Make Mine a Merlot 

Hard times help a much-maligned grape make a comeback.

Now that Paul Giamatti has taken home an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a Madeira-guzzling founding father in John Adams, perhaps we can lay to rest the prejudices stirred up by his 2004 portrayal of a Merlot-hating Pinot purist in Sideways. After all, Merlot's high yields in the vineyard and recent comeuppance in the marketplace may just conspire to make it — unlike Pinot Noir — one of the more-reliable bargains on grocery store shelves in the very near future. Add to this the fact that many makers of high-end wines are finding that supply is far exceeding demand in the current economic climate. They've therefore been forced to unload their wares on the bulk market, where the wine has been snapped up eagerly by folks who can then bottle it, slap a label on it, and sell it for a fraction of what those wineries of origin might have charged.

Curiosity thus peaked about Merlot in general and bulk Merlots in particular, we tried a couple of wines this week bearing that telltale bulk "vinted and bottled" wording on the label — with happy results. Part of Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value line, the 2006 Paul Valmer California Merlot ($5.99) had a muted, delicate aroma of strawberry jam and pleasant, simple flavors throughout. Our Token Winemaker complained about the obvious alcohol showing through here, but overall gave it a thumbs up, as did I. Pair it with a red pasta sauce just shy of spicy.

Chocolate lovers will want to take note of the second bulk wine in this tasting: the 2006 Blackstone Winery California Merlot ($7.99). There were vegetal, smoky notes to the Blackstone's aroma, but what dominated was a baked chocolate flavor that lent a richness to the palate as well. A sure crowd-pleaser — we kept thinking of this as a good "roast-beef sandwich wine" — and for all you Federalists out there, a fine alternative to your daily Madeira.

The third wine in this tasting — which happened to be our favorite — was not a bulk wine, but was actually produced and bottled by the Trinchero Family (think Sutter Home, Folie a Deux, and Ménage à Trois, among other bargain labels). The 2005 Trinchero Family Merlot ($9.99) is a bit of a geographical mutt, made from 48 percent grapes from Monterey, 41 percent from Santa Barbara, and 11 percent from Napa. We can't swear as to which region put this wine over the top, but its bouquet boasted lots of red fruit, real oak, cedar, and a subtle barnyard scent, while its mouthfeel was nicely balanced, big, and rich. While you've got Trinchero on the brain, you may want to consider the company's Trinity Oaks line as well; each of its six varietals is priced under $10 a bottle, and for each bottle purchased, Trinchero will plant a tree on your behalf. Visit OneBottleOneTree.com for more information.

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