Sustainable Merlot 

A Napa Valley merlot proves that you can buy from small, local vintners while staying on a budget.

Buying local, sustainably produced food is all the rage. But is it possible to find a locally made merlot from a small vintner for a moderate price?

After all, it's no secret that larger winemakers can afford to offer lower prices because of economies of scale. By contrast, smaller producers have lots of upfront costs packed into fewer bottles of wine.

Nonetheless, Wineau set out to find a couple of less expensive merlots from smaller, California vineyards to accompany dinner at the house of some close friends who both enjoy a good bottle of red wine. After some consultation with the wine steward at Vino on College Avenue in Oakland's Rockridge district, Wineau selected 2007 Sean Minor Four Bears Napa Valley Merlot ($12.95) and a 2007 Tangley Oaks Napa Valley Merlot ($15.95).

Sean Minor, who honed his winemaking skills at Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley and at King Estate Winery in Oregon, has been garnering a lot of buzz in the past few years. His 2006 Napa Valley Merlot won a silver medal at the 2008 San Francisco International Competition and a double gold at the New World International Wine Competition. The June 2009 Wine Enthusiast awarded it 87 points.

His 2007 merlot provoked some strong reactions in our group. We all agreed that it has a remarkable bouquet, accented with berries, a hint of cocoa, and an oaky sweetness. But one of us didn't like how the taste of fruit lingers on the back of the tongue, and another thought that even after it had a chance to breathe, it still left too much of a tannic flavor. The other two of us, however, including Wineau, thought it was a good, solid, drinkable red wine, richer than many merlots we've had. Once it aerated, it had a smooth aftertaste, and it worked great with our grilled chicken dinner. We also thought it would go well with a grilled red-meat dish. We gave it a 5.5 on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest.

Although Tangley Oaks is produced locally with an emphasis on terroir, that is, the indigenous characteristics of the grape and a sense of place to where it is grown, it's actually owned by the giant worldwide wine seller Terlato International. We all agreed that it has a much more potent nose than the Sean Minor, while two of us, including Wineau, preferred its flavor and drinkability. It's a light, tart wine, tinted with berries and a hint of espresso, and was a tasty complement to our meal. We gave it a six.

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