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
TASTING NOTES
 
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

 
2. Robert Keenan Winery Estate Wines
Keenan has a long tradition, since 1974, and currently produces 14,000 cases. The estate vineyards are focused on just three varieties—Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot—and this is their particularly impressive single vineyard Merlot. The Napa appellation bottling is number 10 on this list.
 
Dark red violet color; nice herbs, tart black fruit nose; tight, tart black fruit, herbaceous palate; medium-plus finish. (20 months in French oak; 14.3% alcohol) 93+points
 
Dark ruby color; lovely, ripe plum, berry, ripe currant nose; tasty, rich but poised, ripe currant, plum palate; medium-plus finish. 92+ points

3. Paloma 
Barbara Richards is the proprietor here and son Sheldon Richards has been the winemaker since his father Jim passed away in 2009. They make this benchmark California Merlot from 15 acres of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon on their property at the top of Spring Mountain. The Merlot is always rich, balanced and remarkably complex.
 
Medium dark red violet color; intriguing, lifted, ripe currant, plum nose; plush, complex, plum, ripe currant palate with subtle oak spice; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish. 93 points
 
Dark ruby color; tart plum, black fruit, baked plum nose; tasty, poised, tart black fruit, tart plum palate; will go 15 years; medium-plus finish. (with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon) 92+ points
 
Berry, black fruit nose; tasty, black fruit, berry, eucalyptus palate; medium-plus finish. 92+ points
 
4. Seavey Vineyard 
In 1979, William and Mary Seavey purchased the historic estate originally founded by the Franco-Swiss Farming Company in 1881. By the time they bought the property, it had been a cattle ranch for several years, but Mary, who ultimately passed away in 2008, set about restoring the property and planting new vineyards. The winemaker is Jim Duane, who previously worked at Stag’s Leap and Robert Mondavi. These are complex Merlots that sell for about $45.
 
Very dark red violet color; appealing, tart black fruit, herbs, tobacco nose; tart black fruit, espresso palate; approachable now; medium-plus finish. (with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon; 50% new French oak) 93 points
 
5. Trefethen 
Eugene Trefethen, Jr., a wealthy industrialist, purchased the property that formed the basis of the Trefethen estate vineyards in 1968. The family owns 475 acres of vineyards, all located in the Oak Knoll appellation, on two different sites. For an estate this size, there is a large winemaking team, led by winemaster David Whitehouse. The quality is generally high here and the wines are underrated. 
 
Medium dark ruby color; ripe berry, blackberry, oak, vanilla nose; ripe black fruit, berry, black plum, violets palate with depth; medium-plus finish. (91% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon; 17 months in oak, 90% French, 5% American, 5% Hungarian, 45% new; 14.1% alcohol) 93 points


 
6. Yates Family Vineyard 
This is very much a family operation; the winery is owned by Lynn and Michael Yates and staffed by their two daughters and son-in-law. The vineyard’s 35 steep hillside acres are located in the southern end of the Mayacamas Mountains in the Mt. Veeder appellation. The family purchased the ranch in 1950 and sold their grapes to wineries for many years before deciding to make their own wine in 1999.
 
Dark ruby color; appealing, deep blackberry, berry, black fruit nose; tasty, ripe berry, blackberry, caramel palate with character; medium-plus finish. (Wiith 12% Cabernet Franc; 18 months in French oak) 93 points
 
7. La Jota 
Bill and Joan Smith, who founded La Jota in 1982 on property that had been a vineyard and winery in the late 1890s, sold the winery to Markham Vineyards in 2001. The winemaker is Christopher Carpenter, who views his main job as a “mountain winemaker” as tannin management. Due to the firm, though plush, tannins, this is one Merlot that could benefit from a couple years of bottle age. 
 
Dark red violet color; ripe plum, black fruit nose with lift; tight, plush, nice black fruit, sage, espresso palate; medium-plus finish. 93 points
 
8. Shafer Merlot 
The Shafers, John and son Doug, and winemaker Elias Fernandez, are famous for their Hillside Select Cabernet, which currently sells for about $250. They also make this very reliable Merlot that sells for only $52. It tends to show a lot of the new oak that the Hillside Select is known for, but that generally integrates with two to three years of bottle age.
 
Medium dark ruby color; lavender, berry nose; tasty, lavender, berry, tart black fruit palate; medium-plus finish. (92% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Malbec; 20 months in French oak, 75% new; 15.1% alcohol) 92+ points
 
Medium dark ruby color; redolent, ripe blackberry, violets, black currant nose; tasty, black currant, blackberry, violets palate; medium-plus finish. (80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon; 20 mos. in French oak, 75% new; 15.3% alcohol) 92+ points
 
Medium ruby color; ripe, rich berry, black fruit, French oak nose; ripe black fruit, blackberry, French oak palate; medium-plus finish. (85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon; 20 mos. in French oak, 75% new; 14.9% alcohol) 91 points
 
9. Castello di Amorosa 
Dario Sattui, the owner of this project, is the great grandson of Vittorio Sattui, who founded V. Sattui winery in 1885. That winery was shuttered by Prohibition, but Dario not only revived it in 1972 but succeeded in turning it into a major moneymaker. This helped him fund the purchase of 30 acres of vineyards in the Diamond Mountain District and the building of a 121,000 square foot tourist attraction in the form of a medieval-style Tuscan castle that houses the winery and caves for Castello di Amorosa. Winemaker Brooks Painter was formerly with Robert Mondavi and Stag’s Leap.
 
Dark ruby color; vanilla oak, berry nose; tasty, rich but poised, ripe berry, mulberry, boysenberry palate with sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (92% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petit Verdot; 18 mos. in 100% French oak; 14.4% alcohol) 92+ points
 
10. Robert Keenan Winery Napa Valley
These impressive wines are the less-expensive siblings of Keenan’s estate wines, which I’ve ranked number two on my list.
 
Dark red violet color; lifted, tart black fruit, herbs nose; tasty, tart black fruit, herbs palate; medium-plus finish. 92+ points
 
Medium dark ruby color; rich berry, plum nose; plush, berry, plum palate; medium-plus finish. 91 points
 
11. Peju Province Winery 
In 1982 Tony and Herta Peju purchased 30 acres in Rutherford, with Robert Mondavi, Inglenook and Beaulieu as their neighbors. They now own over 450 acres throughout Napa, and their two daughters are very much involved in the business. The winemaker is Sara Fowler. I’m generally a fan of Peju’s wines, and their Merlots are very reliable and well priced at about $36.
 
Medium dark ruby color; effusive, ripe berry, berry pie, vanilla nose; tasty, a little tight, sweet berry, blackberry, berry pie palate; medium-plus finish. (83% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 8% Zinfandel; 16 mos. in French & American oak, 35% new; 14.1% alcohol) 92+ points
 
Medium ruby color; appealing, bright berry, mulberry nose; tasty, focused, ripe berry, mulberry palate with sweet, soft tannins; medium-plus finish. (93% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Zinfandel; 16 mos. in French & American oak, 35% new; 14.5% alcohol) 92+ points
 
Medium ruby color; nice, lifted, berry, boysenberry nose; ripe berry, mulberry palate with soft, sweet tannins; medium-plus finish. (84% Merlot, 13% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon; 16 mos. in French & American oak, 30% new; 14.1% alcohol) 92 points

[PAGREBREAK]
 
12. Duckhorn Vineyards 
This was the first Napa winery to become famous for its Merlots. Their first vintage was 1978, when Merlot in Napa was fairly hard to source—there being relatively few plantings there at that time. Dan and Margaret Duckhorn divorced and sold their controlling share in 2006 to GI Partners. The enterprise owns 278 acres of vineyards in Napa and 150 acres in Mendocino. The winemaker for the Merlots is Bill Nancarrow, from New Zealand.
 
Medium dark ruby color; French oak, vanilla, berry, black fruit, sweet coffee nose; rich, ripe black fruit, berry, espresso palate; medium-plus finish. (84% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc; 16 mos. in 100% French oak, 20% new, 80% second vintage; 14.5% alcohol) 92 points
 
Medium dark ruby color; vanilla, berry, black cherry nose; tasty, a little tight, blackberry, berry, black fruit palate; medium-plus finish. (86% Merlot, 9.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc; 16 mos. in 100% French oak, 20% new, 80% second vintage; 14.5% alcohol) 92+ points
 
Medium dark ruby color; rich, appealing, berry, blackberry nose; tasty, ripe blackberry, berry palate; medium-plus finish. (89% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petit Verdot; 16 mos. in 100% French oak, 35% new, 65% second vintage; 14.5% alcohol) 92 points
 
13. Rutherford Hill 
Rutherford Hill was founded in 1972 and early on focused on Merlot as its flagship. The winery was purchased by the Terlato Family of Terlato Wine Group in 1996, and the focus continues to be Merlot, with 75% of production dedicated to this grape. Marisa Taylor Huffaker, formerly assistant winemaker at Williams-Selyem, is winemaker.
 
Medium dark ruby color; focused berry, blackberry nose; ripe berry, blackberry, baked berry palate; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish. (90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon; 18 mos. in French oak; 14.1% alcohol) 92 points
 
Medium dark ruby color; baked black fruit, French oak, vanilla nose; baked black fruit, ripe berry palate with integrating oak; medium-plus finish. (80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec; 18 mos. in French oak; 14.4% alcohol) 91 points
 
14. Pahlmeyer Merlot
Jayson Pahlmeyer, a trial attorney, started producing wine under the Pahlmeyer label in 1986 from cuttings he and a partner had smuggled into the country from Bordeaux. Randy Dunn was the first winemaker. The current winemaker is Kale Anderson. 
 
Black fruit, charcoal nose; black fruit, charcoal palate with depth; medium-plus finish. 92 points
 
15. Bolen Family Estates 
Eric Bolen was introduced by father Mike to the pleasures of Merlot-based Right Bank Bordeaux, which ultimately inspired him to found a winery aimed at creating fine Merlot. The winemaker is Tom Rinaldi, Duckhorn’s founding winemaker. They currently make 1,000 cases with fruit from the Beckstoffer Orchard Vineyard.
 
Dark red violet color; nice, spicy plum, red berry nose; tasty, rich, plush, spicy plum, red berry palate; medium-plus finish. (20% new French oak) 92 points
 

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Comments

  • Snooth User: Stallion
    Hand of Snooth
    381013 862

    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 5,420

    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 110,293

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

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

    --Richard

    Apr 10, 2013 at 9:36 PM


  • Snooth User: bahma
    610029 22

    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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