' Paloma Vineyard - Wall Street Journal 1998 Review

Wall Street Journal 1998 Review


We Find Great $10 Bottles, Majestic Merlot Blends; Coppola’s Surprise EndingWho say’s there’s no good news in newspapers? Here’s some: We recently tasted two very good Merlots for under $10.
But let’s start at the beginning – quite literally. When we began “Tastings” three years ago, our first column was about American Merlot under $20. As we said then, Merlot is one of the great grapes of the Bordeaux region of France, but it wasn’t known as a stand-alone varietal wine in California until pretty recently. In the 90’s, it turned millions of Americans into red-wine drinkers.

Now by tradition, we write about Merlot under $20 around the column’s anniversary. This year, we decided to try something new. We conducted a large blind tasting of inexpensive Merlots, as usual, then conducted a large blind tasting of Merlots over $20 immediately afterwards. We wondered what we’d find it we tasted lower-end stuff and higher-end stuff back to back. Would there be wines, for instance, that could easily have fit into the other price range?

A Value You Can’t Refuse

We found again and again in this tasting that you don’t have to spend a lot of money for a Merlot with some charm and character. Two Merlots from wineries that we’ve long admired for their value-rice wines impressed us again: Fetzer “Eagle Peak” ( fruity, but with real body”) and Beringer “Founders Estate”< (classy, rich and a bit velvety”). We paid $9.99 for the Fetzer and $8.99 for the Beringer, and both are fairly widely available.

Our best tasting was a surprise. Francis Ford Coppola, the movie director, makes wine in Napa Valley, and since he’s a genius at promotion, he gets a lot of attention. But we’ve never been big fans of his wines. This was an exception. We found his Niebaum-Coppola Merlot to be a great buy at $15.99, easily the equal of many of the over $20 Merlots we tried. It was classy, filled with good, tight fruit, and certainly age-worthy.

We then turned to the more-expensive Merlots. As usual, we limited our under $20 tasting to well-known wineries, but cast our net wider for the more-expensive stuff. Many higher-end wines are made in small quantities by small wineries, which give them hightly personal care. That’s one reason they’re expensive. Even the higher-end offering of large, well-known wineries tend to be made in smaller quantities because they receive special care in the vineyard and in the winery.

We concluded again there’s a world of difference between most under $20 and over $20 Merlots/ It’s a difference you can sometimes see, because the higher-end wines are often much darker and richer looking than the less expensive Merlot. The less-expensive wines tend to be charming and easy to drink, great with hamburgers. The more-expensive wines tend to be complex, tight-knit, edgy and memorable, great with steak. That doesn’t mean they have to be terribly expensive or from precious little boutique wineries. In fact, on of our favorites was $22.95, from the well-known Dry Creek Vineyard. Another, the most beguiling we tasted, was from the old Charles Krug Winery.

Interestingly, all five of our over $20 favorites were blends. Some people think a wine made from 100% of a certain grape is necessarily better, but that isn’t always the case. Most great wines of Bordeaux, for instance, are blends. Adding a little Cabernet Sauvignon here or Petit Verdot There can add structure and complexity to a Merlot. (A wine can be labeled with a varietal designation as long as 75% of the wine is from that grape.) One of our favorites, the Whitehall Lane, was made from 86$ Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Cabernet Franc. As the winery explains on it’s website: “Cabernet Sauvignon was added to the blend to give complexity and weight to the wine while Cabernet Franc was added to enhance the flavors and aromas. “