, strawberry, juicy black fruit, tea leaves, tobacco, leather, graphite, earthy, sweet oak, balanced tannins, clean, rich.
Finish: Plum, some cherry, fenugreek, dry cedar, tannic bite, soft, well-balanced, good length.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal

Darioush Napa Valley Merlot



Merlot 2016

(Mendocino County) Certified organic. $14

Following harvest, lots of Merlot were fermented separately with small amounts of Petite Sirah and Malbec added to the final blend. Aging was conducted in a combination of French and American oak (45% new) for12 months before bottling.

Aroma: Black cherry, tart cherry, blackberry, currant, apple, floral, sandalwood, herbal, mirepoix, cream, butter, Old World elegance.
Palate: Cherry, blackberry, lemon, citrus, herbal, licorice, mineral, tobacco, toasted cherry wood, cedar, fresh oak, lean Old World style, smooth, pleasant.
Finish: Blackberry, currants, mild green vegetables, bay leaf, herbs, licorice, mineral, graphite, tannic, fresh-sawn oak.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Bonterra Merlot

Eagle Peak Merlot 2016

(Mendocino County) $11

Following harvest, this 100% Merlot was fermented in stainless steel tanks.

Aroma: Dark cherry, black cherry, blackberry, raspberry, plum, dark plum, plummy, cassis, dried cherry, green apple, slight underbrush, peppery, wet leather, juniper ash, cherry wood.
Palate: Black cherry, dark cherry, blackberry, blackcurrant, currants, light plum, cola, leather, tobacco, wood, cedar, fresh sawn oak, big tannins.
Finish: Black cherry, dark cherry, sweet and sour cherries, bitter melon, clove, leather, earthy, tannic.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Fetzer Eagle Peak Merlot

Joseph Cellars
Merlot 2013

(Oakville, Napa Valley) $125

Following fermentation, this 100% Merlot was aged in French oak (95% new) for 20 months before bottling.

Aroma: Black cherry, blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, currant, dried cherry, toasted mustard seed, slightly smoky, oak.
Palate: Sharp cherry, currant, blackcurrant, cassis, energetic dark fruit, dried cherry, tart grape, soft vanilla, black pepper, tobacco, tannic, nice tannins.
Finish: Some cherry, tea leaves, menthol, tobacco, cherrywood, hardwood, well balanced.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Joseph Cellars Merlot

Jacuzzi Family Vineyards
Rosso Di Sette Fratelli Merlot 2015

(Carneros, Sonoma) $25

This wine was fashioned from 96% Merlot and 4% Aleatico grapes that were fermented over 7 days and aged in French oak barrels (35% new) for 15 months before bottling.

Aroma: Bold cherry, dark ripe cherries, cherry juice, floral, slight vegetal, black pepper, cloves, funky Old World herbal, cocoa powder, milk chocolate, tobacco.
Palate: Dark cherry, cherry juice, plum, strawberry, blackberry, currants, fruit bomb, earthy, farmland freshness, leather, graphite, cigar, Cameroon tobacco, oak, soft.
Finish: Black plum, cherry, bright cherry, cherry juice, cumin, clove, old oak, tannic, musty, funky, big, edgy.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Jacuzzi Family Vineyards Rosso Di Sette Fratelli Merlot

Mt. Veeder Estate Merlot 2015

(Napa Valley) $75

This wine, made from Merlot (99.2%), Cabernet Sauvignon (0.7%) and Petit Verdot (0.1%), underwent whole berry fermentation over 3 weeks in bins. It was then aged in 100% new French oak for 17 months before bottling.

Aroma: Blackberry, currants, stone fruit, black fruit, dried figs, chocolate, floral, jasmine, warm leather.
Palate: Black plum, dark plum, black cherry, tart cherry, juicy black briar fruit, chocolate, green pepper, clove, spicy, sharp tobacco, leather, earthy, oak, nice tannins, big tannins, good structure, complex.
Finish: Dark cherry, berries, currants, green pepper, clove, leather, tobacco, Connecticut tobacco, earthy, oak, tannic, fruit persists.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Anthem Mt. Veeder Estate Merlot

Ca’ Momi
Heartcraft Merlot 2016

(Napa Valley) $16

Following fermentation, this 100% Merlot was aged for 8 months in a combination of French and American oak.

Aroma: Black cherry, blackberry, currants, cassis, plum, chocolate, cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, light raw tobacco, cedar, oak, rich, bold.
Palate: Cherry, black cherry, raspberry, blackberry, black plum, pomegranate, violet, chocolate, vanilla, tea leaves, spicy, strong tobacco, leather, earth, smoke, oak, soft tannins, rich, complex.
Finish: Sultanas, chocolate, vanilla, cotton candy, tea leaves, spicy, leather, earth, oak, tannins, complex.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Ca’ Momi Heartcraft Merlot


Peachy Canyon
Merlot 2016

(Paso Robles) $25

This 100% Merlot was fermented in bins and aged in French oak barrels for 20 months prior to bottling.

Aroma: Black cherry, dark plum, lightly plummy, red currant, Welch’s Concord grape juice, papaya, raisin, saffron, maduro tobacco, tobacco, leather, light wood.
Palate: Black cherry, bright cherry, blackberry, lingonberry, dark plum, lightly plummy, concord grape, sandstone, soft tannins.
Finish: Cherry, strawberry, grape jelly, raw papaya, herbal, Maduro ash, oak, good length.

Silver Medal
Silver medal

Peachy Canyon Merlot

Luna Vineyards
Howell Mountain Merlot 2015

(Napa Valley) $85

Following four weeks of fermentation in open top tanks, this 100% Merlot was aged for 29 months in French oak barrels (65% new).

Aroma: Blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, plum, currants, dark cherry, black cherry juice, dried berries, fresh-cut grass, dandelion greens, clean.
Palate: Black cherry, bright cherry, sweet tart cherries, sour cherry, plums, red plums, black raspberry, raspberry, cranberries, bitter herbs, tobacco leaves, light mineral, dry oak.
Finish: Plums, bright fruit, black cherry juice, cherry pits.

Silver Medal
Silver medal

Luna Vineyards Howell Mountain Merlot

Frey Vineyards
North Coast Merlot 2016

(North Coast) Certified organic. $15

This 100% Merlot was produced without the addition of sulfites.

Aroma: Plum, green apple, gingerbread, floral, clove, wet tobacco earth, oak.
Palate: Plum, black plum, black raspberry, cherry, dark chocolate, spice, earthy, potting soil, funky, oak, soft.
Finish: Cherry, dry cherry, tobacco, fruit-driven, big tannins, elegant.

Silver Medal
Silver medal

Frey Vineyards North Coast Merlot




California Merlot Prevails

Merlot is by far the most widely planted wine grape variety of the Bordeaux region, and the second most widely-planted black wine grape in the world. Château Pétrus is almost all merlot. Vintners have historically used merlot as a blending grape to soften a wine, usually with Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot tannins are less forceful than Cabernet Sauvignon, so merlot wine tends to mature earlier – up to two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot was brought to California in the 1850s and 1870s, but the grape didn't become fashionable until the 1990s. In 1985 less than 2,000 acres of merlot existed in California, and by 2003 that increased to over 50,000 acres. Researchers at the University of California at Davis discovered that the merlot grape is a offspring of the Cabernet Franc grape. Its sibling grapes include Carmenere and Malbec. Merlot grapes are identified by their loose bunches of large berries. Grown throughout the state of California, merlot vines are planted most predominantly in Lodi/San Joaquin County, followed by Napa Valley, Sonoma, and Monterey counties.

California merlots are fruit driven and can range from simple wines to more serious, complex barrel-aged examples. The grape tends to show ripe blackberry and black raspberry notes, and also flavors of plum, black cherry, tea leaf, cinnamon, chocolate, leather and tobacco, with less prevalent tannins and a smooth finish.

Merlot's popularity came crashing down in 2004 after the release of the film "Sideways", in which the lead character, a Pinot Noir fan, adamantly refuses to drink Merlot wine. Termed the "Sideways Effect", the film influenced the buying patterns of movie-going wine drinkers nationwide. Today, merlot is the third leading red varietal after Cabernet Sauvignon and Red Blends purchased in the U.S. There were 17 million cases sold in the U.S. in 2017, proving that merlots from California are appreciated once again.



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