The Conscientious Consumer in Quarantine: Merlot Edition

In this series, The Conscientious Consumer in Quarantine, I’m going to point to some of my favorite producers, wineries that are owned by individuals human beings, human beings who use their wineries to employ other people and feed their families, human beings whom I would encourage you to support with your patronage. Wineries make money primarily in two ways, namely by selling wine and by having visitors. Both of those revenue streams are being deeply slashed during the Covid 19 pandemic, as restaurants are closing and, in many if not most instances, tasting rooms have been asked to close down for the time being to help stop the spread of the disease. The following wines are wines I encourage you to purchase online to help support these small producers so that, when this is all over, they will still be there for all of us to visit.

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I’m pretty certain that in my last post, I commented on the weather improving here in Omaha. Silly me. Today, we woke up to an inch of sleet caking the walks and our cars. No matter, of course, because we’re all inside all day anyway.  I spent the morning writing and in Zoom meetings, and the afternoon watching Frozen 2 for the umpteenth time with Titus and Zooey. Then I pulled a cork and got a bit of work done while Sonja made dinner: spaghetti and meatballs.

Today’s post will focus on one of my very favorite varietals, the much-maligned Merlot.  Here’s the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned: you want value? Go for Merlot. As a grape, it can take on myriad flavors from terroir, oak, char, concrete — it ages beautifully, can be as robust as Cab Sauv but is generally more elegant and less in-your-face. It has all of the things I love in many other varietals, but it doesn’t command the same price as Cab Sauv (not even close) so you can get amazing Merlot made by a world class winemaker for usually something like 60% the cost of a Cab Sauv from the same producer. I’m not sure I still buy into the mythology about why that is, but for those less dorky cork dorks who haven’t heard this one, the legend is that when the movie Sideways came out in 2004, the wine snob character’s dislike for the varietal (“I am not drinking any fucking Merlot”) hurt the value of the grape.

Can we talk about this for a second?  First and foremost, though portrayed as a wine geek, the dude (Miles might have been his name? It’s been a while since I saw the movie) is also a certified grade-A loser whose poor choices and infidelity have made a damn mess out of his life. The worst choice he made? Having a friend like the curly-haired guy who is cheating on his fiancee throughout the movie. That guy makes Miles, I think it’s Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, far more palatable, yet still almost impossible to root for.  So as it relates to Merlot, my first question is, of course, why would people take their wine drinking cues from this jerk? Especially their real-life wine drinking cues from a fictional jerk?  I’ve never understood this. If anything I might have thought that character would cause Merlot sales to spike, frankly.

Beyond that, of course, is the fact that my fellow Omaha native, Alexander Payne, who directed the movie, is a pretty clever dude. The bottle of ’61 Chateau Cheval Blanc that Miles drinks at the end of the movie (See? I remember the important details) is a right banker which, of course, makes it predominantly Merlot.  Payne is a rock star, though I don’t think he was creating characters he wanted us to emulate in Sideways. For this reason, whenever I review a Merlot that I really love, and there are a lot of those, I add the phrase “Suck it, Sideways” to the review. Anyway, enough trivia. This post is dedicated to my favorite bottles of Merlot, which are produced by people who are getting hurt by this pandemic. You can ease their pain by purchasing their wine, so please do!

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Andrew Will, Columbia Valley — $31

Chris Camarda is a rock star from the Washington wine scene, and the maker of this wine. I met him in Omaha once or twice, and have always been impressed. This Merlot is serious stuff; 100% varietal and limited to under 350 cases in production, it beautifully encapsulates what we love about the Columbia Valley. You can get it at andrewwill.com.

Barnard Griffin, Columbia Valley — $17

My buddy Jay first told me about this wine, and I am grateful.  My appreciation for Rob Griffin as a pioneer of Washington wine is eclipsed only by my appreciation for the incredible value of his wines. A gorgeous daily drinker, the quality-price-ratio (QPR) is nearly impossible to beat on this one. Get it at barnardgriffin.com.

Hourglass, Napa Valley — $75

Normally I don’t list a wine in these things if it isn’t fairly easy to access, but in this instance I’ll make an exception because Hourglass Merlot is, among all of the Merlots that I love so much, probably Sonja and my single favorite. While they don’t have e-commerce on their web page, if you visit hourglasswines.com you can call, email, or fill out their form, and I’m sure they can tell you where to obtain some. And when things get back to normal, be sure to visit their incredible tasting room.

Keenan, Napa Valley — $22

Seriously, the price isn’t a typo, at least for now.  I just saw it on their web page and was astonished and wanted you to know. So this amazing wine from a terrific Spring Mountain producer in Napa is normally $44, but they’re running a half-off special on cases which makes it the deal of the century.  Also worth knowing is that they have some older vintages, 2006 and 2010, available online for a very reasonable $66. It would be fun to try multiple vintages side by side. You can get them all at keenanwinery.com.

Materra Right Bank Red, Napa Valley — $50 

I still have most of a case of 2012 in my cellar, the wine my neighbor describes as her “spirit wine,” and we had the 2013 with dinner the other night and it blew us away. Vintage to vintage, this wine is killer. The 2015 is currently available at materrawines.com, and while you’re there check out some of their other amazing wines as well. Sonja and I are planning to visit Materra for the first time in late July and we’re really looking forward to it.

Peju, Napa Valley — $48

Sonja and I visited Peju on our second trip to Napa, on the recommendation of a sommelier we like. He was right to recommend them. They’re a cool little producer on the Vacas side of Highway 29, with a beautiful estate that’s worth visiting next time you get out there. Their Merlot is a favorite of mine, though their Cab Franc is pretty amazing as well.  Check out all of their great wines at peju.com.

Silverado Vineyards, Napa Valley — $40

I’m a big fan of Silverado Vineyards, and their winemaker Jon Emmerich. This wine is sourced exclusively from the Mt. George Vineyard and always delivers a lot of value in my opinion.  Sonja and I are looking forward to visiting Silverado this summer on our trip to Napa. You can purchase this wine at silveradovineyards.com.

Smoky Rose Cellars, Columbia Valley — $40

I remember sitting next to Josh Roznowski, then a meteorologist for the USAF, many years ago in a wine bar called Corkscrew, as he talked about moving to Washington and opening a winery. I thought that sounded about as romantic as it did completely insane, and I wished him luck.  Then last year, a friend who used to manage Corkscrew showed up with a bottle of his Merlot. I was truly impressed; the char on the barrels was intense, and gave the wine a hint of cinnamon, while the fruit duly represented everything I love about Walla Walla — I’d never had a wine quite like it, and I wanted more. You can get it at smokyrosecellars.com.

Tamber Bey, Napa Valley — $75 

I already loved this wine when Jennifer Waitte sent out an email telling us that it was now on the wine list at the French Laundry. Pretty cool. Tamber Bey’s wines are always among my favorites, and this Merlot, sourced from their Deux Chevaux Vineyard is yet another example of why.  The Waitte’s are great people and their wines always deliver.  You can get this one at tamberbey.com.

Trefethen Family Vineyards, Napa Valley — $45

I have fond memories of tasting at Trefethen the morning after being rushed to the ER by an ambulance in San Francisco. Boy, did I need a drink! Located at the southern end of the Napa Valley in the Oak Knoll District, Trefethen is a beautiful location and they make some truly excellent wines. Sonja and I especially enjoy their Merlot. You can get some for yourself at trefethen.com

Walla Walla Vintners, Columbia Valley — $30

I became infatuated with this producer at Taste of Washington a few years ago, an event that was cancelled this year due to the Covid 19 Pandemic.  Until we can all get back together and try these amazing wines in Seattle again, I suggest you seek out this beautiful, very reasonably-priced Merlot, at wallawallavintners.com.

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As I sit here thinking about the Merlots I didn’t write about, I’m almost ashamed. Cooper in Columbia Valley makes a great one, and so does Robledo in Sonoma, but in both cases I couldn’t find them in their online store. Like I mentioned earlier, this is just a really amazing grape, and I cannot completely express in words my distaste for people who “don’t like Merlot”.  Merlot can be many things — most of my recommendations on this list taste quite distinct from one another, and yet all of them are excellent.  If you know this secret, that in Merlot rests phenomenal value, then you’re ahead of the curve. If instead you’ve been dodging this varietal for a while, regardless of the reason, then I hope you’ll check out some of the wines on the list above. These producers could all use your support right now. As always, thanks for reading. Take good care of yourself — and each other.

Cheers,

Mark

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