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High praise for a more-than-worthy merlot

TODAY wine columnist Edward Deitch reveals what makes this California red a hit.
/ Source: TODAY

After last week’s column about a top-value California cabernet sauvignon, it seemed only logical to tell you about a first-rate, $12 California merlot that will impress you with its complexity.

Blackstone Winery’s 2006 California Merlot will dispel any notions you may have about merlot as a generic, less-than-worthy red that should be avoided at all cost. We can, of course, blame the movie “Sideways” for reinforcing that image a few years ago or so, specifically Miles’ angry restaurant pronouncement that “if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving.” His next line, you may recall, can’t be repeated on a family Web site.

There is, no doubt, plenty of innocuous, little-more-than-drinkable merlot out there. But let’s not forget that merlot is one of the world’s most important grapes — the main variety in such noted Bordeaux appellations as St. Emilion and Pomerol; a component of many so-called super Tuscan and other blends in Italy; a key variety, along with cabernet sauvignon, in California’s Napa and Sonoma Counties; and a success in Washington state and New York’s Long Island.

With a softer, less tannic character than cabernet — some call it more feminine — merlot doesn’t require the years of aging that some cabernets demand before they can be enjoyed. That’s especially true of less expensive wines from California, such as Blackstone’s California Merlot.

Like many value wines, this one is a blend — 85 percent merlot, 9 percent syrah and smaller amounts of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petite sirah. The appellation is “California,” meaning that the grapes can come from anywhere or everywhere in the state, and they pretty much do — 58 percent from Monterey County and the rest from Sonoma, San Luis Obispo, Mendocino and San Benito Counties, as well as the Napa Valley.

I don’t make it a habit of paying much attention to winery promotional materials, but in this case I don’t disagree with Blackstone’s claim that “each growing region adds unique elements to the blend, making the final wine rich, complex and with outstanding varietal character.”

This approachable wine shows notes of plum and black cherry, espresso and earth and has a nice full feel in the mouth. It has decent tannic structure and modest oak, with 30 percent of the blend having been aged in barrels. It frankly tastes more expensive than it is (although the suggested price is $12, you’re likely to find it for $3 less in some stores). My top food match would probably be a good juicy burger, though steak and grilled or fried chicken wouldn’t be far behind.

Availability? Not an issue with this one. The wine is America’s best-selling merlot in its price range and has sales of 700,000 cases a year. It’s not hard to see why.

Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at