Category Archives: Food

Festive Wine Events Galore!

With the main snow season for 2015 still on hold, it’s time to look at the great wine tasting opportunities that are happening in Northern California.

San Francisco: Zinfandel Experience, January 29-31

Each year, fans of red wine from around the United States flock to San Francisco to participate in the annual event put on by the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (a.k.a. ZAP), a non-profit organization devoted to preserving the history and pageantry of world class wines made with California’s “sweet-heart” grape. Highlights of this year’s three-day event include: Epicurian, a magnificent wine and food pairing event at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio, on Thursday, January 29; Flights!, a thought-provoking tasting hosted by legendary winemaker Joel Peterson at the Four Seasons in San Francisco on Friday, January 30; and the annual Grand Tasting featuring over 500 wines being poured by the top California producers, a silent auction, and opportunities to learn about special wines from the important appellation where the cherished grape is grown at Sommelier & Winemakers Terroir Workshops on Saturday January 31, at the Presidio, Golden Gate Club & Film Centre. If you make it to the Grand Tasting, be sure to make time for my 2pm Workshop about Lake County & Mendocino AVA too! For ticket information to all these events, visit www.zinfandelexperience.com.

Anderson Valley, Mendocino: International Alsace Varietals Festival, February 7-8

If you like aromatic white wines with fragrant aromas and distinctive flavors, I would suggest you get in the car and head directly to Mendocino County for the 10th Annual Alsace festival in Anderson Valley, an event focused on rockstar wines made with Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Muscat grapes grown in the Alsace region of France, California, Oregon, Michigan, New York, and other special appellations around the globe.

On Saturday, February 7th, the festivities kick-off with two special events at the County Fairgrounds in downtown Boonville (14400 Highway 128). The first is the Educational Session, a fantastic interactive event from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, which allows guests to listen to and interact with winemakers from around the world as they discuss the topics of grape growing, winemaking and food pairing specific to Alsace varietals.

PrintThe special 10-year anniversary Session will include a discussion on the Appellation of Crus in Alsace, complimented by a tasting of the 8 Grand Crus produced by Domaines Schlumberger. On the sommeliers side, I will be leading a special Pinot Blanc tasting focusing on wines from three wineries using grapes grown in the same vineyard (Schrader Ranch); fellow sommelier Christie Dufault, Instructor of Wine and Beverage Studies at the CIA Greystone, will do a presentation on how to pair food with Gewürztraminer; and the morning will be rounded out with a Cooking Demonstration done by talented Chef Francois de Melogue.

In the afternoon, the Grand Tasting will offer chances to taste over 100 Alsace Varietal wines made by producers from around the world, including local producers like Balo Vineyards, Brooks Wines, Claiborne & Churchill, Cutruzzola Vineyards, Elke Vineyards, FEL Wines, Foris Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Lula Cellars, Navarro Vineyards, Phillips Hill Winery, Philo Ridge Vineyards, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Saintsbury and Tatomer Wines, as well as special selections from the New Zealand Winegrowers and Wines of Alsace. To complement the wines, fresh oysters, Tarte Flambée and Pork Belly dishes will be served on the food tables at the event.

In the evening, the activities will conclude with the Winemakers Dinner at Scharffenberger Cellars in Philo (8501 Highway 128). The dinner will feature fabulous dishes made by Chef Janelle Weaver (Owner/Chef at The Bewildered Pig, Executive Chef at Peter Michael Winery, and former Executive Chef for Kuleto Estate), which emphasize the unique flavors of the wine s and how well they work with the bounty of the local area.

The Educational Session is $45 per person, and the Grand Tasting is $65 per person, but if you want to attend both a combined ticket is only $100. The Winemakers Dinner is $130 per person. To learn more and buy tickets visit International Alsace Varietals Festival.

Lodi: Wine & Chocolates Weekend, February 7-8

winechoc2014_0553With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about aphrodisiac wine and food pairings. For many, an easy choice is chocolate. This is what the Lodi Winegrape Commission had in mind when they started the popular Wine & Chocolate Weekend eighteen years ago. And this year’s event is bigger than ever!

Taste handcrafted sweet and savory chocolate bites with rich, spicy and complex wines at over 50 wineries. At $55 in advance and $65 at the door, tickets include an event wine glass, a chocolate treat from sponsor BRIX Chocolates, wine tasting, and admission to all participating wineries. Designated drivers are free of charge. www.Lodiwine.com.

Other upcoming events:

SRJC Wine Classic: February 8th, 2-5pm

San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition Public Tasting: February 14th, 1:30-5pm

1st SRJC Wine Classic being held on February 8th

Santa Rosa Junior College will hold its first SRJC Wine Classic from 2–5 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 8, on campus at Bertolini Hall.

Join in on this opportunity to support your local community college students, as they organize and host a social gathering, featuring 25 Sonoma County wineries, pouring over 50 wines, live music, gourmet appetizer buffet, and a souvenir glass for each attendee. Read more about it at the North Bay Business Journal.

Tickets for the event are $55 per person for adults age 21 or over. All proceeds will go to fund SRJC Wine, Culinary Arts & Hospitality students and student scholarships. Purchase online at srjcwineclassic.com. For more information email srjcwineclassic@gmail.com.

Here Comes ZAP!

It is that time of year again, the Zinfandel Experience in San Francisco happens January 29-31!

ZAP-Postertop

Not only will you get to taste a slew of amazing Zinfandel, but also the opportunity to learn about a collection of appellations through their Sommelier & Winemakers Terroir Workshops on Saturday January 31, at the Presidio, Golden Gate Club & Film Centre.  Be sure to make time for my 2pm Workshop about Lake County & Mendocino AVA!

Purchase your tickets online!

ZAP-bottles

New Celluloid Sensations & Lively Winter Wines

If you need a break from Christmas shopping, group events, or simply want to slip away for an enjoyable winter evening with someone special, I’d suggest a staycation at your local movie theater.

Beyond the big box-office hits and holiday genre films, coming to a movie circuit near you are some of the brilliant new releases highlighted at the Napa Valley Film Festival in November. Below are some of my top picks and special seasonal wine pairings from vintners featured @NapaFilmFest, along with tasty delights offered by star chefs, galas, red carpet events, exclusive dinners, post-parties and interviews I did with www.FeastItForward.com!

For more information about all the films that played at this year’s festival, DVD releases, upcoming events, and much more, visit www.NVFF.org. And don’t forget to stay tuned for my classic Christmas movie pairings coming up next week!

 The Imitation Game

If you’ve never heard of computer pioneer Alan Turing, you’re not alone. While working for Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cipher School during World War II, Turing created the world’s first legitimate computer that was able to break the famous Enigma encryption code used by the German army. Surrounded by a crew of other intellectuals, Turing used this powerful tool to save an estimated 2 to 3 million lives and helped stop the war two years early.

imitation1The film features a terrific cast with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, and Keira Knightley, Mathew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance and Allen Leech (the chauffer in Downton Abbey) as his associates. And beyond exploring his accomplishments with science and computers, the film also looks into the darker side of Turing’s personal life, which was heavily influenced by a turbulent period as a teen and his post-war conviction for a now outdated criminal offense. As a result, he died at an early age and was not honored by the government for his services until 2013.

SawyerSomm Pairing: Although its impact isn’t nearly as great as Turing’s invention of the computer; a lesser known grape of great importance is Pinot Meunier, a fairly obscure red variety planted primarily in the Champagne region of France. Known for its deep flavors and ability to grow in wetter conditions, the varietal is often blended with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to make some of the world’s finest Champagnes but rarely bottled separately.

In the United States, an exception to the rule is the Domaine Chandon 2012 Pinot Meunier, Carneros ($35), an elegant wine with lively aromas of red fruits, cinnamon, nutmeg, and earth. On the palate, the flavors expand with notes of dark plum, cherry, pomegranate, wild mushroom, black tea and clove. Great with fine cheeses, grilled winter vegetables, fresh salmon, pork chops, and roasted chicken. And like the film, it’s a secret worth investigating! www.domainechandon.com.

Supermensch

Wayne’s World meet your maker! In his directorial debut, Mike Myers’ magnificent documentary follows the life of Shep Gordon, a bon vivant who began his career in the entertainment industry after accidentally running into Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix while staying in a hotel in Los Angeles in 1968. He then went on to build the music careers of Alice Cooper, Anne Murray, Teddy Pendergrass and Blondie; afterwhich he produced movies, created celebrity chefs, and worked with the Dalai Lama.

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In Hebrew, a mensch is a person of integrity with a willingness to help others. The positive energy Gordon gives off to others can be seen throughout the film with dazzling archive footage, interviews, and guest appearances by Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Alice Cooper, Emeril Lagasse and many other personalities who think Gordon is the bomb. Hands down, an ultimate fantasy documentary for those who love rock n’ roll, cinema, and fine cuisine!

SawyerSomm Pick: As noted before the screening of the film, Shep drinks wine on a daily basis. And to match his character, you need a wine with flavors that run deep. A fantastic example is the Cornerstone 2011 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($65), a magnificent wine made with premium fruit grown in the Howell Mountain and Rutherford appellations, and small amount of Merlot (12%) grown in Oakville. From the moment the cork is pulled, the aromas and lush flavors are bursting with notes of pretty blue fruits, blueberry, cassis, black raspberry, Himalayan blackberry jam, black olive and dried mountain herbs; soft tannins; velvety texture; and a long, elegant finish. Thus, instead of being big, powerful and brazen; this seductive wine is best described as soft, balanced, sultry, and sexy like Gordon.

With food, try this delectable new release with wild mushroom strudel, fresh gnocchi with black truffle, grilled sausage, slow-cooked ribs, lamb sliders, beef wellington with peppercorn sauce, hearty stews, and complex cheeses. www.cornerstonecellars.com.

Black or White

Kevin Costner stars as Elliot Anderson, a successful attorney, who suddenly loses his wife and finds himself raising his grandaughter Eloise: She has been in his family’s custody since his daughter died blackwhite_during childbirth. To make matters worse, Eloise’s African-American paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spenser) files papers to get custody of the child back to her son, who suddenly resurfaces after attempting to clean himself up from drug addiction. Packed with racial tension, class struggles and family values, this is a powerful movie that demonstrates the importance of making the right decision in hard situations.

SawyerSomm Pick: Granted this is a heavy movie, but it also makes it clear that the world would be a better place if the adult characters could find their way to chill out, relax, and see the values in each other. For that reason, at the Q & A following the Red Carpet Screening of the film at the Uptown in Napa, Costner said it was very important that he and director Mike Binder made sure the film was rated “PG” instead of “R” in order to open up the conversation to a wider audience.

In the sommelier circuit, “PG” often refers to Pinot Grigio, a light, perky and refreshing style of wine which matches nicely with the cultural scenes in the movie that revolve around the families playing on the lawn, the swimming pool, singing, and playing instruments. For a classy style with body and texture, I would suggest the Benessere 2013 Pinot Grigio, Napa Valley ($22). With fragrant aromas of spring flowers, peach and citrus, the freshness of the wine is expressive and alluring. In the glass, the flavors open up with notes of melon, guava and lime; vibrant acidity; and a long crisp finish. Not hard to get along with his wine, especially when served with fancy appetizers, hot soups, gourmet salads and shellfish during the winter months. www.benesserevineyards.com.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

Directed by James Keach (Walk the Line), this touching documentary follows the life of musical legend Glen Campbell and the final tour he played while suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease.

Before becoming a country music icon, Campbell was known as a talented session guitarist, who played with Elvis, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and the talented team called the “Wrecking Crew.” After going solo, Campbell sold over 50 million albums, won five Grammy awards and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. As a consummate entertainer, he starred with John Wayne in the cowboy classic True Grit and had his own variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

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Through the years, other well-known musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Willy Nelson, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, The Edge and Brad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (all of whom appear in the film), were touched by his style of music. If life is about memories, then this is a movie that is hard to forget.

SawyerSomm Pick: When Campbell’s hit song “Rhinestone Cowboy” came out in 1975, red grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were still in their infant stages in America. As a result, the typical red wines were made with Zinfandel. Today, a star-spangled selection that keeps these spirits alive is the Robert Biale 2013 Zinfandel, R.W. Moore Vineyard, Coombsville District ($50), a small appellation just a few miles south of where Campbell played his last show at the Uptown Theater in Napa. Originally planted in 1905, the aromas and flavors of the fruit are plush and elegant, with deep flavors of raspberry, wild strawberries, plums, dark chocolate, wild herbs, cardamom, clove, and a long, silk finish. Think mushroom risotto, duck breast, osso buco, and spicy lamb meatballs. Like Campbell, the vines do their best to weather the storm no matter what the circumstances ahead may bring. www.robertbialevineyards.com.

Escobar: Paradise Lost

In this historic thriller focused on the life of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar, Josh Hutcherson (Hunger Games) commands escobar2attention with his outstanding performance as Nick, a young Canadian man who moves to Columbia with his brother to start a surfing business. Soon after meeting a lovely young girl, he is introduced to Escobar (Benicio Del Toro), who hires him to help with odd jobs. But after Nick catches on to the cover up of drug trafficking and murder, the lives of he and his loved ones are in jeopardy.

SawyerSomm Pick: To match the intensity of the film, try the Hope & Grace 2011 Malbec, Oak Knoll, Napa Valley ($75). Deep and rich with an inky hue; the wine starts off soft and plush and finishes spicy with layers of ripe blackberry, dark chocolate, licorice, black pepper and baking spices. To stay with the South American theme, the wine is also great to pair with chicken mole, barbecued pork, roasted goat, tri-tip with a green sauce, and hard cheeses. www.hopeandgracewines.com.

Mediterranean Wine Cruise: July 2015

I am excited to be joining this Isles & Empires Wine Cruise in July of 2015.  It will be my second experience as a cruise sommelier.  This tour takes us from Rome to Venice on the Oceania Riviera with an amazing St. Francis and J. Lohr wine selection.

St. Francis and J.Lohr Isles and Empires Wine Cruise Reserve your tickets soon:  Something exciting to look forward to and a fantastic holiday gift!

For more information or to make reservations call 877-651-7447 or email wineclub@cruiseshipcenters.com.

Hope you can join us!

Holiday Wine Joy: Grand Harvest Awards Announces 2014 Winners

So there we were: Twenty wine judges tasting through the over 70 Best of Class gold medal winners at the Sweepstakes Round of Vineyard & Winery Management’s 24th Annual Grand Harvest Awards. It was so quiet in the room you could hear a pin drop and an occasional chime of two glasses making incidental contact. But when all the contenders were tasted, the Best of Show wine was the fabulous Miro Cellars 2012 Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley ($30).

The Madara Horseman on the label of the Miro Cellars 2012 Petite Sirah is based on a Bulgarian monument carved in bas relief on a cliff twenty three meters above ground. This mysterious sculpture was created at the beginning of the eighth century during the birth of the Bulgarian nation.
The Madara Horseman on the Miro Cellars label is based on a Bulgarian monument carved in bas relief on a cliff twenty three meters above ground. This mysterious sculpture was created at the beginning of the eighth century during the birth of the Bulgarian nation.

In hindsight, I remember our panel tasting this wine and thinking how generous the fruit was, the layers of flavors and spice, and that long smooth finish. So once the winner was revealed, I wasn’t surprised that this magnificent Petite Sirah was made by Miro Tcholakov, one of the great winemakers of Sonoma County who tends to roll under the radar. After coming to California from his home country of Bulgaria, Miro worked at Dry Creek Vineyards and eventually became head winemaker at Trentadue Winery in Geyserville. On the side, Miro and his family started making Miro Cellars wines in 2001. Coincidentally, the debut release was…Petite Sirah, of course. For more info on Miro’s new releases, visit www.MiroCellars.com.

sweepstakes

 

From a pool of nearly 1100 entries, the other awards included 82 Best of Class, 39 Double Gold, 161 Gold, and 450 Silver medals. Judges included winemakers, wine buyers, distributors, media personnel and other wine industry professionals who not only recognized the best wine submissions but possessed the level of knowledge and expertise needed to assess the wine’s terroir.

 

The following wines took best their categories:

Best White Wine: Hunt Country Vineyards, 2013 Seyval Blanc, Finger Lakes ($10.99)

SawyerSomm notes, as tasted with fellow judges Alisa Nemo of Handley Cellars and Thrace Bomberger of Walt Wines: Seyval Blanc is a French-American hydrid created by Frenchman Bertille Seyve around 1920. Made in stainless steel, this bright and expressive white wine has lively floral aromas of spring flowers, geranium and citrus. On the palate, a mixture of ripe melon, papaya, grapefruit, mineral, and a long graceful finish. Pairings: gourmet salads, grilled fish, chicken skewers with tangy citrus aioli. www.HuntWines.com.

Best Rose Wine: Truett Hurst Winery, 2013 Salmon Run Rosé, Dry Creek Valley ($18)

SawyerSomm notes, as tasted with fellow judges Alisa Nemo of Handley Cellars and Thrace Bomberger of Walt Wines: Not to be mistaken with Pink Zinfandel, this is a fantastic example of a classy dry Zinfandel rosé with fragrant aromas and lively flavors of wild strawberry, peach, plum, red cherry, anise and orange rind. Pairings: tangy cheeses, fresh berries, tostadas, Paella and spicy Indian cuisine. www.TruettHurst.com.

Best of Show and Best Red Wine: Miro Cellars, 2012 Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley ($30). www.MiroCellars.com.

Best Sparkling Wine: Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyard, 2006 Royal Cuvee, Carneros ($37). www.GloriaFerrer.com.

Best Spirit from Grapes: Petroni Vineyards, Grappa di Lorenzo, Sonoma Valley ($45) . www.PetroniVineyards.com.

Best Fruit Wine: Heritage Vineyards, Jersey Blueberry, Outer Coastal Plain ($10.99). www.HeritageWineNJ.com.

Best Late Harvest/Dessert Wine: Stephen & Walker Winery, 2012 Chardonnay Botrytis, Mendocino Ridge (Tbd). www.trustwine.com.

For more juicy information…

Sonoma Valley represented: Hamming it up with Winemaker Michael Muscardini of Muscardini Cellars and Winemaker Katie Madigan of St. Francis Winery.
Sonoma Valley represented: Hamming it up with Winemaker Michael Muscardini of Muscardini Cellars and Winemaker Katie Madigan of St. Francis Winery.

Established in 1990, Grand Harvest Awards seeks to uncover the distinctions of terroir by grouping wines for evaluation by appellation and variety. Wines are judged in the context of their viticultural regions in order to recognize the complexities and nuances of regional wines, and also to observe the influence of regional soil and climate characteristics on the taste and quality of individual wines.

Dazzling  Judges Dinner menu prepared by Rosso Pizzeria at Paradise Ridge Winery.
Dazzling Judges Dinner menu prepared by Rosso Pizzeria at Paradise Ridge Winery.

“This unique wine competition showcases the diversity of terroir and we are pleased to be part of the research and promotion of allits regions in the U.S. and beyond,” said Robert Merletti, President and Publisher of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine.

And as the official GHA spokesperson, here’s my quote on the awards press release: “For decades we have been trying to interpret the styles of wines made in America. Now, thanks to the use of new technology and fruit from more mature vines, the unique flavor profiles are becoming more defined. For those reasons, it’s exciting to see that the diverse list of winners at the Grand Harvest Awards 2014 really demonstrate how terroir makes a difference in the flavor profiles of grapes planted in special regions across the nation.”

Full results for the competition are posted on www.winecompetitions.com, a website developed by EnofileOnline for Vineyard & Winery Management to house all six of its wine competitions, and on www.enofileonline.com.

Official sponsors of the competition included Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, Penta Ultra-Purified Water, Graber Olives, Wine Country Shipping, Alsco, Costeaux French Bakery, Lagunitas Brewing Company and Sonoma Cider. And last but not least, great thanks to my good friend Debra Del Fiorentino, who did a great job as the Chief Judge at this year’s competition. See www.vwmmedia.com for more information.

Next Up: San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, January 6-9

Stay tuned for news from the upcoming San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition 2015, the largest competition of American wines in the world, January 6-9. To enter wines in the competition before the deadline on December 10th or for information about the special early bird’s ticket price to the SFCWC Public Tasting on Saturday, February 14 which ends on New Years Eve, visit www.winejudging.com.

Move over Sideways, Merlot is back!

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, it’s also time to start taking a serious look at Merlot.

Yes, I’m talking about the same grape that took the blunt from the famous lines said by lead character Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any f*#@ing Merlot!”

Merlot Seminar at #NVFF2014  (Clockwise from bottom left): Winemaker Tom Rinaldi, Provenance & Hewitt Wines; Sean Quinn, Wine Program Manager of #NVFF2014; Winemaker Chris Carpenter, La Jota & Cardinale Wines; Chris Sawyer (me); Wine Writer Jim Laube, Wine Spectator; and Hailey Trefethen, Trefethen Winery.
Merlot Seminar at #NVFF2014 (Clockwise from bottom left): Winemaker Tom Rinaldi, Provenance & Hewitt Wines; Sean Quinn, Wine Program Manager of #NVFF2014; Winemaker Chris Carpenter, La Jota & Cardinale Wines; Chris Sawyer (me); Wine Writer Jim Laube, Wine Spectator; and Hailey Trefethen, Trefethen Winery.

After rising to star status in the wine industry during 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 been torn out and the level of quality has recently risen to its highest point in decades.

Following the 10-year anniversary screening of the Sideways at the recent 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 on November 14; I joined in on tasting through the delicious wines with the allstar panel which included Jim Laube, Editor, Wine Spectator; Winemaker Tom Rinaldi, Winemaker, Provenance Vineyards; Hailey Trefethen, Trefethen Family Vineyards; Chris Carpenter, Winemaker, La Jota Vineyard Company; and panel moderated by NVFF Wine Program Manager Sean Quinn.

“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 red fruits, tobacco leaf, rum raisin, and dark tea.

Laube agreed, 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, many of the best selections are made with grapes grown at the terroir-driven sites sprinkled throughout the beautiful landscape of Napa Valley. Many of these vineyards are planted in the clay soils in the cool windy region of Carneros. Some 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, others are planted on special sites feature gravelly and alluvial-based soils, warm days, and cool nights.

According to Carpenter, the rugged growing conditions of the grapes he works with winery’s estate vineyards on Howell Mountain help add more natural tannins, burliness and wild flavors to the La Jota Merlots. 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, representing 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 Holidays from SawyerSomm.com!

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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. www.trefethen.com.

Rutherford Hill 2011 Merlot, Napa Valley ($30)

From the Terlato family, this powerful new release is made with Merlot and small dollops of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. The aromas are deep with notes of ripe fruits, cocoa, vanilla and smoke. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied with generous notes of cherry, plum, red currant, anise, and fine-grained French oak. Tasted at the NVFF Merlot Seminar with winemaker Marisa Taylor. www.rutherfordhill.com.

Freemark Abbey 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley ($34)

Legendary Napa Valley winery known for working with Merlot over the past three decades. The latest release features lovely notes of ripe red berries, dark chocolate, clove and orange peel. Rich mouthfeel, supple texture, and long finish. Solid! www.freemarkabbey.com.

Markham 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley ($20)

Crafted by star winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls and tasted by the panelists as the mystery wine at the Napa Valley Film Festival seminar, this purist expression of Merlot is young, bright and grapey. Carpenter liked the notes of blueberry and lush tannins. Trefethen liked the spicy notes. Rinaldi liked the maraschino cherry and mushroom attributes. And I liked the lively fruit flavors, spicy layers of mint, cinnamon and clove, and how the wine opened up with more time in the glass. Young, vibrant, and very food-friendly! www.markhamvineyards.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. Overall, a fantastic Merlot with deep flavors, elegant texture, and a long, generous finish. 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 velvety finish. www.lajotavineyardco.com.

More tasty Napa Valley Merlots recommendations:

Silverado 2010 Merlot, Estate Grown, Mt George Vineyard, Napa Valley ($35)

Attractive aromas of wild berries, cocoa powder and spice. Deep flavors of blackberry, blueberry, red currant, milk chocolate, licorice, wild mountain herbs, and forest. Great wine with pork, poultry and gourmet burgers. Tasted at the Flavor Napa Valley “Grapes & Grills” event, #FlavorNapa. www.silveradovineyards.com.

Grgich Hills 2010 Merlot, Estate Grown, Napa Valley ($42)

Elegant Merlot with lovely aromas of ripe red fruits, licorice, cardamom, and roasted walnuts. Flavors of ripe plums, wild strawberries, mint, and layers of spice. Firm structure, chewy tannins, and a long, silky finish. Great wine with baked ham, roasted meats, and blue cheese. Tasted at SawyerSomm.com HQ. www.grgich.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 Linda Murphy. www.goosecross.com.

St. Supery 2011 Merlot, Estate Vineyard, Rutherford ($50)

Dark, rich and opulent style of Merlot made with fruit grown at the St. Supery Estate Vineyard in Rutherford. The aromas and bouquet are laden with alluring notes of dark cherry, cassis, mochaccino, licorice, and pipe tobacco. On the palate, deep flavors of cherry, blackberry, cassis, plum, milk chocolate, vanilla and fine French oak. Supple tannins and velvety texture. Each sip makes you want more—it’s that good! The wine was tasted, along with a fantastic pairing of a Grass-Fed Beef Burger with Melted Gruyere, Sherry Carmelized Onions on a Brioche Bun made by Chef Adam Ross of 1313 Main Restaurant, at the Flavor Napa Valley “Grapes & Grills” event at St. Supery Winery. www.stsupery.com.

Duckhorn 2011 Merlot, Napa Valley ($54)

Elegant, complex and worthy of cellaring, this new release is made with fruit from the estate and other special sites, including the Three Palms Vineyard, which makes up about 30% of the current vintage. On the nose, stimulating hints of red fruit, roasted almonds, and cedar. In the glass, the wine opens up with lavish flavors of blackberry, black raspberry, cherry and mineral; firm structure, silky smooth tannins, and opulent finish. Tasted at SawyerSomm.com HQ. www.Duckhorn.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.