Napa Merlots

Forget Sideways: These 15 delicious, affordable (under $75!) reds deserve a second look


In 2004, the movie Sideways put a major dent in California Merlot sales when Miles uttered the immortal words “I am not drinking fucking Merlot!” At that point there were a lot of ripe, insipid Merlots on the market—many grown in areas that were too hot for the grape to ripen slowly, gaining full physiological maturity—so Miles’ sentiments resonated with a lot of wine lovers.
In the last several years, however, Merlot from the Napa Valley has become a delicious and approachable alternative to the region’s Cabernet Sauvignon, which typically takes at least a few years of bottle age to even begin to be ready to drink. Merlot is also, indisputably, Napa’s greatest red wine value.
Merlot is the second most planted red variety in Napa after Cabernet Sauvignon, and the third most widely planted grape in the region if you include Chardonnay. Whereas my top 15 Napa Cabernets average over $450 in price, my top 15 Napa Merlots average $63.50 a bottle—more than seven times cheaper than Napa’s top Cabs. 
So we can thank Miles for depressing the demand for Merlot and keeping even the Napa versions relatively affordable. When looking for well made, delicious reds from Napa, however, Snooth’s savvy wine shoppers know to go for the Merlot.
The biggest single value on the following list is the Trefethen, which sells for about $30. The Castello di Amorosa and Robert Keenan Napa appellation bottlings are also fairly reasonable, at $34 each. And unlike much higher priced Cabernet Sauvignons or equivalently priced Petite Sirahs from the region, you’ll find most of these wines pretty approachable right out of the gate.

Red wine glass image via shuttersrtock
1. Darioush 
Darioush has 95 acres of estate vineyards in the appellations of Napa Valley, Mt. Veeder and Oak Knoll. The owner is Darioush Khaledi, who hails from Shiraz, Iran, and the winemaker is Steve Devitt. The winery’s focus is primarily Bordeaux varieties and their top wine is a Bordeaux blend. These are rich, elegant Merlots that tend to score very highly for me in blind tastings.
Dark ruby color; redolent, focused, berry, black fruit nose; tasty, poised, rich but elegant, blackberry, ripe black fruit, cedar palate; medium-plus finish. (90% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc; 22 mos. in 70% new French oak; 14.5% alcohol) 94 points
Medium red violet color; tart cassis, cedar, blackcurrant nose; plush, ripe blackcurrant, espresso palate with sweet, fine tannins; medium-plus finish. (100% Merlot; 24 mos. in 70% new French oak; 14.5% alcohol) 93+ points
Dark ruby color; cedar, French oak, cassis, blackcurrant nose; poised, tasty, ripe black currant, cassis, black fruit palate; medium-plus finish. (90% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc; 22 mos. in 70% new French oak; 14.5% alcohol) 93 points

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  • Snooth User: Stallion
    Hand of Snooth
    381013 946

    I've been saying this for years...The RIGHT Merlot can be every bit as structured as a good Cabernet. Duckhorn makes one of the best in Napa. Check out the Washington Merlots. Very balanced with more of an herbal note on both the palate and nose. Cheers!

    Apr 09, 2013 at 1:27 PM

  • Snooth User: bopahyland
    222403 17

    You're obviously wealthy if you spend that kind of money for merlot. You need to try Columbia-Crest Grand Estates merlot from Washington State. It' a smooth, fruity but dry merlot and affordable so that it can be enjoyed as an every-day wine.

    Apr 09, 2013 at 3:29 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 9,456

    I am in agreement that the movie "Sideways" was the best thing that happened to California Merlot. I also am in agreement with the sentiments of the orignal author and the two above commenters that some pretty darned good Merlot is coming from both Napa Valley and Washington state.

    Apr 09, 2013 at 5:52 PM

  • Snooth User: StarkAdv
    1270649 46

    Switchback Ridge should have been mentioned.

    Apr 09, 2013 at 6:13 PM

  • Snooth User: mark holys
    1176343 36

    When it comes to merlot it is natrural to look to Bordeaux for an example to follow. But Napa and Washington have pioneered new approaches to merlot that are very approachable and complex. I completely agree that merlot does not get enough recognition in Napa, and California in general,but lets not get carried away. The best value in Napa wine cannot be defined by a varietal, but by the examples that support the market share of that varietal. Cabernet is, and always will, be the king of Napa valley

    Apr 09, 2013 at 6:31 PM

  • Snooth User: chickeee
    307854 23

    these wines are about $125-$200 in restaurants in Vancouver BC and are hard to find in private stores :(

    Apr 09, 2013 at 10:14 PM

  • Where's Pride Mountain Vineyards on this list? Definitely in the top ten of CA merlot.

    Apr 10, 2013 at 7:02 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Jennings
    Hand of Snooth
    780161 120,464

    Thanks for the responses, guys. I agree there are very good Washington Merlots. This piece happened to have been focused on Napa Merlots.

    I have been underwhelmed with Pride's Merlots in recent years. I disagree that they would fall in the top 10.


    Apr 10, 2013 at 9:36 PM

  • Snooth User: bahma
    610029 26

    We love, love love Paloma Merlot. So glad you included it in your list.

    Apr 12, 2013 at 3:10 PM

  • Snooth User: pikeman
    1060341 42

    $63.50 a bottle?! Are you nuts? Do you think ordinary people are paying this kind of money for wine? And if you are regularly buying wine at this price why not spend spend more?Why go cheap?
    And as far as Merlot goes, there is still much more crappy Merlot than worthwhile Merlot. No thanks - you can keep it.

    Apr 16, 2013 at 1:49 PM

  • Snooth User: Ozrr
    184260 9

    Plumpjack's Merlot should be included in the list. It has won a few informal wine tastings.

    Apr 22, 2013 at 11:05 PM

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