It's really a bit hard to swallow

Vintage Point

Wines: California merlots are a success, but after a sampling, it's not easy understanding why.

April 03, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

There are people who actually pay their hard-earned money to see movies in which Sylvester Stallone "acts."

And California merlot is a commercial success.

Funny world, isn't it?

Merlot is undoubtedly one of the world's premier red-wine grapes, and California offers a wide variety of exceptional winegrowing regions. But somehow the grape and the state seem incompatible.

There are, without doubt, many examples of successful California merlots. Some excellent examples will be reviewed below.

Nevertheless, a recent sampling of the 1999 California merlots on the market -- from $10 budget wines to $35 indulgences -- uncovered an appalling level of mediocre to just plain undrinkable wines.

This was not supposed to be a negative article. It was born out of a hunch that maybe merlot might be making some of the same strides in California that it has in Washington state.

The 1999 vintage also offered hope after California's rather dismal 1998, a year of tough, harsh, ungenerous red wines. Early tastings of 1999 cabernet sauvignons showed a distinct improvement.

Some hunches don't pan out, however.

The 1999 merlots are a ragtag group, and vintage does not appear to be the problem. Indifferent winemaking, mediocre vineyards and promiscuous filtration do.

One sign of trouble in Paradise is the increasing appearance of white, meaning pink, merlots. It's a signal that winemakers are realizing that some of the merlot being grown in California isn't fit to produce red wine.

This is a good thing. The emergence of white zinfandel enhanced the quality of red zinfandel. Maybe merlot can improve through the same process of addition by subtraction.

Let's begin by subtracting some truly miserable wines such as the 1999 Rabbit Ridge Merlot ($12), the type of stinky, onion-flavored, harsh and undrinkable wine that has become relatively rare in recent decades. This wine, which did not appear to have a contaminated cork, reminded me of a 1970s-era California pinot noir.

The 1999 Beaulieu Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot ($15) is simply a disgrace to a prime growing region -- dried out, stripped of fruit and harshly tannic. Wasn't the whole reason for California merlot supposed to be that it would be a softer alternative to cabernet?

Mediocrity abounds even in exalted price ranges. The 1999 Stags' Leap Winery Napa Valley Merlot carried a price tag of $35. For that, the consumer gets to taste a hugely concentrated but utterly charmless and blocky wine. Can cellaring save it? Perhaps, but how many people will wait 15 to 20 years for a merlot to come around?

Jekel, normally an excellent producer, falls flat on its face with its 1999 Monterey merlot ($15). This flat, short, fruit-deficient wine seems to have been filtered to death.

Even Geyser Peak, which has been doing almost everything else brilliantly recently, stumbled with a hard, angular, short-finishing 1999 Sonoma County Merlot ($17).

It is the usual policy of this column to praise first and criticize afterward if there is space to do so. To do so in this case would be to imply that the good wines are the real story. With California merlot, they're not.

There were some fine merlots made in the 1999 vintage, and it's too bad the successes are overshadowed by the failures and the mass of merely indifferent wines.

The 1999 Niebaum-Coppola Rutherford Merlot ($44) from the Napa Valley is a full-bodied, complex wine with intense black cherry and blackberry fruit and hints of leather, chocolate and coffee. It would improve with five years of cellaring, but it can be drunk now with pleasure.

The 1999 Dynamite North Coast Merlot from Carmenet Winery ($20) lives up to its name. It's a full-bodied but not massive wine with explosive flavors of black cherry, herbs and chocolate, all perfectly integrated.

Ravenswood, as it does so often, gives consumers good value with its 1999 Vintners' Blend Merlot ($15). The wine is medium-bodied, but the flavors of black cherry, chocolate, spices and blueberry are intense and pure.

The flavor, intensity and length of the 1999 Franciscan Oakville Estate Napa Valley Merlot ($23) are all excellent, but the high level of tannin is a concern. It should improve with cellaring, but for now, it's more admirable than pleasant.

Despite these successes, the quality of California merlots continues to lag far behind that of comparable cabernet sauvignons. And unlike syrah, zinfandel or pinot noir, merlot doesn't have a flavor profile that's all that different from cabernet.

California growers and makers of cabernet had a vision: to produce a wine that could compete with Bourdeaux. To a remarkable degree they succeeded.

But for the most part, the driving force behind merlot's popularity is not craftsmanship; it's commercialism.

The evidence is in the glass.

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