The people who make what's in and what's out lists seemed to be down on merlot this past New Year's. That might just be a good thing for the wine and the people who drink it.
Merlot is unquestionably one of the world's great red wine grapes, but its growth in popularity since it began taking root in California's wine industry has far outstripped its development in quality.
Yes, it's relatively easy to pronounce, though many devotees still manage to butcher it. (It's mare-LOW.)
Yes, it tends to be softer in texture than cabernet sauvignon, though there are quite a few hard-as-nails, user-unfriendly merlots on the market.
And, yes, a truly fine merlot -- whether from California or any other wine-growing region -- can be a delectable companion at the dinner table.
But the overall quality of California's merlots is far from inspiring. Certainly, they do not compare with the overall quality and consistency of the state's cabernets, which generally aren't so hard and tannic that they need a softer substitute.
A few years ago, I did a taste test matching the cabernets and merlots of the same producers and found the cabernets generally ranked about two points higher (on the scale borrowed from Robert M. Parker Jr. of the Wine Advocate) and cost about $2 less than the comparable merlot. Judging by recent tastings, nothing much has changed.
Still, there is some reason for optimism that more producers are beginning to "get" merlot and to treat it as a serious wine varietal rather than a concession to the marketplace.
There seem to be more merlots on the market that truly differentiate themselves from cabernet. Every once in a while, you come across one in which you can detect a kinship with the wines of Pomerol, the only classic wine-growing region in which merlot routinely makes more than 75 percent of the blend.
(One hint: A Napa Valley designation means less with merlot than cabernet. Napa is clearly the premier location for cabernet, but Sonoma County is equal or better for merlot.)
With reliable low-cost producers such as Washington's Columbia Crest and Chile's Casa Lapostolle on the market, consumers should be wary of seeking nirvana in a high-priced California merlot. It was hardly a challenge to find several dreadful bottles selling for $20 and up.
But in the interest of accentuating the positive, here are some merlots well worth the price:
* 1997 Frog's Leap Napa Valley Merlot ($33). Give Kermit credit. This winery is good in just about everything it does, and merlot is no exception. This concentrated, intense, complex wine delivers pure black cherry flavor, with nuances of cedar, herbs, chocolate and smoked meat. The firm tannins argue for five years of cellaring, but the wine is delicious now.
* 1996 St. Francis Sonoma County Merlot ($25). Don't let the artificial cork fool you, this is a for-real merlot. It's a spicy, supple, structured, complex merlot with penetrating black-cherry flavor and hints of chocolate, herbs and vanilla. And you can order it in a restaurant without fear of cork spoilage.
* 1997 Geyser Peak Sonoma County Merlot ($15). Dig the price on this baby. Geyser Peak just keeps cranking out these well-crafted wines that won't give you sticker shock. This is a full-bodied merlot with classic Bordeaux flavors but a Rhone-like feel. There's plenty of length and a hint of blackberry to complement the black cherry and chocolate. It should age well over three to five years.
* 1997 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Merlot ($20). This well-structured merlot is a bit closed at first, but with breathing it opens up to reveal excellent potential. It's an elegant style of California merlot that bears a resemblance to a fine St. Emilion (a region of Bordeaux where merlot is the predominant grape in many blends).
* 1997 Ravenswood Vintners Blend Merlot ($15). This medium-bodied, widely available merlot comes from an exceptionally reliable red-wine producer. The wine is distinctly merlot in its soft texture, and offers well-integrated flavors of black cherry, smoked meat and herbs.
That's the good. The downside of merlot can be found in such high-priced mediocrities as the 1997 Rutherford Hill 23rd Anniversary Napa Valley Merlot ($22) and the 1997 Kenwood Sonoma County Merlot ($20).
Even worse was the unspeakably funky, onion-y 1997 Jade Mountain from the Paras Vineyard on Mount Veeder. It seemed to have started with good fruit, but something went wrong in the bottle here.
Inexpensive merlot can have its pitfalls, too. Both the 1998 Pepperwood Grove Merlot ($10) and the 1997 Rabbit Ridge Barrel Cuvee Merlot ($11) exhibited overripe, pruney flavors that made them no value at all.