The Valpolicella region yields good options for selecting Italian wines

Enoteca Oreste del Zovo wine shop in Verona

Verona, in northeast Italy, is a romantic city, steeped with history and beautiful vistas along the Adige River.  In the old city, one can cross the ancient Ponte Pietra bridge, visit a Roman arena and Casa de Giulietta (House of Juliet), the setting for Shakespeare’s classic love story or the Enoteca Oreste Dal Zovo, a wine shop that looks like something from an old novel.  It is there that the local wines from Soave and Valpolicella can be found.

In the hills surrounding Verona to the north, near the marble quarry region, lie the vineyards of Veneto, spread over many appellations, but known for the notable wines from Soave and Valpolicella. At times overshadowed, Valpolicella ranks just below Chianti in total production.

Valpolicella is most identified for the use of unique grape varietals and the distinct styles to their wines.  Grapes like Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, Croatina and Oseleta, relatively unsung  outside of Italy, comprise the red blends from the region.

Vineyards in Valpolicella

Most wines from Valpolicella are light and fruity, but offer many styles, including the richer Amarone made from dried grapes, Valpolicella Classico from the original sector, aged Valpolicella Superiore and Recioto, a dessert wine.

For decades, many of the highly rated releases from Valpolicella have come from Tenuta Sant’Antonio, an estate started by the four Castagnedi brothers:  Armando, Tiziano, Paolo and Massimo.  Beginning with their father’s vineyards and later adding the Monte Garbi property, Tenuta Sant’Antonio has produced some of the best wines from the region.  Wine and Spirits magazine recently named their 2013 Amarone della Valpolicella Campo dei Gigli (94pt/$70) and the 2015 Amarone della Valpolicella Selezi (92pt/$45) among the year’s best releases from the region. 

It is from the Monte Garbi property that Tenuta Sant’Antonio produces Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore DOC Monti Garbi 2017($20), made from re-fermented Amarone skins and aged 12 months in oak casks. Ripasso is the name given for wines made from previously fermented grapes skins.

Wines from Tenuta Sant’ Antonio

A blend from corvina, rondinella, croatina and oseleta grapes, the expressive bouquet of this wine was fruity with doses of cherry and spice. The flavors were light, soft on the palate and savory, pairing well with a flavorful hard cheese.  A good value.

Also from the Monti Garbi District, the grapes for the Amarone Della Valpolicella DOCG Antonio Castagnedi 2015 ($40-50) are dried out for three months prior to fermentation.  With natural malolactic fermentation and batonnage with regular stirrings, the juice sits in new French oaks casks for two years before bottling.

Deep colors and rich texture highlight this wine with heavy spice elements and licorice on the nose, balanced flavors and a luscious mouthfeel.

Castagnedi Brothers, Massimo, Paolo, Armando, Tiziano

Fermented and aged in all stainless steel, the Valpolicella Superiore DOC Nanfre’($15) blends corvina and rondinella grapes from vineyards in the villages of Colognola ai Colli and Illasi, near Verona.  The aromas and flavors are present and expressive throughout, making it an attractive option for an everyday wine.

Scaia is a brand of value-priced wines from the Castagnedi Family that includes, among the reds, a traditional Valpolicella blend and two single-varietal releases:  corvina and cabernet sauvignon. 

However, it was the pale wine releases that captured my attention.

Made from 100% rondinella grapes the Scaia Rosato 2018 ($15) is fermented and aged in stainless steel resulting in a lovely light salmon color, floral hints in the aromas and tangy fruit flavors that lingered throughout the soft finish.

Garganeda grapes

Common in the nearby Soave, the garganeda grape, the sixth most planted white in Italy, is native to the Valpolicella region and, with tight clusters, is often used for recioto dessert wines. The crisp Scaia Garganeda-Chardonnay ($15) has a steely bouquet of wet stone and citrus while the flavors are dominated by tangerine and almonds with a surprisingly long finish. 

Wines from the Valpolicella region are available on-line and in most retail and wholesale outlets.  A little research may reveal some new discoveries of fine Italian wines priced much lower than those from Tuscany or Piedmont.

Better yet, the best way to unearth Valpolicella and Soave wines is to travel to Verona, rent a room in the shadow of the Roman Arena and, at the same time, discover Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” in the Verona Cathedral or the sweeping sunset views from the Torre dei Lamberti (Lamberti Tower).


Sparkling Cremant d’ Alsace wines offer diversity and value

With the arrival of summer, rose’ and sparkling wines naturally come to mind.  The choices are numerous under the headings of Champagne, prosecco, cava, German sekt or North American sparkling wines. For something different, readily available and reasonably priced, Cremant d’ Alsace wines are worth exploring for summer entertaining.

The Alsace region lies in northeastern France and borders both Germany and Switzerland.  The Cremant d’ Alsace Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)is one of three earmarked in the region and was designated in 1976 for the production of sparkling wines. 

The French term “Crémant” is used to define sparkling wines made in the traditional method, but outside of Champagne.  The méthode Champenoise or traditional method requires that the second fermentation, which creates the bubbles, must occur in the bottle.  This is followed by a minimum nine months aging on lees, bringing about a richer mouthfeel.

While Champagne is restricted to using only Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, the crisp and dry Crémant d’Alsace wines are mostly from Pinot Blanc, produced as a single-varietal or blended with auxerrois blanc, pinot gris, riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir.  Auxerrois blanc is grown extensively in the Alsace region and is described as a “full sibling” of chardonnay. 

The Crémant d’Alsace Rosé must use 100% pinot noir, grapes, inviting comparisons with a recent surge in production of rose’ of pinot noir in California. 

I recently tasted some sparkling wines and rose’ from Crémant d’Alsace that illustrated a variety of styles, from classic blanc de blancs, featuring pinot blanc, to vibrant rose’ of pinot noir and bold, dry 

zero-dosage releases.

The Lorentz family, for over 160 years, has been producing some of the most widely distributed wine from the region, available in over fifty countries. Comprised exclusively from pinot noir grapes, the Gustave Lorentz Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rose’ ($25), after dosage and aging on lees, is fresh, crisp and offers variety of subtle fruit nuances to the palate. Other Gustave Lorentz wines are readily available in local outlets and online.

Gustave Lorentz Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose’

Domaine Alfred Mann, guided by biodynamic farming with best organic practices, has a reputation for maintaining low yield grapes that result in a maturity and richness to their wines. The Alfred Mann Crémant d’Alsace Extra Dry Brut 2016 ($24), a blend of pinot blanc, auxerrois blanc and pinot noir from mature vines is bone dry and acidic while exuding conspicuous fruit aromas and flavors within a rich texture.

Centuries old, the Domaine Valentin Zusslin is now run by two generations of the family and converted in 1996 to bio-dynamic viticulture.  The Zusslin Crémant d’Alsace Brut Zero Sans Souffre ($25) is produced without sulphur or any added sweetness through dosage.

Zusslin Cremant d’Alsace Brut Zero Sans Souffre

I found a unique bouquet of citrus and toast followed by a vibrant acidity with soft citrus notes. It would pair well and enhance shellfish and seafood dishes.

A well-reviewed sparkling rose’ that is priced below $20, the Allimant Laugner Cremant d’Alsace Rosé ($18) offered the most expressive aromas and intense fruit flavors of any of the wines.  Tart with strong strawberry hints, critic Jancis Robinson, in describing the wine, said it was “Not remotely complex but there is so much delicious fruit in there that who cares?”

Another bone dry wine with no added dosage, the 

Dirler-Cadé 2015 Brut Nature Sparkling Crémant d’Alsace ($22), a blend of pinot noir, pinot gris and auxerrois, offers more balance of acidity and richness and would serve as a delightful aperitif.

With reviews in the mid-nineties, the Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose ($24) expressed ripe apple notes on the nose and palate and delivered both a crispy and creamy mouthfeel. The producers feel it could continue to develop for another decade.

Another good value is the brightly salmon-colored Pierre Sparr Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose NV ($20) with complex aromas and flavors of citrus, strawberry and spice.  It also delivers a nice minerality on the finish.

Pierrs Sparr Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose’ NV

Besides Crémant d’Alsace sparkling wines, there also are Crémant de Loire (Loire Valley) that feature chenin blanc grapes, Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy) with chardonnay and pinot noir and even Crémant de Bordeaux, based from cabernet franc and other local varietals.  However, there is enough diversity of style within Crémant d’Alsace releases that make them very competitive based on quality, accessibility and affordability comparisons.


The iconic Bordeaux wine region is coping with climate change

Bordeaux, in southern France, is one of, if not the world’s most famous wine region, steeped in long-standing excellence and tradition through closely controlled grape varietals and farming techniques for each appellation that have been in place for over eighty years. 

Bordeaux vineyards

As far as I can remember, the iconic Bordeaux red blends have been either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot dominant, supported by Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère.

Two experimental plots named VitAdap and GreffAdapt, have been established to study the impacts of climate change on proposed and current varietals including the effects of water stress.

Malbec has been the grape most challenged by climate change and its use in the region has diminished significantly while Petit Verdot is experiencing a resurgence and plantings have increased nearly two-hundred percent

Two-thirds of the red vines planted in Bordeaux are merlot that for centuries has benefited from the local climate to reach peak ripeness.  Although still the premier Bordeaux red varietal, merlot is being scrutinized as a potential future victim of rising temperatures.

Touriga Nacional, a popular red grape from the Douro Valley in Portugal

The current white varietals are dominated by Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc with support from lesser known grapes like Sauvignon Gris, Muscadelle, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Merlot Blanc and Mauzac.

In the past months, Bordeaux has garnered worldwide attention from a recent report outlining a series of actions taken to adapt to the growing impacts of climate change.  Since research on the impacts of climatology was first conducted in 2003 by the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB), it has  been a major focus in future planning, specifically the changes in climate, its impact to oneology and the use of plant material(varietal selection).  The Council has spent nearly €2 million over the past decade on environmental research.

Recently the Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur winemakers approved new “grape varieties of interest” as part of a continuing plan to adapt to the impacts of climate.  The list includes varietals new to the region as well as some nearly forgotten and now making a comeback.  The new experimental “grapes of interest” are mostly late-ripening to better assimilate with the established harvest framework, less susceptible to rot and intended to satisfy aromatic losses due to hotter weather. 

Among the red varietals to be approved for planting include Arinarnoa, a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon and Touriga Nacional, a popular red grape from the Douro Valley in Portugal, used in their fine ports and still wine blends.  Also included are Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache (sounds delicious)and the long-forgotten Bordeaux varietal, Castets, both known for their resistance to rot and suitability for aging.

Arinarnoa, a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon

The newly approved white “grapes of interest” include Alvarinho, another Portuguese varietal that has gained popularity in the United States, Liliorita, a cross between baroque and chardonnay and the late-ripening Petit Manseng, all highly aromatic.

These changes are subject to approval by the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO),a French organization charged with regulating agricultural products, and come with conditions.  The “grapes of interest” must be listed as secondary and be limited to five percent of the planted vineyard area. They cannot exceed ten percent of the final blend and their use is only authorized for a ten year period subject to one renewal.

In addition to their research on climate change and sustainability, the Bordeaux wine industry set out for the first time, a decade ago, to assess its carbon footprint that was determined to be 840,000 tons CO2 equivalent, stemming mostly from materials and products, freight and energy.  As a result, they committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the development of the Climate Plan 2020, a roadmap that was shared with the entire wine industry.  The plan set goals of twenty percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, twenty percent reduction in energy use, a twenty percent increase in renewable energy and a twenty percent decrease in water use.

Vineyards in St. Emilion

A follow-up assessment in 2013 revealed a nine percent decrease in the wine trade’s carbon footprint within five years.

The real story here is that climate change represents multiple challenges for the agricultural industry and when a premier wine growing region begins to reassess engrained traditional practices, people pay attention.  Clearly, Bordeaux’s long-term plan will be implemented methodically with strategies designed to maintain their position as an elder statesman and global giant.  However, they must be credited for providing the insight and leadership that will benefit everyone.


What to pair with crocodile and other African cuisine

A few years back, we purchased a South African photo safari at a fundraising auction and decided, this August, to schedule the trip and add three days at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.  Upon arrival at the Zulu Nyala Game Preserve in South Africa’s northeastern Zulu province, we discovered that all guests purchased their excursion by supporting a non-profit.  It’s part of their business model and something rewarding to be a part of.

Crocodile Frickadelle at the Palm Restaurant at the Ilala Hotel in Victoria Falls

The food was quite good, but commonly included such dishes as crocodile meatballs, ostrich filets and grilled Eland, Africa’s largest antelope.  Seeking a wine to pair with this new cuisine, I was delightfully surprised with a Diemersdal Pinotage 2017, from an historic winery in the Durbanville Valley region near Capetown, and began to rely upon their brand for the remainder of our African adventure.

Pinotage is a signature grape in South Africa, created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. It is a marraige of pinot noir and cinsault, a popular varietal used in southern Rhone-style blends and known in its homeland as hermitage.  The Pinotage 2017 and other red and white varietals from the Diemersdal Estate became a familiar name among many unfamiliar choices.

Wines have been produced at the Estate for over three centuries and six generations of the Louws family have artistically and meticulously farmed the land for over 130 years.

The Diemersdal Estate covers 840 acres, of which nearly 450 is planted under vine with pinotage, merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and others.  Of note, many of the remaining acres are used for grazing and the preservation of Renosterveld, a threatened vegetation type in southernmost Africa’s Cape Floristic Region. The hillside vineyards at the Estate welcome cool, misty afternoon breezes that permit dry-farming, culminating in fully ripened fruit.

To accompany fresh-caught grilled bream and crocodile frikadelle at the Palm Restaurant in the Ilala Hotel at Victoria Falls, we fortunately chose the definitively styled Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2018 with layered tropical fruit on the nose and palate and a vibrant minerality on the finish. The reasonable price made this wine even more appealing.  

For the record, crocodile does taste like chicken and we had served as a meatball, then grilled and diced, potentially popular in the States when served in a taco. Crocodile tacos, an idea before its time?

Diemersdal also produces a high-end sauvignon blanc reserve and the Diemersdal Winter Ferment 2019, described as a “new world style of sauvignon blanc” with tropical flavors, a hint of grapefruit and a rich, vibrant acidity throughout.

Days later, seeking a white wine that we could pair with a buffet featuring an array of fish, meat and game dishes as well as fresh sushi, we selected the elegantly aromatic Diemersdal Chardonnay Unwooded 2017.  The rich, creamy texture of the wine is balanced with melon and citrus flavors that linger. I now can forever brag to my “foodie” friends of eating sushi in Zimbabwe.

In addition to the red pinotage, we selected a bottle of Diemersdal Merlot 2017 for dinner one evening at the game preserve. Aged twelve months in 30% new French oak, this wine is still young but delivered very evident spice overtones throughout the nose and palate.

Once again relying on Diemersdal for our last dinner in Johannesburg, we reached out for a bold, nicely structured Diemersdal Shiraz 2017, a complex wine with strong spice overtones and a full palate of flavors that paired well with everything from a venison stew to a cheese plate.

Wines from the Diemersdal Estate carried us through South Africa and Zimbabwe, but a search upon our return found them available on numerous on-line wine sites but very limited access in local outlets.

Diemersdal Estate

However, for those seeking to explore the pinotage varietal, your options are wide open.  K&L Wines in San Francisco and Redwood City offers a 2015 Beaumont Pinotage Bot River South Africa ($28), awarded 92-points from James Suckling describing flavors of “blueberry, violets, orange peel and citrus.”

For a local option, wine.com sells a Fort Ross Vineyard Pinotage Sonoma Coast ($37) from northwest Sonoma County, boasting ratings in the nineties and, most appropriate for our recent adventure, the Graham Beck Game Reserve Pinotage 2015 ($16) from beautiful South Africa.


Mi Sueno Winery: An Immigrant’s Dream

The theme that is woven through Rolando Herrera’s inspiring story is one of hard work and persistence.  Rolando, who with his wife, Lorena, founded Mi Sueño Winery in Napa Valley, was born in Mexico but migrated, at age eight, with his parents to the St. Helena area, where his father worked in the vineyards.

Mi Sueno Founder and Winemaker Rolando Herrara

The family moved back to Mexico, but Rolando, with fond memories of Napa, returned, at age fifteen to finish high school while working at as a busboy at Auberge du Soleil.  One day, he was hired to help build a garden wall for Stags Leap Cellars founder Warren Winiarski, who recognized his work ethic and the rest is history.

Rolando spent several years working in various wine cellars before becoming, in 1995, the Assistant Winemaker at Chateau Potelle in St. Helena.  A few years later, after purchasing four tons of grapes from Lorena’s father, he made 200 cases his of chardonnay and Mi Sueño Winery, in 1997, was born.

In 2006, Mi Sueño moved into its current facility that houses the winemaking, barrel rooms and tasting lounge and in 2007, they purchased the industrial park building as their permanent home, including cozy indoor and outdoor tasting areas.

After starting Mi Sueño Winery, Rolando still pursued other opportunities and served as Winemaker at Vine Cliff and Director of Winemaking at Paul Hobbs in Sonoma County while launching Herrera Vineyard Management in 2003.

Mi Sueno Winery has had the privilege of having its wines served at the White House on three separate occasions:  the 1999 Mi Sueño Los Carneros Chardonnay in 2001, the 2006 Mi Sueño Russian River Pinot Noir in 2008 and, in 2010, the 2006 Herrera Rebecca Cabernet Sauvignon, a label of small production, premium wines named after their children.

Although Mi Sueño Winery produces 10,000 cases annually, Rolando still sees himself more as a farmer than a winemaker and enjoys it the most.  He says that seventy-percent of a winemaker’s job is done before the grapes are harvested at precisely the right time, something he does by taste. His winemaking and marketing philosophies remain simple:  respect Mother Nature and let the wines speak for themselves.

The wines did speak for themselves, beginning with the 2016 Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay ($55), complex with a floral nose, crisp acidity and vivid flavors. Aged in 65% new French oak, this wine is nicely balanced with expressions of tropical fruit on the palate.

Another release, the Burgundian-Style 2016 Los Carneros Chardonnay ($42), from a cooler appellation, consists of Dijon and Wente clones, chosen because they both ripen early.  The grapes are co-fermented, whole-cluster pressed with full malolactic fermentation and aged eighteen months with regular batonnage stirrings.

Tropical and stone fruit flavors are revealed through a bright acidity with discernible mineral elements on the finish.

Similar to a symphony, with wine, we expect certain elements to be constant, but are open-minded to someone’s interpretation.  Deep, layered aromas of dark fruit, spice with herbal and floral notes precede a similar flavor profile of the 2016 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($55), sourced from a single vineyard in the Sonoma County appellation.

I have a preference for good pinot noir and I found the traditional aromas and flavors of this release to be bold and expressive, but balanced with soft tannins.  This is a wine I could nurture.

The La Chole archeological site sits in the village of La Soledad de Maciel near Zihuatanejo.  Myth has it that the ancient site was once known as the town of fear, a place where people went when they were running from something.

The 1st vintage 2016 Mi Sueño “La Chole” Red Wine Napa Valley, a blend mostly of malbec with syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petite verdot, serves as a tribute to the Mexican roots of the Herrera family.  Currently under a test distribution in southern California only, it is doing well and we may see more in the future.

With a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, malbec and a pinch of petit verdot that is available to club members only, the 2015 El Llano Red Wine Blend ($49) pays homage to Rolando’s grandparents and his birthplace of El Llano, Michoacán, Mexico.

The Herrera Family

A poised and polished 2105 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), sourced from four vineyards and aged in 65% new French oak, completed out tasting stylishly.

Rolando’s wines are as compelling as his story, born from hard work, a passion for the land, his family and a love for the Napa Valley.


Wines from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation should be a part of any wine cellar

Growing up in the Bay Area, I can remember driving to Disneyland and stopping, with my parents, at the Anderson Split Pea Soup restaurant in Buellton. Years later while living in southern California I became familiar with the Sta. Rita Hills AVA appellation in north Santa Barbara County that essentially extends from Buellton eastward to the coastal town of Lompoc.  It is in the valleys and foothills on this stretch of land where world-class pinot noir, cool climate chardonnay and syrah is produced most vintages.

The appellation, founded in 2001, is bounded to the South by the Santa Rosa Hills, located on the North side of Point Conception that provides an east-west facing funnel, giving access to the fog and ocean breezes.  The Sta. Rita Hills AVA, along with the Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, the Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, is one of the premier growing sites in California.

Terraced vineyards at Seasmoke

Living again in northern California, I must take advantage of my limited visits to acquire some familiar wines.  While open to exploring, I tend to fall back on some traditional favorites and am never disappointed.

My first stop along Highway 246 is Foley Estate for the 2016 Foley Estates Barrel Select Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills

($58), awarded 90-points by Wine Enthusiast magazine.  

In addition to fine pinot noir and other chardonnay releases, the “Barrel Select,” vintage to vintage offers the classic creamy texture with baked fruit flavors and lively acidity that is welcomed on my palate.

A few miles down the road lies Spear Vineyards and Winery, certified organic with new vines planted by owner Ofer Shepher in 2014.  During a past visit, young winemaker Kathleen Gaffney took me on a jeep tour of their hillside vineyards that she describes as the root(pun intended) of exceptional wine.  She prefers neutral oak and avoids anything that would diminish the impacts of the terroir. 

Spear Vineyards Winemaker Kathleen Gaffney

I selected the 2017 Spear Gnesa Vineyard Chardonnay ($45), a highly rated release from an estate vineyard planted in 1997 and the 2017 Spear Estate Pinot Noir ($45), a dry wine with a layered and diverse flavor profile.

A few miles closer to the coast is Melville, an iconic winery  founded in 1989 that produces consistently prodigious vintages of chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. I selected three favorites starting with the 2018 Estate Chardonnay, Clone 76 Inox that stays exclusively on lees in stainless steel tanks for five months, without any oak influence.  It is a crisp food wine with a healthy acidity and floral hints.

Hillside vines at Spear Vineyards

Boasting consistent ratings in the mid-nineties, the 2015 Estate Pinot Noir Sta.Rita Hills ($36) is a neutral oak release that consists of fruit from sixteen different clones, forty percent fermented as whole cluster.  This release has savory elements that balance the fruit flavors and soft tannins.

I wouldn’t leave without a bottle of the 2016 Estate Syrah Sta.Rita Hills ($36), another highly rated, value-priced wine that combines dark fruits, spice and floral elements on the nose and palate.

In Lompoc, I stopped for a 2016 Richard Longoria Fe Ciega Vineyard, Block M ($75) and a 2013 Fiddlehead “Lollapalooza” Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills ($85) two releases from neighboring vineyards that provide clear expressions of fine pinot noir from the region.

2013 Fiddlehead Lollapalooza Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills

Terraced, high above Santa Rosa Road lies the vineyards of Seasmoke Cellars, a very discreet producer of Burgundian-style pinot noir and chardonnay.  There is no tasting room at Sea Smoke.  Their certified organic and biodynamic wines of the highest standard are accessed by applying, then joining their list when available. As a long standing member, I plan, as with previous vintages, to enjoy the 2016 Sea Smoke “Southing” Pinot Noir ($65) that always combines intricate flavor with exceptional grace  

Similarly, the 2017 Sea Smoke Chardonnay ($70) has the features of a French grand cru, aromatic with stone fruit flavors and a elite mouthfeel.

Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton have partnered to create acclaimed Burgundian-style pinot noir and chardonnay since 1995 and currently farm four “monopole” or single-vineyards with some of the finest stock in the appellation. I selected the 2016 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($40), that blends grapes from the 3D, Machado and Hapgood estate vineyards.  Whole-cluster pressed and aged in neutral oak, it is an exceptional wine at a reasonable price.  Of course, their prestigious vineyard specific releases are available by joining a list.  


The #MerlotMe campaign brings awareness and respectability back to a legend

“If anyone orders a merlot I am leaving. I am not drinking f_____g merlot!” A funny line delivered by actor Paul Giamatti in the 2004 film “Sideways” intended to add depth to his Miles Raymond character, did irreparable damage in U.S. markets to the iconic varietal.

merlot grapes

Prior to the film, merlot held fourteen percent of our wine market, more at the time than cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. After Hollywood’s so-called “Sideways Effect,” growers started pulling out thousands of acres of merlot, replacing it, in may cases, with popular and higher priced cabernet sauvignon.

At the height of its demand, merlot vines reached nearly 60,000 acres in California.  Today, they account for almost 45,000 acres.

Not all problems with merlot were caused by the “Sideways Effect.”  High demands in the late 20th-Century prompted growers to plant more, sometime without regard to terroir and there were times when California produced merlot was simple, boring and out of balance.

Vineyards in Bordeaux

Today, thanks in part to the “MerlotMe” campaign, started in 2013, merlot is making a well-deserved comeback.  What began as a social media event, #MerlotMe has developed a following among consumers, wineries and restaurants that has resulted in the designation of October as International Merlot Month.

From the perspective of many, the quality of recent merlot releases have been extraordinary, not just from top producer like Duckhorn, Pahlmeyer and La Jota, but in many mid-price level wines.  Many of them are hosting events and special tastings and, to pay homage and assist in the campaign to increase awareness, several top winemakers have shared their six-word love stories about merlot.

“Merlot is the perfect wine, anytime” – PJ Alviso, Duckhorn

Duckhorn has produced much of California’s finest merlot for forty years.  The release of their 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard ($110), which was designated Wine Spectator’s top wine in 2017, gave the varietal a huge boost in its re-resurgence.  They have planned a special celebration, on Saturday, October 12, that features a “harvest-inspired four-course dinner” paired with their merlot releases from five appellations of the Napa Valley.

2016 Duckhorn “Three Palms Vineyard” Merlot

From what has been described as near perfect growing conditions, the 2013 Manterra Cunat Family Vineyards “Right Bank” ($50), a 99.4% merlot tribute to the great wines from St. Emilion and Pomerol in the Bordeaux region, is wonderfully structured with rich black cherry and currant flavors with soft tannins.

During the month of October, Manterra is hosting a “Meow for Merlot” special and has pledged to donate one dollar from each bottle of merlot sold to the Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch. The tasting fee is $25.00 per person, but the cause is a good way to support merlot and our four-legged friends at the same time.

“Marvelous, ethereal, rich, lovely, opulent, pleasure” – Sara Fowler, Peju

From their estate vineyards in Walla Walla and from other regions, L’Ecole No. 41 has long been recognized as one of Washington State’s top merlot producers.  In October, for those who are traveling through the Walla Walla area, they are offering, at the tasting room, special prices on their vintage 2016 releases.

Seavey, Manterra and L’Ecole

For those who will not be traveling through the Walla Walla area, L’Ecole No. 41 wines are available in wine shops throughout the Bay Area and online including the 2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Estate Grown Merlot Walla Walla Valley ($36) that expresses perfumed aromas and concentrated earthy fruit flavors with cooking spice and coffee hints on the finish.

With a 93-point rating, critic Antonio Galloni, Vinous described the 2016 Seavey Merlot Napa Valley ($65) as “powerful, dense and savory.” I found it to be one of the best Napa Valley merlot release that I tasted this year with overwhelming complexity and excellent mouthfeel.

For a $75 fee, Seavey Vineyard is offering a vertical tasting of five hand-selected vintages from their estate merlot and conducting a tour of their winemaking facilities including the historic circa-1881 barn.

Another long-standing producer of fine Napa Valley merlot, Markham Vineyards is also presenting, for a $35 fee, a vertical tasting of their 2013 through 2016 vintage estate merlot vines and a preview tasting of the yet to be releases 2019 vintage.  There is little question that participants will enjoy some top-notch merlot at Markham Vineyards.

Seavey Winery in the Napa Valley

“Making merlot for you to love.” – Don La Borde, Paraduux Vineyards

Do yourselves a favor, make an effort to enjoy a bottle of merlot in October.  We must all do what we can to make amends to this rich and luscious global legend.