It’s Wednesday, July 1st and tonight, from 5pm until 8pm, the “rolling wine bar” at Ralphs will host Kendall Jackson Winery and feature their Merlot varietals. Kendall Jackson is a household name in the wine industry. What most people do not know is that Kendall Jackson (KJ) is a major player in the high-end California wine scene. Brands such as Legacy, Atalon, Robert Young, Matanzas Creek and Cardinale are frequently found on fine-dining restaurant’s wine lists. When self-made billionaire Jess Jackson decided to expand, he acquired only top vineyards and brands from throughout California and did not add the KJ brand to the label of his acquisitions. These wineries benefited from his eponymous company’s superior marketing. The KJ portfolio has many more notable brands, much too numerous to list here. Despite what Miles Raymond, (Paul Giamatti’s immortal character) from the film Sideways might have thought, Merlot has rebounded to its former status as a premier varietal of choice in the U.S. (Remember his deathless line: “No! If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f*cking Merlot!”)
Merlot has its roots in the region of Bordeaux, France and it is the most widely-planted grape there. The famous Château Pétrus, pronounced (Pay-truce), is a Merlot wine. It is one of the world’s most valuable wines, certain vintages sometimes selling at auction for tens of thousands of dollars per bottle. What many people missed in the movie Sideways is that the most coveted bottle in Miles’ collection, a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, is a wine made from Merlot grapes. (It is a blend of 65% Cabernet Franc and 35% Merlot.) So Miles had no reason to be such a snob, since his prized wine owed such a debt to Merlot. Perhaps, that is why the writers came up with the title “Sideways”: to describe Mile’s thinking on Merlot! Just an opinion folks. One fact I can tell you is that the movie had a profound effect on the sales of Pinot Noir and Merlot, causing a significant uptick (+16%) in the former and a less-significant downtick (-2%) in the latter. The demand for the elusive Pinot Noir grape became so great, since the 2004 movie, that only in the last two vintages have producers been able to adequately supply the market. Keep an eye out for the upcoming Pinot Noir tasting (July 6th, Pinots from Burgundy, France) if you are a fan of this varietal.
Merlot can be drunk with a myriad of cuisine. Desserts seem to come to mind when thinking of Merlot. Chocolate-based desserts are an exceptional treat when paired with a fine Merlot. The wine, when served with chocolate, seems to explode on the palate with deep, dark-fruit flavors such as black cherry, blackberry and plum. I think it might be due to the coating of the palate from the fats in chocolate which make the tannins in the wine seem to disappear. On the more savory side of the culinary palate, heavy roasted meats and casserole dishes are great with a Merlot. Pasta with red sauce can be enjoyed with these varietals as well. Merlot is a bit softer than its cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon. Great Merlot, like that of Pétrus, can age for more than fifty years due to the structure of the wine and the winemaking style. Strong, balanced tannins from the grape’s skin and seeds are part of the structure in fine Merlots, lending aging potential and backbone to this fruit-driven grape. Proper canopy management (referring to pruning the leaves that shade the grapes) is essential to allow the sun to most effectively nourish the berries on the vine to perfect ripeness. Warmer growing seasons (in the years that produce the best vintages) give this grape a fine fruit character while developing its structure. Merlot is commonly planted in warmer regions for this reason.
North of Calistoga, on the east side of Napa Valley, lay a vineyard called Duckhorn. This spectacular vineyard produces one of Napa’s most sought after Merlots. Situated on the rich alluvial soil of the floor of the Napa Valley, Duckhorn Vineyards makes Merlots, which are classic examples of what this perfect-for-Merlot, warm-weather region can produce in the hands of a talented winemaker.
These wines will be a real treat to taste. Please consider joining our ever-growing core of wine lovers tonight for our rescheduled “Monday Merlot Madness”, if you have the time. The cost is $7 and we will offer four premium California Merlots paired with full-flavored gourmet cheeses and artisanal bread.
Mike The Wine Guy