Some Merlots We Like
2014 NAPA Merlot $49.99
2015 Three Palms Merlot
- One of California's most famous Merlot producers,
Duckhorn debuted with Merlot way back with the 1978 vintage!
Dan and Margaret Duckhorn had the idea of making Bordeaux-styled wines with
Merlot as the centerpiece. They had a fellow named Tom Rinaldi as their
winemaker and the wines were "must-haves" back in the early 1980s.
Rinaldi stayed until around the year 2000 before taking a job with the Chalone
Group and its Provenance winery...today the winemaker at Duckhorn is a woman
named RenÚe Ary who's been at the helm since 2014.
In 2007, with the original investors wanting to cash out, Duckhorn was sold to
an investment firm in San Francisco called GI Partners. They actually
ran the winery with care, it seems, though the Duckhorn "empire" was
grown to include additional winery properties and a vast quantity of vineyard
acreage. GI Partners sold Duckhorn to TSG Consumer Partners (and
acquired the Far Niente winery).
TSG also owns quite a stable of consumer brands and franchises: Comet
cleanser is theirs as is Famous Amos cookies, Mauna Loa macadamia nut
products, Planet Fitness exercise gyms, Pop-Chips and Stumptown Coffee to name
- So, yes, things have changed but they still are making
Duckhorn's tasting facility along Napa's Silverado Trail.
Their grapes come from
several locations around the Napa Valley, including the famed Three Palms Vineyard near
Calistoga. In fact, the Duckhorns ended up handling the farming work
at Three Palms before finally buying the property in May of 2015. That
site was once owned by Lillie Hitchcock Coit of Coit Tower fame. In
1967 the land was purchased by John and Sloan Upton. Duckhorn's first
single-vineyard bottling of Three Palms Merlot was in the late 1970s, if we
recall correctly...and it retailed for the astonishing price of $12.50 a
bottle, maybe four or five bucks more than the "regular" Napa
The wines were, back in the old days, much sought-after and hard to
find. The production has grown considerably and the wines still remain
at a good level of quality. The early vintages were of modest alcohol
levels and had reasonably good levels of acidity which allowed them to age
We attended a tasting ages ago where they opened bottles going back to the
first vintages. The wines actually were quite good and the matured
beautifully. Tasting the new vintages one could see how Duckhorn
followed the trend in California of making wines with more potency and
Dan and Margaret didn't start their winery with the idea of selling
clothing, table linens and salt...
The "regular" bottling of 2014 is quite bright and has a hint of wood.
This is a really "fine" wine. I'm impressed by how polished
the wine tastes at this stage and imagine it will age for a few years, too.
If you buy into the notion that Merlot is simply "weak" Cabernet,
this wine may change your mind. It's more complex than a good many
nice Cabernet wines.
The Three Palms bottling has long been great. This is probably the height of
Napa Valley Merlot. It comes from a vineyard which is covered with
volcanic stones...there's no "dirt" and the vines must plunge their
roots way into the ground to find sustenance. It's was owned by the Upton
brothers, as noted previously, who bought the site in 1967 and planted grapes in the rock (neighbors
thought the Uptons had rocks in their head)....
The Three Palms Vineyard was replanted in the 1990s and the youngest vines
there went into the ground in 1999. Wine from this vineyard
We have tasted probably every vintage of Three Palms and
routinely have felt this is California's top Merlot. In late 2017 a wine
journal selected the 2014 Three Palms as its wine of the year. The
publication rates wines on a 100 point scale (as though one's appreciation of a
wine can be quantified with a numerical "score") and yet a Cantina del
Pino Barbaresco costing 2/3s the price of Duckhorn's had a 97 point score, the
second-highest rating of the wines on the list. A Clos des Papes ChÔteauneuf-du-Pape
earned a 98 point rating and yet it was only in 14th Place on this list.
Given that Duckhorn Three Palms has long distinguished itself as a reference
point for California Merlot, we might ask "What took these critics so long
to recognize this?"
The winery has been making a second label called Decoy, but these wines
don't reach the level of quality of the Duckhorn wines.
2015 Napa Red Blend "TD-9" Merlot, etc. SALE $59.99
- The Shafer family
purchased a couple of hundred acres of property in the Stags Leap are
back in 1972. John Shafer had been in the publishing business
and something about farming lured him to this site in the Napa
Valley. The family planted some grapes and was selling fruit
before making their own wine in 1978. I recall visiting the place and
finding this wine to be quite a good Cabernet: rich, cedary, woodsy
and supple...most attractive in its youth.
They later added Merlot (amongst others) to the portfolio. Their early
vintages of Merlot were certainly pleasant, but simple and a bit fat and
flat. Over the years Shafer Merlot has developed most
handsomely. It is a rather deep wine with ripe fruit notes and a touch
of oak. I'm not sure I'd suggest cellaring these for any great length
of time, but for short term drinking (three to eight years from the vintage
date), this is an attractive Merlot.
It seems a varietal bottling of Merlot will no longer be part of the Shafer
roster of wines...they're using Merlot for a proprietary blend called TD-9,
the model number of a tractor used by John Shafer in the 1970s...
Apparently selling a wine labeled "Merlot" had proven to be
challenging and there's certainly plenty of competition in that market
- Shafer found some farming equipment in an old building on his new
property and decided to take the old International Harvester TD-9 for a
spin. The Shafer family describes John Shafer's move from Chicago
where he was in some sort of publishing business job to the Wild, Wild
West as a sort of gamble. And so they're making this new
Merlot/Cabernet blend that's named after the old tractor that was parked
in a shed.
The wine is quite good, too. The 2015 vintage has 28% Cabernet
Sauvignon and 16% Malbec. We like the dark fruit notes...blackberry
and maybe a hint of blueberry. Add to the mix some nice oak.
Mildly woodsy and cedary...it's drinkable now and should hold up for a few
years, though we don't view it as a wine that needs additional time.
A fellow came in the shop two years ago, perusing the selection of "best
buy" wines near the entrance to the store. I asked if I could be
of assistance and he said "No...I'm in the wine trade. I'm
A few minutes later the fellow shouted out "Shame on
you! Shame on you for not having John Shafer's lovely Merlot in the
I was shocked by this, since we do, of course, usually have Mr.
Shafer's lovely Merlot. It turns out this rube was a grape grower and sells
his fruit to Shafer. Had I been quicker and more acerbic
(than usual), I'd have scolded him with "Shame on you! Shame on
you for charging Mr. Shafer so much for those grapes."
Silver Oak Cellars family, the Duncans, launched another brand of wine
Since Silver Oak is devoted solely to Cabernet Sauvignon, the Twomey label
offers Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and some Pinot Noirs.
The brand name is that of Raymond Duncan's mother's maiden name.
The long-time winemaker for Silver Oak, Daniel Baron, had spent some time
in Bordeaux many years ago and was interested to put his knowledge to good
use in Napa with producing a Merlot.
They purchased a vineyard in the Soda Canyon region in 1999 and
later bought a little winery in Calistoga where Twomey Merlot is
produced. (They have another facility near border of Dry Creek and
Russian River Valleys where they make their Twomey Pinot Noirs.)
Being a fan of St. Emilion and Pomerol wines, Baron was anxious to produce
a California Merlot which reflects its origins, but respects the benchmark
wines from Bordeaux's Right Bank.
- The 2010 is a medium-full bodied Merlot...you won't find the wine to be
as overtly woodsy as are the Silver Oak Cabernets.
It's nicely drinkable presently and ought to hold up well for another
decade, or so, well-stored. There's a dark fruit component
reminiscent of black cherry and dark plum. A faintly woodsy quality
adds complexity to the mix.
It's a lovely bottle of Merlot and quite a bit different from the Silver
Oak style of Cabernet.
Currently in stock: 2010 TWOMEY Napa Valley MERLOT $51.99
- LATERAL Napa Merlot/Cabernet Franc SALE $35.99
Lateral is a side project by Marty Mathis, who runs the Kathryn Kennedy
winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
He launched this Lateral brand with his friend Chris Condos who's affiliated
with the Vinum brand of wines and the Horse & Plow winery.
It's predominantly Napa Valley Merlot with about one-third of Cabernet
- We're pleasantly surprised to see customers recognize this label and
immediately grab a bottle out of the bin...and then they come back for
It's a medium-full bodied red...some dark fruit and a ripe element...
HILL FAMILY ESTATE
is a below-the-radar label but the fellow who runs the show has extensive
experience in the grape growing business.
Doug Hill is from Sonoma's Healdsburg and his family was involved in
agriculture. He went off to Fresno to study Plant Science and then
bopped around South America after getting his degree.
When he returned to Sonoma he signed on at the Sonoma Cutrer winery when
that was a brand new enterprise and there he learned the ins and outs of
viticulture. From there he worked in Napa for the Jaeger family who
were involved in the prestigious (at the time) Freemark Abbey winery and the
Rutherford Hill brand.
Hill started a vineyard management company called Oak Knoll Farming and
today it's under the umbrella of Doug Hill Vineyard Management. He
works with a nice range of wineries, including Duckhorn, Ramey and Silver
Hill owns 120 acres of his own vineyards and in 2001 he launched his own
We've found their wines to be rather stylish and of good quality.
The 2014 Merlot is called Beau Terre Vineyard, but it incorporates grapes
from Oak Knoll, Carneros and Atlas Peak.
This vintage has 8.5% Malbec and a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon.
French and Hungarian wood provide a measure of sweetness on the bouquet and
the wine shows dark berry fruit to match the oak.
It's a fairly full-bodied and nicely concentrated Merlot.
We like the wine for short term drinking and aging. It may last nicely
in the cellar, but it's pretty flashy right now.
This may be the best Napa Merlot you've never heard of.
- Currently in stock: HILL FAMILY ESTATE 2014 Napa "Beau Terre
Vineyard" MERLOT $39.99
FROG'S LEAP WINERY
Williams is a big proponent of sustainable farming. He makes some
terrific wines which are very food-friendly since they're routinely under
Merlot grows nicely in Rutherford and Williams has a substantial vineyard of
it near the Frog's Leap winery in the eastern part of the valley. The
clay soil is ideal for Merlot, especially one that's nicely balanced and
Williams understands the ins-and-outs of making Merlot. First, of
course, it begins in the vineyards.
But in the cellar, John explains you can't make Merlot as some sort of
"Cabernet Lite." It's not the same as Cabernet Sauvignon and
requires attention to detail and a sensitivity to the base wine. In
some vintages he'll blend in both Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc,
providing the wine what it needs to be something interesting and complex.
The 2014 is the current vintage. It's got 6% Cabernet Sauvignon and no
Cabernet Franc this year. Medium-full bodied, the wine displays
lots of red and some black fruit aromas with a hint of wood. John is
mindful of the level of oak in his wines, so he tends to use the barrels for
maturation, development and a touch of "seasoning" for the wine,
rather than making it the central theme. We like the wine and
expect it will continue to develop over the next 5 to ten years. It's
quite lovely now, though.
And it's all of 13.4% alcohol, well lower than most of the fruit bomb wines
which garner high scores from those who assign numerical ratings to wine.
As a result, those critics often miss touting this wine.
- Currently in stock: 2014 Frog's Leap Napa MERLOT Sale $39.99
- Rombauer was a former airline pilot-turned wine baron. He flew
in the California Air National Guard before taking a piloting job with
Braniff International Airways. In the early 1970s he was able to buy
some land in the Napa Valley and when he wasn't in the air, he was learning
In 1980 he was able to make some Cabernet Sauvignon and a couple of years
later he produced a Chardonnay...the wine changed over the years and today
it's the height of sophistication for many wine drinkers.
- Koerner Rombauer passed away in May of 2018.
Rombauer Chardonnay is much derided by people who think they know a lot
about wine. Koerner's Chardonnay turned into a wine which has a
distinctive spice note from its aging in American oak and because it has a
bit of sweetness, making it a nice little cocktail-of-a-wine. Yes,
it's not Puligny-Montrachet, but it's not intended to mimic great French
Merlot, though, is made in a fairly typical fashion, unlike their wines
which have a bit of sweetness. This is actually dry.
- Rombauer Merlot is a wine which seems to appeal to those looking for something
soft, full-bodied and not too tannic or oaky. The 2014 vintage is
their current release. Twenty-one percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 2%
Verdot. It displays a nicely woodsy tone, having been matured in 40%
new French oak.
Some vintages have been picked fairly ripe and high in sugar, resulting in a
high-powered red...this vintage weighs in at 14.5%
By the way, Koerner's great aunt authored a major American cookbook:
The Joy of Cooking was printed in the 1930s and written by Irma
Rombauer. She passed away in 1962, but the book has been updated
periodically by her heirs.
- Currently in stock: 2014 Napa Valley Merlot (List $45) SALE
- Leonetti is
one of the pioneering wineries in Washington State's Walla Walla
Valley. This is in Southeast Washington State and the region started
slowly...a sort of Middle-of-Nowhere venue that's now a major wine
destination. Leonetti is owned by the Figgins family and they made
some stellar wines early on.
They still have a great reputation and are highly-regarded, though these
days they're not the only game in town.
Gary Figgins' son Chris is now running the show and he's changed the
winemaking somewhat. We find today's wines to be a bit less flashy
than early on. He's changed the oak aging, no longer using
American oak, having gone to 100% French barrels and some larger oak
vats. As a result the showy, cedary notes of the early days are not as
The 2016 is their most recent release. It goes for about $110 these
Currently in stock: There are some bottles of 2005 on
display. $84.99 per bottle
- Winemaker Mia
Klein has quite a following for her wines. She's associated with
Fisher Vineyards in the Mayacamas Mountains, as well as having on her rsum
wineries such as Dalla Valle, Etude and Araujo's "Eisele
Vineyard". Her own label is called Selene and Merlot is the
flagship wine. She sells most of it to restaurants, so it's not
something that's easy to find. The fruit comes from a vineyard in
Calistoga and one in St. Helena. Klein manages to capture a nice
berry/plum character in the wine. Despite using a significant percentage
of new French oak cooperage to mature the wine, you won't find this to be
Currently in stock: Sold Out...
Pahlmeyer name is well known as the home of "celebrity"
winemakers. The place is owned by former lawyer, Jayson Pahlmeyer.
I believe 1986 was Pahlmeyer's first vintage, with his wine having been made
in the early days by Randy Dunn. The second celebrity winemaker
was Helen Turley, but she, for one reason or another, moves on eventually
and today the wines are made by the soon-to-be-famous Erin Green (though
she's already famous amongst Napa Valley winemaking circles).
Merlot from this property is rather huge. They get fruit from various
locations in Napa and blend in a tiny bit of Cabernet. The wine spends
about 20 months in new French oak and it's a full-throttle,
pedal-to-the-metal Napa red.
Only a few bottles are available. The 2014 has 1% Cabernet, 4% Petit
Verdot and 2% Malbec along with a lot
of that showy oak...It is a more complex wine than most Cabernets, frankly.
- Currently in stock:
2014 Pahlmeyer Merlot (list $95) SALE $79.99
- The Gainey family has owned a fair chunk of turf in Santa Barbara for many
years. I think they started in the 1960s with cattle ranching and
farming and the winery came into being in the mid-1980s.
Rick Longoria was their winemaker in the early days, but today the job is
handled by John Falcone and Jeff LeBard, with Dan Gainey running the show.
We always had found the Gainey wines to be priced a bit ambitiously, but
have noticed over the past couple of years that their prices have come down
and are actually rather attractive.
The 2015 Gainey Merlot comes from their Home Ranch vineyards in the Santa
Ynez Valley. It's blended with 3% Cabernet Franc. The wine was
in French oak. Some 27% of the cooperage was
brand new and we like the cedary, woodsy tones we find in the wine.
It's a bit less woodsy and spicy as they seem to have stopped using American
This has a lovely
fragrance and flavor...smooth, medium-bodied and worth every penny of its
$22.50 winery price. We sell it for a bit less.
Currently in stock: 2014 GAINEY Santa Ynez Valley
"Estate" MERLOT Special Pricing $14.99
- KORBIN KAMERON
- This is a cool little enterprise run by the Ming Dynasty, headed by
Mitchell and Jenny Ming.
The couple both came to the US from China...She was interested in fashion
and clothing and he encouraged her to work in that industry. And did
Ms. Ming worked her way up the ladder at GAP and Old Navy where she made it
to the top, having a parking space nearest to the front door at corporate
Dad has long been interested in wine and he'd drag the family on trips to
"wine country." At one point he'd taken them all up to a
site on the Sonoma side of Mount Veeder and shortly after that, they were
planting grape vines.
The winery is named after the Ming's twin kids, Korbin and Kameron.
Korbin seems to run the show these days and he's been mentored by former
Burlingamer, winemaker Bob Pepi. (In fact, the Mings have a residence
here in the neighborhood, too, living just a few miles from Weimax!)
These days they have vineyards planted on the property in both the Mount
Veeder appellation and Moon Mountain appellation. On a clear day,
there's the little burg of Glen Ellen down below and perhaps the Pacific
Ocean off in the distance. On the other side, you might see the towns
of Oakville and Rutherford.
We've been fans of their 2009 Merlot. They made a mere 400 cases of
this wine. Sonoma Valley appellation and it's 95% Merlot with 5%
Cabernet Sauvignon. Twenty-one months in French oak and half the
barrels and yet the wine doesn't come across with a lot of wood. We
like the dark fruit notes here and it's fairly supple on the palate, so
drinking it now is sensible.
Currently in stock: 2009 KORBIN KAMERON Sonoma Valley MERLOT
(list $35) Sold Out
- TAMARACK CELLARS
- Tamarack started out as a micro-winery in 1998 by a guy who had been in
the wholesale wine biz before taking a job as a sommelier and wine shop
Ron Coleman and his wife rented a building at an old military airport...a
The goal was to make good wines at sensible prices and we've long been fans
of that notion and fans of the Coleman's wines.
Coleman recently sold the winery to a company called "Vintage Wine
Estates" which also owns the Layer Cake and Cherry Pie brands, along
with the sophomoric label "If You See Kay." They have a
large portfolio of brands in their stable, with Girard, Clos Pegase, Swanson
and B.R. Cohn amongst the line-up.
We're curious to see if they can maintain the quality as well as the
quality/price ratio established by Coleman.
The winery is located in Walla Walla, Washington and their Merlot carries
the Columbia Valley appellation. It comes from 7 vineyard sites,
including a bit of Walla Walla fruit.
The 2014 sees 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot and 12% Cabernet Sauvignon in the
blend. It's matured in a variety of woods, mostly American oak, but some
French (30%)...no Hungarian this vintage. About 55% of the barrels are brand new.
This is the sort of Merlot which, had it been made in Napa, would set you back
at least double the cost of this wine.
It's a supple, fairly smooth red and pairing it with red meats will make it
taste even more silky.
- Currently in stock: 2014 TAMARACK CELLARS Columbia Valley
MERLOT $27.99 (It's $30 at the cellar door, by the way.)
CLOS DU BLAH
recall a fellow named Frank Woods first stopping by the shop to have us
taste his new Sonoma County wines. Mr. Woods (Monsieur du Bois in
French) was a former marketing whiz for some company like Procter &
Gamble. Woods started with a vineyard, then had wine made for him
before finally building his own place. He told me once that they
decided to make a wine for immediate drinking since his market research
showed that most people open a bottle of wine within 90 days of buying
"Why make a wine that needs five or ten years of aging if people are
going to drink it now?" he asked. The other bit of method to
Woods' madness was to offer his Merlot packaged with a blue label and an
electric blue foil capsule.
"Marketing studies show women are magnetically attracted to the
electric blue. Since many shop for food in the grocery store, we
wanted a package which would get their attention."
Mr. Woods ended up cashing out the winery in the late 1980s, selling the
brand to the Hiram Walker
drinks firm. The focus of this place still features wines that are
more market-driven than enological artistry. The wines from this place
are known in the trade as "Clos du Blah," as the wines tend to be
rather bland and simple.
We finally stopped carry this as it's not a wine we recommend and even the
few folks who were buying it finally discovered other wines in the shop
which have far more character.
- Currently in stock: Sold Out...
- CAKEBREAD WINERY
Cakebread family has gained quite a following for its wines over the past
couple of decades.
We find the wines a bit on the pricey end of the spectrum, but that's
"life in Napa Valley" it seems. If you need a gift and
want the recipient to know you dropped a wad of cash, this is a good
Cakebread Merlot is a fairly deep wine, showing dark fruit notes and a whiff of
wood. It's ready to drink now if you're pairing it with something
substantial in the red meat department.
Currently in stock: 2013 Napa Merlot