Merlot makes a comeback

Attitudes toward merlot suffered after Miles Raymond proclaimed, “I’m not drinking any f—ing merlot!” in the film, “Sideways.” Need we be reminded that merlot is a major grape in the famed Bordeaux blends, adding flavor and texture that is pleasing to most palates. Vintage to vintage, we have one merlot in California that stands out, and Wine Spectator magazine has named the Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard 2014 (95-pt/$98) as it’s 2017 Wine of the Year.

Since starting the winery in the mid-1970s, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn produced among the best merlot in the states. A local equity investment group purchased Duckhorn Vineyards in 2007, and for consistency, retained the winemaking team. That decision has fostered the continuance of successful releases.

Wine Spectator’s annual list emphasizes not only quality, but price, availability and excitability. On the surface, the 2017 ensemble offers few surprises. Forty-four percent of the wines come from California and France, with another 25 percent from Italy and Spain. However, releases from the Pacific Northwest and Paso Robles are sending a strong message.

Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard 2014. (Courtesy photo)

Always diverse, Washington state placed two Bordeaux-style blends plus two single varietal releases by known winemaker Charles Smith, one of this year’s stars. After developing an impressive resume in managing rock bands as well as winemaking, Charles Smith settled in the Walla Walla region to concentrate on creating bold, approachable syrah. His broad array of wines have earned deserved recognition, and in 2014, Smith was named Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

His No. 2 K Syrah Walla Walla Powerline Estate 2014 (95-pt/$45) is pressed whole-cluster with extended exposure to skins. The reviews describe a rich, full-bodied savory wine, making it a bargain.

In 2012, Smith created the Sixto label to focus on single-vineyard chardonnay. The No. 16 Sixto Chardonnay Washington Uncovered 2014 (94-pt/$35) consists of grapes from each of the vineyards and has been compared to Burgundian wines that are nuanced with minerality and long on the finish. Charles Smith wines are available locally and worth exploring.

Continuing to ascend as one of the world’s finest regions, Paso Robles placed five wines within the first 26 on the list including three excellent Rhone-style blends.

Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2014 label. (Courtesy photo)

The No. 22 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles Willow Creek District 2014 (97-pt/$98), as with previous vintages, is, arguably, this country’s best Rhone blend and a restrained indulgence of mine. Universally acclaimed winemaker Justin Smith has, over the past decade, created 38 wines with 95-points or above ratings. They are nearly perfect except for the high price tag and very limited access.

Winemaker Eric Jensen pays homage to Chateaunef-du-Pape with the No. 10 Booker Oublie Paso Robles (2014 95-pt/$80), a unique blend of grenache, mourvedre and counoise. With each vintage, he is producing more unique Rhone blends that have also become hard to obtain.

Booker ‘Oublie” Paso Robles. (Courtesy photo)

Pioneer Paso Rhone Rangers, the Tablas Creek Winery produced a spirited grenache blanc dominant white blend, the No. 26 Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Blanc Paso Robles 2015 (93-pt/$25). This winery, located in the heart of the westside foothills, is always a viable option to explore fine red or white Rhone-style blends.

The Bordeaux blend, No. 24 “Justification” from nearby Justin Winery and the luscious No. 16 Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Ueberroth Vineyard 2014 (95-pt/$48), from decade-old vines, round out Paso Robles’ statement to the wine world.

The Napa Valley continues to show dominance and diversity by placing two wines, the No. 8 Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 (95-pt/$70) and the No. 9 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay Napa Valley (95-pt/$75), in the top 10.

Two moderately priced old vine zinfandel releases are worth noting. The No. 12 Bedrock Zinfandel California Old Vine 2015 (93-pt/$25) and the No. 21 Hartford Family Zinfandel Russian River Valley Old Vine 2015 (94-pt/$38) are both sourced from century-old vines with small amounts of petit sirah, carignane and alicante bouschet added to embolden the flavors and enrich the texture.

Kudos to the Wine Spectator staff for their toil and effort to taste and rank hundreds of extraordinary wines. Someone has to step up and do it.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit Lyle’s blog at or email him at

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