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Welcome to THE best month of the year. It’s my birthday month, the month when college football gets really good (Go Irish!), the month when the swamp called Houston cools down a teeny bit, Texas Wine Month, and of course Merlot Month. Thing 1 and Thing 2 would also add Halloween to the list. Each year I look forward to seeing what some of the country’s best Merlot producers have been up to. I never know what’s coming and eagerly await to see which Merlot bottles show up. I then dig into my own cellar to see what other gems I can add to the mix. Of course, each year, I have to decide what angle I’m going to cover because we MUST give Merlot its due. This time it’s all about California Merlot. And its always quite thought provoking. And full of photobombing dogs. I mean, did he really need to get right above my head in the pic?!

Now, if you’re still on that “no f*cking merlot” bandwagon, I insist that you get off! Merlot has been through the ringer, but is better off for it today. That hit to its reputation helped to weed out much of the bad Merlot and we have some absolute gems on the market these days. This year, as I was going through the almost dozen bottles of Merlot I received, I started seeing that many of them were crafted by women winemakers which was just so cool. What’s more, I loved that these leading ladies were making wines for some of the most important and iconic estates in California. As many of them were from Napa Valley, my initial thought was to call this “Leading Ladies of Napa Merlot.” But then I received a couple of Sonoma wines and had to expand my focus. But no worries! Come along as I showcase wines from the leading ladies of California Merlot.

And whew, have we been “working” to get through these bottles in a short period of time! While some of the wines are just enjoyed on their own, I tried to incorporate as many as possible into dinners to showcase the versatility of Merlot. Of course this translates to lots of cooking as well as happy friends and neighbors as we often share the leftover wines with them since we’re opening so many on consecutive days. And be sure to check out a previous #MerlotMe edition when I hooked up with the #WinePW group of writers and paired all sorts of goodies.

Duckhorn Vineyards & Decoy Wine Company

Of course, you can’t talk about California Merlot without talking about Duckhorn Vineyards. If there was ever a Merlot pioneer, then Duckhorn certainly fits the bill. They’ve been making Merlot since 1978 and are widely regarded as the first American winery to pioneer luxury Merlot. While some in Cali turned their backs on Merlot, Duckhorn kept right on producing its hallmark Merlot and made it the American Classic that it is. The 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot was even named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year for 2017. Today, there are several Merlots in the Duckhorn portfolio featuring many single vineyard sites. 

And in charge of winemaking is Renée Ary, who became the winemaker in 2014 after previously spending 11 years learning all facets of the Duckhorn business. With degrees in chemistry and art, as well as education from UC Davis and Napa Valley College, Renée’s style exhibits a great balance of artistry and science. With a keen artist’s sensibility, she blends almost 200 distinctive vineyard lots using taste and instinct, rather than a pre-established formula. Her goal is to “let the vineyards speak and convey the would of the wine.”

The winery’s entry level 2018 Merlot ($56) is the essence of Napa. Sourced from a handful of Napa sub-appellations, it is crafted of 82% Merlot accompanied by 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.4% Cabernet Franc, 0.4% Petit Verdot, and 0.2% Malbec. I have this Merlot almost every year and I never cease to savor and enjoy it. Robust black fruits (plum, cherry), earth, and a touch of herbaceousness. 

We paired two wines from the Duckhorn portfolio with spinach stuffed chicken and garlic green beans. While distinct, I always enjoy tasting the Decoy Merlot ($22) side by side with the Duckhorn Merlot to compare and contrast. Whereas Duckhorn focuses more on Napa, Decoy’s focus begins with Sonoma County. The Decoy Merlot is also a bit softer, exhibits red berry fruits along with the black fruits, and is less earthy than the Duckhorn Merlot.

While Decoy Wine Company is a part of the Duckhorn portfolio of wines, it is distinctly its own brand. The brand was established in 1985 as a more affordable line of wines. Fruit for the wines is sourced from a variety of exceptional vineyard sources, including Decoy’s own Ridgeline and Brownell estate vineyards in the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. More recently, the brand has established a ‘Decoy Limited’ line which is a series of limited production wines from from some of the most acclaimed vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. 

At the helm of Decoy’s winemaking program (she’s the VP of winemaking) is Dana Epperson, who is gifted at working with multiple varietals across a span of wine regions.

Dana is a third generation Sonoman, so Sonoma is very much a part of her. With studies in food science, as well as wine analysis and viticulture at Cal Poly, Dana cut her teeth working from producers throughout California in both the vineyard and the cellar. Very much committed to achieving small-lot quality in the wines, she and her team have as many as 150 individual fermentations each vintage with some lots as small as 5 tons. For her, its all about making exceptional wines at an accessible price.

Rutherford Hill Winery

Truly one of the OGs, Rutherford Hill Winery, which overlooks the Rutherford bench of Napa Valley, was established in 1972 and is a pioneer of California Merlot. Inspired as Dan Duckhorn was by Right Bank Bordeaux, the grape growers that founded the winery found that the climate and soil conditions resembled those in Bordeaux’s Pomerol. So committed is Rutherford Hill to crafting California Merlot, that it takes the role of a flagship wine and comprises 75% of production. Talk about a commitment to Merlot!

Acting in a dual role as both General Manager and Head Winemaker at Rutherford Hill, Marisa Taylor was destined to have a career in wine. She grew up in wine country and recalls at an early age seeing her godfather work in the vineyards. By her mid-20s, she was making her own wine. I assure you that I had no such talents at 25! With degrees in Chemistry and Food Science-Enology, Marisa takes both a big picture as well as an analytical approach to winemaking. She’s been with Rutherford for almost two decades, adding the General Manager role in 2014. An even more important title is one of “cancer survivor” haven beaten kidney and thyroid cancer several years ago at the same time. What a feat! By the 2018 harvest she was back to crafting fabulous Merlot for us to enjoy.

As I mentioned, Rutherford Hill has an amazing array of Merlot in its portfolio. I was able to taste the 2019 Rutherford Hill Napa Merlot ($35) and the 2018 Rutherford Hill Limited Release Oakville Merlot ($62) side by side. There is nothing like an easy to make burger and having the time to savor wines on a Friday evening after a long week of Lawyering. So many times when I want the wine to shine, I choose as simple a meal as possible. Plus, Merlot with a juicy burger is never a bad idea!

The 2019 Napa Merlot is the entry level wine and features 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 2% of both Syrah and Petit Sirah to round out the Merlot. Smooth, velvety tannins along with notes of luscious red and black plum, black cherry and mocha. Everything we love about a smooth, easy-drinking Merlot. But this is a young wine, so do give it some time to air out to get the best from it. The 2018 Oakville Merlot was a bit bolder with more structured tannins (I loved its intense nose). Dried fruits along with the fresh black fruits as well as graphite, earth, dark chocolate, cedar, and dried roses. As you can see, it is a more complex wine. Not necessarily better, just more complex. It features more Merlot at 94% accompanied by 5% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon.

While we tried both side by side and either is fine with a burger, I think I preferred the 2019 Napa Merlot over the Oakville Merlot. Depending on what you top them with, burgers can run the gamut. An entry level wine that is more fruity and less structured can often get along with a variety of burger toppings. But don’t get it twisted, I loved the Oakville Merlot.

Markham Vineyards

Originally founded in 1874 by Bordeaux immigrant Jean Laurent, Markham Vineyards is the fourth-oldest continuously operated winery (under different names) in Napa Valley. While it was historically known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, its California Merlot, which was added to the portfolio in 1980, has become the winery’s flagship varietal. That early commitment and “unapologetic fascination” with Merlot made Markham a trailblazer and one of Merlot’s pioneers as they were just the fourth winery to produce Merlot in Napa Valley. It ended up being a a great decision as just a decade after adding Merlot to the portfolio, the 1990 Markham vintage was named “Merlot of the Year” by Wine Spectator.

That pioneering spirit continued when the winery named Kimberlee Nicholls its head winemaker in 2001, making her one of the first female head winemakers in Napa. A steady fixture at the winery for almost three decades, Kimberlee just celebrated her 20th vintage as Markham winemaker in 2020. Having first arrived to Markham in 1993 as an enologist, she is as much an integral part of Markham Vineyard as the vineyards themselves. She is one of Napa’s most respected winemakers and was a driving force behind the winery’s sustainability efforts. A love of cooking helps her to craft wines that are extremely food-friendly.

And wouldn’t you know it that this would be the wine that I did not pair with food. The entry-level Markham Merlot ($20) ended up being an impulse purchase during a trip to Target. Cause don’t we all end up with random ‘ish when we go to Target. But this ended up being a happy discovery and a guilty pleasure during an evening of football.

Lush, ripe, juicy black plum, cinnamon spice, and vanilla carried along by plush tannins. As much as I enjoyed this one, I can’t wait to try some of their higher end Merlots. Particularly given their absolute dedication to California Merlot!

Peju Winery

In 1983, Tony Peju and wife Herta (HB) purchased their 30-acre property in Rutherford in Napa Valley and started Peju Winery. They came to the region with the dream of raising their daughters on a farm. Today, the winery is still family owned and operated with daughters Lisa and Ariana now involved in the family business. The family’s original 30 acre Rutherford Estate was certified organic in 2007 by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). The rest of their vineyards employ sustainable farming, with the goal of becoming organically certified within the next few years.

In the summer of 2006, Sara Fowler joined the family as winemaker and has been there ever since. In addition to being the winemaker for Peju, she is also the Vice President of Winemaking and Operations for Peju’s sister winery, Calmére Estate, in Carneros. Agriculture is in her blood as her family owned and operated an organic ranch dating all the way back to 1884. By age 12, she was driving the family tractor on their 400-acre ranch.

Truly a star in Napa, Sara has been named Best Local Winemaker by Napa Valley Life Magazine in 2016, 2017 and 2018. She was the driving force behind Peju’s efforts to gain organic certification in 2007 and currently oversees the farming of all the winery’s estate vineyards. As a board member of the Rutherford Dust Society, she represents the Rutherford appellation around the country.

I had the pleasure of trying the 2018 Peju Merlot ($55). I was determined to feature a mushroom dish with one of these California Merlot wines so I ended making (a quite labor intensive) risotto. Risotto is akin to making a roux because you’re just chained to the stove stirring and stirring, but it’s all worth it in the end.

This was quite a bold, structured wine and I was initially regretting the meatless pairing decision of a mushroom risotto. But that’s the thing about mushrooms – they can really be a bridge to pairing with a number of things. It helped that there was earthiness and meatiness in the mushrooms, which certainly helped the pairing. If I did it again, I’d likely pair this wine with a meat dish. It was fine with the risotto, but I think a meat dish would be a better pairing. But what an enjoyable sip! Blue and black fruits, graphite, tobacco, and pepper with robust tannins and quite a lengthy finish.

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

This is one of the aforementioned Sonoma wines that I mentioned. 100% Certified Sustainable St. Francis Winery has been a fixture in Sonoma for five decades and just celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was back in 1971 that Joe Martin fell in love with Sonoma Valley and established St. Francis Vineyard, planting 22 acres of Chardonnay and the first 60 acres of Merlot in Sonoma Valley. After his success as a grower, he decided to begin making wine and opened his winery in 1979.

Today, winemaker Katie Madigan, along with winemaker Chris Louton, continues the storied tradition of crafting extra-premium, varietal California Merlot. Katie has been a part of the St. Francis Winery team for nearly two decades, and became one of the estate’s winemakers in 2011. For Katie, it’s all about the intersection of science and creativity. With a background in Chemistry as well as studies in Enology & Viticulture at UC Davis, Katie became hooked on winery life after a harvest internship during her undergraduate studies. She loved “the fast pace and diversity of the job.”

Even during her early years, Katie was instrumental in the winery’s success. As an assistant winemaker in 2006, she championed night picking for the winery’s Chardonnay to preserve the flavors and acidity. In 2015, she was awarded “Best Woman Winemaker” by the International Women’s Wine Competition. She was also recognized as Zinfandel Producer of the Year in 2014 and 2015 at the California Zinfandel Championship. Her main responsibilities include oversight of St. Francis’ Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays as well as many of the other popular white wines in the portfolio.

We featured the 2018 St. Francis Reserve Merlot ($40) on a sheet pan night. I don’t know who coined the phrase or is even responsible for this way of cooking, but this mama is a fan! Dinner on this particular night featured Italian sausage, brussel sprouts, grapes, and red onions cooked on a sheet pan together. We finished off the meal with crusty French baguettes. Easy peasy and quite tasty. The features of the Merlot worked well with dinner. The bright and generous red cherry and vanilla spice complemented the earthiness and spice of the sausage, the herbaceous notes in the wine complemented the vegetables in the dish, and the ripe fruit melded seamlessly with the sweetness of the caramelized onion and grapes. Yum!

What a fun way to taste through some great California Merlot being crafted by some badass women. Of course, these are only a few of the Merlot wines I’ll be featuring, so be sure to check out social media to see what else I’m opening for #MerlotMe month.

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