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As winter and the holidays arrive, it’s time to start thinking about hearty meals paired with spectacular red wines. While Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are heavy hitters in this category, another SawyerSomm recommendation would be Merlot.
Yes, I’m talking about the same grape that was the blunt of the famous lines said by the lead character Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any f*#@ing Merlot!”
After rising to star status in the wine industry in the 1980s and 1990s; Merlot was already going through a midlife crisis when the film was released a decade ago. Frankly, there were too many weak versions of the wine in the marketplace that were sweet, green, herbaceous, vegetative or insipid. But thanks to the sensitive message in the film, many of the vines planted in the wrong locations have since been torn out and the level of quality has recently risen to its highest point in years.
Following the 10-year anniversary screening of the Sideways two weeks ago at the Napa Valley Film Festival, the delights of these charming new wines were explored at a provocative, thought-provoking seminar aptly titled “We’re Drinking Merlot!.”
Held at the Traditional Home Culinary Stage next to Barrel Room 1870 in Yountville; the panel was moderated by NVFF Wine Program Manager Sean Quinn and featured special guests: Jim Laube, Editor, Wine Spectator; Winemaker Tom Rinaldi, Winemaker, Provenance Vineyards; Hailey Trefethen, Trefethen Family Vineyards; and Chris Carpenter, Winemaker, La Jota Vineyard Company.
“I’m going to preach it, I love Merlot,” says Rinaldi, who started working with the grape variety when he became the winemaker at Duckhorn Wine Company in 1978. “It’s really versatile with a wide range of foods.”
Rinaldi says he rarely puts out wines that are 100% Merlot. Instead, he follows the Old World style by blending in small portions of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals. And through the years, he says common traits of the fruit he works with are cedar, tobacco leaf, rum raisin, and dark tea.
Laube agrees, saying that his favorite styles of Merlot are filled with delicate flavors and texture with layers of elegance and finesse. “They are wines that are far beyond “Dumber and Dumber” for adults.”
Today, the best regional selections are made with grapes grown at the terroir-driven sites sprinkled throughout the beautiful landscape of Napa Valley. Some of these vineyards are planted in the clay soils in the cool windy region of Carneros. Others are grown at high elevations in the rugged volcanic soils of Howell Mountain or surrounded by forests in the sub-AVAs of Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. On the valley floor, other special sites feature gravelly and alluvial-based soils, warm days, and cool nights.
According to Carpenter, the rugged growing conditions on Howell Mountain add more tannins, deeper flavors and natural burliness to the Merlots he makes with fruit from the La Jota Estate. The end result is deep lush flavors with hints of gritty minerals and herbal accents.
The quality has also improved considerably thanks to growing the varietal in the right conditions, newer clones, angling the rows for optimum sun exposure in the mornings and late afternoons, and ultimately picking the fruit at the optimum brix with lower sugar and higher acidity.
Although the wines are not as tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon, many of them do have the ability to age. For instance, Trefethen shared a few bottles of the 1999 vintage made with fruit from her family’s estate. The wine was silky smooth and still had deep flavors of cherry, plum and subtle spices. As a result, it’s an ideal cellar selection to share with friends and family during the holidays.
“I hope people continue to grow Merlot where it works best,” says Trefethen, who represents the third generation of her family, who originally started their winery in 1973. “It’s a very expressive grape with lovely flavors, supple tannins, and worthy of being back at the top of the world-class scale for drinking and cellaring.
Thanks to the combination of soft tannins and finesse, the distinct flavors of these high-quality Merlots are also very approachable and fantastic with winter dishes. Beyond pork, poultry and Turducken, Rinaldi likes to pair his Merlots with anything grilled, especially eggplant and steaks. Trefethen says the smoky character of the style of Merlot her family makes provide flexibility that allows her to pair with pastas with tomato-based sauces. And Carpenter loves to have his style of wine with leg of lamb, rosemary, and red wine reduction sauce.
With those pairings in mind, I’m going to open another bottle of Merlot. Happy Thanksgiving from the staff SawyerSomm!
SawyerSomm: Top Napa Valley Merlot Picks for the Holidays
Trefethen 2011 Merlot, Trefethen Estate Vineyards, Oak Knoll District $40
Lovely blend of 77% Merlot, 15 Malbec and 11% Cabernet Sauvignon. Festive aromas of red berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, leather and tobacco. Fresh and lively flavors of cherry, raspberry, black pepper, clove, and a long, elegant finish. Tasted at NVFF2014. www.trefethen.com.
Provenance 2011 Merlot, Three Palms Vineyard, Napa Valley $65 Dense, full-bodied wine, with aromas of dark fruits, dried herbs, mineral and cedar. Ripe and juicy flavors of black cherry, blackberry, cassis, cranberry, mineral, earth, and fine-grained tannins. Tasted at NVFF2014. www.provenancevineyards.com.
La Jota 2011 Merlot, Estate Grown, Howell Mountain $75 Planted on red volcanic and Ryholitic tufa soils at elevations above 1,700 feet; this deep, dense wine features attractive aromas of wild berries, cocoa, licorice, wild mountain sage, and cedar. On the palate, the flavors are complex with notes of black raspberry, dark cherry, milk chocolate, mineral, roasted almonds, and allspice. Overall, the wine features rich texture, chewy tannins, and long, velvety finish. Tasted at NVFF2014. www.lajotavineyardco.com.
Goosecross Cellars 2010 Merlot, State Lane Estate Vineyard, Yountville $48 This is a hidden gem from a lovely winery off State Lane east of the downtown Yountville. Made with 100% estate fruit, the wine is big, rich, and powerful. Aromas and flavors of dark cherry, wild berry, black trumpet mushroom, firm structure, chewy tannins, and great length. Get some of this wine before it’s gone! Tasted with Goosecross proprietors Christi Coors Ficeli and David Ficeli; winemaker Bill Nancarrow; and fellow wine writer and pal Linda Murphy. www.goosecross.com.
SawyerSomm’s Cellar Selection: Paloma 2007 Merlot, Spring Mountain District $54 This magnificent cellar selection was made by Sheldon Richard with Merlot and smaller fraction of Cabernet sauvignon from his family’s high elevation estate vineyard on the Mayacamas Mountains west of St. Helena. Fragrant aromas and complex flavors of fresh tobacco, violets, blueberries, cassis, milk chocolate, forest floor, wild herbs, and a long, engaging finish. Rich, supple, graceful, and eager to please! The new 2010 is equally dynamic, but requires decanting or more aging in the cellar. Tasted at the NVFF Merlot Seminar and the fantastic Spring Mountain Tasting held at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. www.palomavineyard.com.
Yes, we can see them here in Northern California Wine Country crossing roads, displaying feathers, and sharing feed with cows in the field on a regular basis. But I am talking about the upcoming feast that leaves them gobbling in terror!
Have you ever gone to the Sierra Nevada Foothills for Thanksgiving? We have spent much time there, particularly along Ebbetts Pass and found it to be a great place to initiate the holiday festivities. One memorable holiday meal was spent with my mother, brother and late Grandma Joanie, at the historic Murphys Hotel. Murphys is a pleasantly social foothill town sporting oodles of Tasting Rooms: As in wine! Waddle around town after your turkey stuffing right into a glass of Zin. Hovey, Lavender Ridge, Newsome-Harlow, Twisted Oak are just a few examples of the hospitible local flavors to sample along the main strip.
Among the multitude of destinations heading north from Ebbetts Pass, along the historic Highway 49, another great stop for wine is the quaint town of Nevada City. Also with a handful of Tasting Rooms sprinkled throughout the short downtown strip (some delicious restaurants as well). For some suggestions on the offerings visit this blog from our favorite lodging there, The Outside Inn. Wherever you decide to explore, enjoy your meal! And be sure to confirm tasting room hours before planning your trip.
Did you catch the latest restaurant review by Jeff Cox in our local beloved Press Democrat? You can read it here if not:
It is great to hear the wine program is still going strong thanks to Joshua Betts and you can pair a glass with a savory meal by Chef Andrew Wilson.
If you haven’t already experienced the ambiance and delicacies then consider a Thanksgiving outing for the entire family. (Call soon to reserve your space!) Or catch a free wine education class on Wednesday evenings with the knowledgeable Dan Noreen of Bean & Bottle, a specialty wine shop conveniently located inside the Lodge at Sonoma.
Another cinematic opportunity to follow-up your Napa Valley Film Festival experience, which starts tonight, finishes on sunday November 16! Etch this FREE 4 week cinematic lecture series into your calendar starting next Wednesday November 19th “Celebrate the Art of Cinema”. Brought to you by Petaluma Community Access Television (PCA) in conjunction with the Petaluma Arts Center.
When people ask me what it’s like to be a professional wine judge, I explain that the keys are to keep your palate fresh and have an optimistic view of the wines before you taste them.
Every wine has its qualities and attributes. Some are fruity, and others that are graceful and elegant. Some styles that are earthy, jammy or minerally. Others are big, rich and bold. But when it comes down to it, the best wines stand out as having strong attributes in terms of color, flavor, texture, balance, structure, and admirable finish. Each wine receives medals based on the tallied scores of the judges on each team.
I bring this subject up because I’ll be judging a number of these unique wine competitions over the next two months, including the annual Thanksgiving Picks with Ziggy the Wine Gal (Nov 17); the Grand Harvest Awards (Nov 18-19); Holiday Picks with Ziggy and other pros (Dec 8); and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (Jan 6-9).
So watch for my upcoming reviews of each of these competitions. And in the meantime, check out the amazing photo album from the North Coast Wine Challenge posted by my friend and fellow-wine judge, Wilfred Wong. Enjoy!
It’s that time again! Have you purchased your 2014 pass yet? Get ready to join me and a selection of other film, food and wine aficionados for this year’s Napa Valley Film Festival. Not only will there be stellar wine to tempt you but yes, some amazing films as well.
This year Celebrity Tributes will feature director Kevin Costner and actress Michelle Monaghan, to be held Friday November 14th at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville.
Sawyer Somm recommedation goes to the Red Carpet screening of Mike Myers’ “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon” on Thursday November 13th.
The 2013 festival was a great experience for all: The Hollywood Reporter included some of my film and wine pairings to entice future directors and celebrities over to wine country.
Also be on the look-out for the Feast It Forward Airstream throughout the NVFF events on November 12-16. I hope to be seeing some of your friendly faces at the screenings!
Happy Halloween! Earlier this week I had a plan to launch a series of my annual Ghoulish Film and Wine pairings for Halloween. But alas, I ended up spending most of the past seven days tasting a series of admirable wines at the successful Pinot on the River event in Healdsburg, Three Sticks Wines featured at opening of The Adobe in Sonoma, and the memorable vintage Bertani Amarones presented at a luncheon at Perbacco in San Francisco. Besides the other big projects I was working on, the rest of my time was spent hanging on the edge of my seat while watching the magnificent #SFGiants make it through seven game series to win the #MLBWorldSeries2014.
For that reason, I decided to focus on one poignant Halloween movie and dedicate my wine pairing with the cinematic classic The Shining to Madison Bumgarner, our amazing pitcher who defied the odds and carried the team on his back to victory. Thanks to his historic performance in the World Series, #MadBum became baseball’s version of #RedRum with an orange tint that will haunt the #KCRoyals fans for many years to come. Congratulations to the #SF Giants for a marvelous season! #OrangeOctober #OrangeTogether…Enjoy!
The Shining (1980)
Based on the Steven King novel and directed by Stanley Kubrick, The Shining stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, a family man, struggling writer and off-season caretaker of a remote hotel during wintertime. Influenced by the loneliness of this desolate setting and the lively ghosts of people murdered on the property, Jack goes off the deep end and begins chasing his family and other unsuspecting prey in the confines of the haunted hotel. Supernatural and sinister, The Shining is a cerebral horror flick from start to finish. #imdb
Pairing: Somerston 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Grown, Napa Valley In keeping with the theme of isolation, the Somerston Cabernet Sauvignon is a powerful wine made with premium grapes grown at the Somerston Estate in the rugged Vaca Range east of St.Helena. At elevations of 1,000 to 2,400 feet above the valley floor, the vines are influenced on a daily basis by full sun and rocky volcanic soils.
In the glass, this full-bodied estate wine features brilliant aromas of ripe berries and spice. The flavors are concentrated with layers of dark berries, plum and cherry; firm tannins and structure; rich texture; and a magnificent finish with nuances of wild mountain herbs, smoke and cedar. Deep, dense and delicious, this is a fine alternative to “red rum.” And like the classic film: the wine is not only bold and powerful, but age worthy as well! www.somerstonwineco.com.
#NVFF2014 Bonus: Taste the top-notch wines from #SomerstonEstate and their second label #PriestRanchWines as part of #TheVintnersCircle at the #NapaValleyFilmFest, November 12-16. The Vintner Circle represents those wineries contributing some of the most elegant and distinctive elements that help make our Napa Valley Film Festival such a unique and special experience: Vintner Circle Dinners with Patrons and Filmmakers, large-format bottles for our Award-Winners and Tribute Honorees, VIP tasting opportunities, and more. www.napavalleyfilmfest.org.
Last Tuesday night San Francisco was abuzz with the sensational offerings poured at Wine & Spirits 11th Annual Top 100 at City in the Metreon. This annual benefit for San Francisco Baykeeper featured wines from the Top 100 Wineries of the Year, a collection of producers from around the world with the most exceptional track records in the magazine’s 2014 blind tastings. In addition to tasting 200 featured wines from four states and twelve countries, guests downed more than 3,500 Hog Island oysters and tasted delicious food from New & Notable Bay Area Restaurants which included 1760, The Barrel Room, Dirty Habits, Homestead, Lolo, Shed, Stones Throw and Torc, as well as tasty bites from eleven artisan purveyors.
But beyond all these magnificent sensory moments, one of the highlights of the event was the naming of the winning team from Wine & Spirit’s 1st Annual Sommelier Scavenger Hunt. This unique series of journeys included five separate teams of sommeliers assigned to scout special wine regions in the America. The goal for each team was find six wines that painted compelling portraits of regional terroir. If you’ve watched “Amazing Race” or “Survivor,” then you get the picture.
The presentations were held at Dirty Habit’s Stillhouse Room at the Palomar Hotel in San Francisco on Monday, October 24th. Led by W&S Editor and Publisher Joshua Greene, fellow sommeliers, Master Sommeliers and wine writers (myself included), the teams were judged by the six wines they selected and their compelling presentations. In the end, the winner was the Napa Valley Team. Below are some of the great points made by the teams and some of my favorite selections that I felt really showcases the appellations in liquid form.
Team Finger Lakes: Riesling – Led by Matthew Kaner of Covell in Los Angeles, with Pascaline Lepeltier MS of Rouge Tomate in NYC, and Steven Morgan of Alinea in Chicago. Sommelier Notes: The Finger Lakes AVA is closer to Toronto than New York City.
Sommelier Notes: Diverse varietals and hybrids planted on a mixture of shale and loam-based soils and influenced by variable climate conditions based on close proximity to lakes the region is known for. Through the years, Riesling has become the new focus of the region. Styles vary from bone-dry, off-dry and sweet. “All the wines are a discussion,” says Steven, who noted that the wines are affordable at $40 or under. “People who like Alsace will like these wines.” www.fingerlakes.com / www.fingerlakes.org.
SawyerSomm Pick: Bellwether 2013 Dry Riesling, A&D Vineyard, Keuka Lake, Finger Lakes ($22). Lovely floral aromas of spring flowers. Bright flavors of exotic melon, grapefruit, lime, dried mango, green apple and mineral; tangy acidity; long dry finish. www.bellweatherwinecellars.com.
Team Santa Barbara: Chardonnay – Led by San Francisco-based sommelier Ian Becker of Absinthe and Arlequin, with Haley Guild Moore of Stock & Bones Group, and Gianpaolo Paterlini, of 1760 and Acquerello.
Sommelier Notes: The sommelier group had to cover winegrowing regions in all of Santa Barbara County. The outcome of a commonality was Chardonnay. Distinct character included weather conditions influenced by high levels of luminosity and low vigor soils that included traces of diatomaceous earth, clay loam, shale, quartz, chert, limestone and calcareous soils—especially in the northern and southern coastal regions. The end result was concentrated flavors, high acidity, mineral, and a wide range of talented winemakers who now call the county home. www.sbcountywines.com.
SawyerSomm Pick: Chanin 2012 Chardonnay, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills ($45 to $53). From 45-year old vines grown at the famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard on diatomaceous earth and chert. Aromas of white blossom, stone fruit, citrus, nutmeg, and gravel. Flavors of golden delicious apple, ripe melon, white peach, quince and mineral; structure; zippy acidity; and nicely integrated oak. www.chaninwine.com.
Team Anderson Valley: Pinot Noir – Led by Houston-based sommelier Vanessa Trevino Boyd of 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, with Steven McDonald of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, and Christian Varas of River Oaks Country Club in Houston
Sommelier Notes: Upon arrival in Anderson Valley from Texas, the team was fascinated with the distinctive terroir the region had to offer. Highlighted by well-drained soils, warm days and cool nights; the microclimates in the valley are tempered by cool air currents which blow in from the ocean in the mid afternoon. In the end, they concluded that single vineyards produce singular wines with unique character and charm. www.avwines.com / www.mendowine.com.
SawyerSomm Pick: As a wine writer and sommelier, I think the six wines this team selected were the best grouping that exemplified their point. For that reason, I chose two offerings that really stood out from the 2011 vintage. The first was the Elke 2011 Blue Diamond Pinot Noir, Donnelly Creek Vineyard, Anderson Valley. This is an elegant unfined and unfiltered wine with ripe flavors of red berries, blueberry, earth and that classic note of the old Pommard clone that shows extremely well in the region. The other offering from the vintage was the Drew 2011 Pinot Noir, Morning Dew Vineyard, Anderson Valley, which expresses the more hillside character of the region. The clones are a combination of Rochioli and Domaine Romanee Conti special selections. Once again the red berry character is very apparent with nuances of wild strawberry, raspberry, forest floor, wild mushrooms and earth; perky acidity; and a long and complex finish after the bottle was opened for two hours before tasting. www.elkevineyards.com / www.drewwines.com.
Team Napa Valley: Cabernet Sauvignon – Led by Michael Madrigale of Boulud Sud in NYC, with Josiah Baldivino of Bay Grape in Oakland, and Michelle Biscieglia of Blue Hill in NYC.
Sommelier Notes: Like most American sommeliers, the Napa Valley Team had plenty of experience in working with wines from the famous region of Northern California. But at the beginning of their presentation, Michael made it clear that the team’s original goal was trying to sort out the preconceptions of wines from Napa Valley. Along the way, what they found was that from the valley floor, benchlands, and rugged mountains all offered very distinctive microclimates that played major roles in the flavor profile of the finished wines they chose to pour at the event. To further emphasize their points, the team drew colorful cartoons drawn on big notepads and used little bits of humor along the way. In doing so, their presentation was fun, interactive, and worthy of the prestigious honor of winning the first ever Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt. www.napavintners.com.
SawyerSomm Pick: Smith Madrone 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Bottled, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Fresh-evergreen infused aromas of red and blue fruits, tar, tobacco, and earth. Deep flavors of ripe plum, blueberry, black raspberry, dark chocolate nibs, wild mountain herbs and forest floor; vibrant acidity; generous finish. Overall, a pure, balanced wine, and a testament to the natural splendor, rugged soils, high elevation, and steep slopes that are trademarks of the Spring Mountain District. www.smithmadrone.com.
Team Washington State: Bordeaux-Variety Reds – Led by Lindsey Whipple of Charlie Palmer Group in New York, with Will Costello of the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas, and Mark Hefter of Crush Wine Bar MGM in Las Vegas.
Team Washington State: Bordeaux-Variety Reds – Led by Lindsey Whipple of Charlie Palmer Group in New York, with Will Costello of the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas, and Mark Hefter of Crush Wine Bar MGM in Las Vegas.
Sommelier Notes: By far the hardest assignment was Lindsey, Will and Mark’s coverage of Washington State. Although the state has a great track record of producing fine Riesling and Rhone varietals, the team chose to focus on proprietary red blends made with Bordeaux varietals. As the team explained, the growth in popularity of working with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux grapes has grown exponentially with the amount of wineries in the state that has increased from 19 in 1981 to over 800 today. What helps this cause is the combination of unique sandy and gravelly loam soils; rocky and dessert-like conditions that created by ancient Lake Missoula Floods; hot days and cool nights; and isolated protection from disease in the vineyards. www.washingtonwine.org.
SawyerSomm Pick: Delille Cellars 2011 Chaleur EstateBig, rich, heady and complex. This wine is made with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc from the Ciel du Cheval Vineyard; 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot from the Klipsum Vineyard; and 10% Merlot from Upchurch Vineyard. Together, these components create deep aromas and flavors of ripe plum, blackberry cobbler, pie crust, cinnamon and clove; chewy tannins; structure and balance; and a long elegant finish. www.delillecellars.com.