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: 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.

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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.

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 HQ.

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.

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.

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 HQ.

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.

Talking turkey in the foothills.

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? LRVwine12We 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.

The line up at Newsome Harlow Tasting Room in Murphys.
The line up at Newsome Harlow Tasting Room in Murphys.

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.

Happy Holidays!

Carneros Bistro still going strong!

Did you catch the latest restaurant review by Jeff Cox in our local beloved Press Democrat?  You can read it here if not:

Cox: A Bounty of great wines at Carneros Bistro

A fun photo shoot in the bistro days with my buddy Chef Andrew.
A fun photo shoot in the bistro days with my buddy Chef Andrew.

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.


Celebrate the Art of Cinema: 4 Week Lecture Series Begins November 19th

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”. PCA cineCard-FRNTfnl-1-webop-495x329 Brought to you by Petaluma Community Access Television (PCA) in conjunction with the Petaluma Arts Center.

The Art of Judging Wines

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!

North Coast Wine Challenge Photo Album

Napa Valley Film Festival starts Nov 12th!

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 nvff balloonthis 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.

Director John Lee Hancock at the screening of “Saving Mr. Banks” at NVFF 2013.

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.

Katie Hamilton Shaffer of #FeastitForward talks with actor Colin Ferrell at NVFF 2013.

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!