The "Bud" of Grapes 

Our new wine columnist tastes hints of sweat, shoe leather, and pepper — but no Cytomax.

Don Williams, a Tennessee writer and marathoner, makes an offbeat request at the water-and-sports-drink stations en route to the finish line at mile 26. "Merlot or Budweiser?" he asks. He says it always gets a laugh.

Having just completed a race of only half that distance with no humor to spare, I might have spritzed Don with lukewarm Cytomax had I encountered him on the course. But what interests me more than his joke is the parallel he drew. Merlot and Budweiser? Yes, indeedy.

If Budweiser is the king of beers, Merlot is the Bud of grapes. Not that there's anything wrong with that — Merlots are full of fruit and easy to drink, and the best of them have a pleasant but tame aftertaste. California Merlots tend to have a riper flavor than those produced in France, and thanks to overproduction, they often come cheap.

But for the past few years, it's been easy to assume that there is something wrong with liking Merlot. It's been dismissed as a "bunny-slope" wine — with connoisseurs sniffing that it's most useful as a secondary blending grape in the production of the exalted California Cab. In 2004 Merlot became the butt of an oft-repeated joke when Paul Giamatti bashed it in Sideways. (For you Wineaux who missed the film and the subsequent wine-buying hysteria: He's not drinking any fucking Merlot.)

That leaves more for us. Top honors in our tasting group goes to Fish Eye ($5.99-$8.99), a 2004 California Merlot that our token winemaker praised for its ripe fruit and a hint of "barnyardy" flavor. We also unanimously applauded its almost sweaty aroma and taste — but fear not, we mean the good, salty, sweat of exhilaration, not smelly sweat.

We expected more from the 2002 Merlot from Beringer Founders' Estate ($7.99), given that the winery's top-shelf Bancroft Ranch Merlot has earned raves. Despite what it lacks in aroma, the Founders' Estate Merlot has a bit of sweetness to its flavor, mixed with what one quirky taster likened to "chewing on dry leather, like when you were a kid and used to chew on leather." Unfortunately there isn't so much of an aftertaste here as an afterburn — at least with our just-opened bottle. Two days later, it was still nondescript — but the burning aftertaste had all but disappeared.

Our most delightful surprise was the California Merlot from Pacific Peak Winery, at $2.49 a bottle. Like the Beringer, this wine has a barely discernible aroma, but its taste is peppery and inviting. Personally, it was my favorite — it beats Cytomax any day of the week.

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