Merlot, the hot wine of the moment (my theory is because people can pronounce it) often makes a fleshier, softer, more accessible wine than cabernet. If you like that kind of thing...

'Meritage' is the California marketing term referring to wines made with a combination of Bordeaux varieties, i.e., cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, none of which reach the required 75% plateau to be labelled as a varietal wine. Sometimes the term 'claret' is swiped from the British for use as well.

Behrens and Hitchcock Ode to Picasso Napa Valley 1996 ($50)(Cellar Gems): Is this a Meritage? Dunno, but it ties with Sine Qua Non for the Colossal Heavyweight-Bottle Prize. Medium-dark rich garnet; odd nose, with cassis and blackberry notes duking it out in my nostrils with a burnt-rubber smokyness. A full-bodied big ol' wine, very dark cherry & raspberry tastes with unintegrated toasted woodiness hanging in the background. Odd, and yet somehow strangely generic. (10/14/99)

Beringer Alluvium Red Knights Valley 1993 ($21): Almost no nose at all, but a very nice, very forward California-style fruit attack that had a nice, aggressive mouthful of tannins that jumped right out at me, covering the fruit at first, which soon emerged nicely and segued into a long, buzzing finish. Seemed at first to be a CalCab--cassis flavors with a tealike hint to it after a second or two, medium-to-full body, nice glass of wine. I believe it's a merlot/cab blend, with a few other grapes thrown in for good measure (the label doesn't mention proportions). (11/19/98)

Beringer Howell Mountain Merlot 1992 ($45)(Kaneturbury Tales): Also medium-dark, with a lot of chocolate and cherry in the nose, some very light pizza herbs as well. Very fleshy mouthfeel, meaty and velvety & with some nice tangy dark tar undertones. Very decent, very accessible and up-front. I commented that the flavor profile was much like the '92 PR cabernet (minus the blueberry), which prompted Andrew to say "Now THAT's winemaking--getting all those different grapes to taste the same--that's true art!" He went on to pronounce Kane's roast chicken delicious, if a bit overoaked for his tastes. (9/20/99)

Blackstone Merlot California 2003 ($10) (Boatloads IX): Calm, shy smoky berry-blackcurrant aromatics, smells small but borderline complex, with a good blend of shy toastiness and dark redfruit. Surprisingly crisp, with firm acidity buoying some loose fleshy fruit, giving it decent lift. I'm quite ready to dislike this wine on principle, but it's firm at the core and unassuming enough to win me over. Maybe the only cheap merlot I've ever given a thumb's-up to. [Buy again? Just barely.] (11/06)

Coastal Ridge Merlot California 2003 ($5/.185) (Boatloads VI): Smells like purple crayon and wood chips, tastes like grape Kool-Ade with a shot of cheap bourbon. Plump, loose and sterile, industrial dreck, characterlessness incarnate. Finishes bitter, fakey and much too long. Make it stop, for the love of god, make it stop. Horrible. Why can't Air France fly to Portland? [Buy again? No no no no no.] (12/05)

B.R. Cohn Merlot Sonoma Olive Hill 1996 ($35)(Journey to Queens): Medium-dark garnet; cherry-tar notes on the nose provide a bit of a relief from the nasal splinters inflicted by the Lewis--this is a crisper and thinner merlot, dark cherry and hints of vanilla drift around the midpalate, a smaller wine, but more my speed. There's vanilla oak, but not so much as to smother the fruit, and I find this more balanced and bright. (10/30/99)

Dalla Valle Maya Napa Valley 1993($100)(Cult Madness): This one has a nose that isn't giving much up, but what it's giving is very interesting--quiet cassis, cedar and a slight piney herbiness. After going through the other wines, this strikes me as having a different kind of aromatic profile, softer, less red- and black-fruity, more brown cedar & herb-tinged, quiet and layered. It's a bit shy, but I keep coming back to it to find it subtly shifting and developing. Fairly lean, probably the leanest of the cabs, with good structure, but seems closed. I'd give this more time, I would. (2/8/00)

Dominus Napa Valley 1985 ($125)(Chateau Joe): Medium-dark garnet; smooth cassisfruit--toast and tar, slightly oreganoish. In the mouth fresh cherry/plum, rich & dark & smooth. Seems youngish, openly tannic & fresh. Mike says St. Julien, Andrew says Graves, I, on the theory that enough wildass guesses will lead to at least one astonishing success by the year 2020, proclaim it the '95 La Mission Haut-Brion. Go figure. At any rate, it was very nice. (8/99)

Dominus Napa Valley Napanook Vineyard 1991 (Subdued Festivization): Hey, it's a California proprietary wine! Boy, this smells ripe: warm red cassis-berry fruit laced with dark prune and pipe tobacco hints. The midpalate just keeps the plushness coming, a wave of fleshy-rich, espresso-laced fruit, and the wine finishes with a flash of tar and licorice. Falls just short of being a bit much--it's very ripe and rather plump, but Jay Miller's truism "Ripeness isn't always a flaw" pertains well here: there's an amiable buxomness, a likability if (like me) you don't always demand a lot of structure in your big red wines. Pretty good. A little tiring, but pretty good. (6/13/04)

Estancia Meritage Alexander Valley 1996 ($26.99): Dark rich purply-red; smoky plum/cassis nose; crisp & rich in the mouth, with a nice full weight. Round & silky-smooth, flavors of cassis, smoke & plum. Good acidity, firm tannins, a nice rich mouthful. (7/99)

Ferrari-Carano Reserve Sonoma 1992 ($47)(NJers): A Bordeaux-style blend. Medium-dark purply-garnet; smoke, plum and cassis on the nose, dark and velvety-smelling. Nice dark forward dense fruit and a dose of smoky oakiness, a silky mouthfeel, decently balanced acidity, some gritty but fairly unobtrusive tannins. Pretty nice. This wine has a waistcoat, or, as we might put it these days, this wine is dead butch. (1/23/00)

Green-Grow Vintners Meritage Mexicano Baja California 'Jubileo' 2004 (46% cabernet sauvignon, 42% merlot, 12% petit verdot) ($12) (Boatloads IX): Very cedary-smelling, pencil shavings and grilled plums. Quite roasty-ripe, rather ponderous despite some spiky acidity, there's lots of ripe fleshy red-purple fruit but little else in terms of interest. FAKE CORK! {Buy again? Don't think so.] (11/06)

Harlan Estate Red Table Wine Napa Valley 1992 ($100) (All CNN Wines): Sweet cedary, old bookbinding hints over a base of tobacco-flecked dark cassis, with just a hint of oregano herbiness. Richly flavored thrust of fruit that spreads out in the midpalate with some roughness at the edges. Never my favorite Harlan, this has a lot going on but is showing some hints of fraying at the seams, the tannins seeming harsher than I remember. Lisa digs it though, which is good enough for me. A solid three leatherbound Prongs on the top shelf of a law library in a hundred-partner firm in midtown. (11/11/01)

Harlan Estate Red Table Wine Napa Valley 1993 (73% cab s., 18% merlot, 9% cab f.)($125)(Cult Madness): Mmm... this smells nice. Ripe smoky cassis with hints of leatheriness and a beguiling soft cooked-green-veggie/oregano note, complex and layered-smelling, a little different every time you stick your nose in the glass. The red fruit is smoky but not overtly oaky, and the flavors blend together in a seamless and balanced fashion. This is a large wine, but it has deft balance and delicacy as well as restraint. There is some consternation among the more hardened Harlunatics that this apparently 'lesser' vintage is showing as well as it is. Peter for one looks like he's going to tear his hair, as he gave up on this one based on earlier tastings and got rid of his bottles. I dunno much about how it's supposed to taste, but tonight this is a pretty and richly balanced wine, complex and muscularly butch without being flashy, although I am slightly disconcerted by the extent to which Lisa's eyes have widened upon tasting it. Boy, all our fragile household budget needs is for her to develop a jones for Harlan to go along with her peculiar fascination with Yquem. Anyway, the wine finishes beautifully, long and darkly cassisfruity. Very good stuff. (2/8/00)

Hedges Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Syrah/Cabernet Franc Columbia Valley 2002 ($10) (Boatloads IV): Jeez, where's the malbec? Plump and ripe, soft redfruit aromatics, plum-cassis and black cherry, hint of cedar, tar. Poofy-dark redfruit, low acidity and a lot of velvety-fleshiness. There's an amiabilty to the simple dark fruit, but it just lays in my mouth like a bored hooker, flat on its back and unimpressed. There's a bit of bitterness arising through the fruit in the finish, some slightly abrasive tannins. This has the straightforward-jammy appeal of, say, the Marietta OV Cuvée in one sense, but lacks focus and mouthgrab, just too limp even for me. FAKE CORK! [Buy again? No.] (6/05)

Hedges Red Mountain Reserve Columbia Valley 1995 ($35): A cab/merlot blend. Aromatically kind of quiet--slight yeasty/breadiness over the plum and cassis base, with some oak evident, but some nice fruit to back it up. The mouthfeel is velvety and meaty, rich and dark but a bit soft, and the flavors spread out into the finish and become a bit dissolute, a little vague, needs more grip. Still, I don't find the oak as distracting as others do, and I think this a decent young wine, if not much more. (11/7/99)

Hogue Cabernet Sauvignon (51%) Merlot (47%) Cabernet Franc (2%) Columbia Valley 2002 ($10) (Boatloads XI): Simple blackberry-black cherry flavors with an underlying vein of shoe polish. Soft and velvety wine, a bit squishy-spiky, but takes on a skosh more aromatic complexity with air, the black cherry growing a bit less candy-hued, some smokiness welling up. Touch of bitterness on the brief finish. Not bad, not great. [Buy again? Nah.] (11/07)

Houghton Wines Cabernet-Shiraz-Merlot Western Australia 2004 ($12) (Boatloads IX): The label isn't clear on which cabernet, I guess cabernet franc? Deep saturated garnet color, purple at the rim. Ripe plummy-rich smoky aromatics, lightly lactic, like scorched milk amidst the dark purple-redfruit. A bit of herbaceousness, other than that there's smoky-generic plum-cassis-raspberry fruit, medium acidity, plush velvety wash of ripeness. Amiable, but quite generic. FAKE CORK! [Buy again? Not really.] (11/06)

Indaba Merlot Wine of Western Cape (South Africa) 2004 ($9) (Boatloads IX): Simple toast-laden cassisberry aromatics, hint of milkiness. Tastes one-note cherried, with a candyglossy mouthfeel. Bland and fakey-tasting, that's four minutes of my life I'll never have back. I bought this because after I panned the shiraz, Grossman told me the merlot was better. Grossman lied. A plague on both his harpsichords! FAKE CORK! [Buy again? No. No.] (11/06)

Inglenook Napa Valley Red Table Wine 'Reunion' 1984: Medium-dark ruby red, showing a bit of browning around the rim; a slightly funky note hovers above the body of soft cassis & light menthol; one of them wimmin-types opines that it's corked, but is hooted down by the testosterone-maddened masses. A medium-bodied, slightly sharp wine with some hollowness on the midpalate. (9/99)

Justin Winery Paso Robles 'Isosceles' 1999 ($40) (Drunken Hawaiian Holidays): From the pre-jingoistic-cork era. Somewhere between medium-dark and dark garnet, purpling lightly at the rim. Sweetly aromatic, ripe blackberry-cassis fruit, ripe toasty-vanilla oak. Tastes glossy, dense and rich: a big, shiny wine with a good acidic spine and lots of dark espresso-laced fruit. Fills my mouth and colonizes my palate; once in a while I surrender willingly to a big California thing, and this is one of those times. Impressively flavorful, well-balanced proprietary wine. (5/03)

Justin Vineyards Paso Robles Isosceles 2000 ($45) (Summer Mishmash): Dark garnet, purpling at the edges. Smells smoky and blackberry-cassisfruity, plenty of toasty wood, shiny dark fruit. Tastes big and ripe and red, laced with coffee and cocoa. Rather well balanced for all its heft, with good structure and decent follow-through. It's big, rich and too young and glossy to drink now: the '99 is better for current drinking, having settled in a little. I tend to like wines like this by themselves; the Chinon wipes the floor with it, it seems manufactured and pumped-up in comparison. I know I'd like it more in another context. Give it time, it'll come together. (4/03)

Kendall-Jackson Cardinale California 1988 ($100)(Cape May Geeks): Medium-dark ruby, browning a bit at the rim. Dark cedary cassis notes emerge from the glass with very little coaxing, soon turning mushroomy-earthy with a dark hint of shoyu in the bass, with a hint of mint as the treble. Actually smells pretty interesting, defying expectations. A sip, and it's ripe and darkly earthy, with a fairly round mouthfeel and turning towards espresso on the finish. K-J is not supposed to be a geek drink, but this is a tasty, complex, earthy wine. I wouldn't let any more sit around too long, but it did the trick tonight. (6/3/00)

Kirkland Signature Series Merlot Napa Valley 2002 ($19) (Oceans of Overpriced Swill III): Medium dark garnet color. Smells of fresh sawdust, cherry candy and vanilla candlewax, just a hint of oregano. Tastes like a velvet cherry blanket, soft and soothing. The acidity is lowish, the plum-cherry fruit is plump and rich, the wine is on the large size but isn't out of balance. Sure, it's a bit vague at the core, but it does a credible impersonation of a fat pointy-people wine. Kudos to the Kirkland folks for tapping into the zeitgeist! (11/06)

Bought Lava Cap Merlot El Dorado 1996 ($18) on faith because I've sure enjoyed both the Lava Cap zins and petite sirahs: the merlot is a different animal, lighter, less dense--nice, medium-dark red color. Light, pleasant cherry/plum/pepper/smoke nose; bright & tangy in the mouth, with a fleshy feel, flavorful cherry/vanilla and tar tastes, light gritty tannins. Has a bit in common stylistically with their brawnier zins, but a much lighter style of wine, and probably better balanced too (the zins, at least the past couple of years, tend towards fruit-flooding the palate at the expense of backbone). Pretty good (for a merlot!). (5/13/99)

Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Merlot 1996 ($15): Medium ruby, somewhat translucent in the glass. Light cherry & cedar notes on the nose, trace of earthy mustiness--corky? Simple, light peppery & cherry flavors, low acidity, light sandy tannins, but an oddly pleasant peppery finish. Light and inoffensive, might mistake it for a one-dimensional pinot noir. (1/28/99)

KWV Paarl Red Wine of Western Cape 'Roodeberg' 2003 ($10) (Boatloads VII): A "blend of selected varietals," whatever thaat's supposed to mean. Query: if it's a blend, how can it be a varietal wine? Well, maacho pedantry aside, it smells vaaguely Bordeauxish, daark berry-cassis, touch of oregano and cinnamon Red HotsĒ. Medium bodied, with a shiny, polished quality and maybe just a hint of sugar. Very internationally-styled stuff, almost sterile in its velvetiness. Only some slightly rough taannins give it a bit of bite, but there's a foursquare solidity to the beverageness that's raather appealing. For ten bucks you could do worse than this. [Buy again? Yuh.] (4/06)

Lewis Cellars Merlot Sonoma 1997 ($30)(Journey to Queens): Very dark purply-red. I take a sniff. Goodness. All moths instantly flee the room as the odor of cedar permeates the air. Cedar, toast, smoke, cedar and toast, and chocolate on the nose. And cedar. There seems to be some nice dark fruit under there, but it's going down for the third time. Thick and dense in the mouth, more of same, with some gritty strong tannins emerging on the finish. Not my style of merlot. Kane opines that the oak will integrate with time. Perhaps, but by then the sun will have burnt out and it simply won't matter so much. (10/30/99)

Madfish Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc Western Australia 2000 ($10) (Boatloads II): Mint and tobacco laced plum-cassis aromatics, hints of cedar and smokiness. Jammish but not quite jammy, loosely wrapped and smoothly fruited. Actually has some pleasant semi-complex smellies, although it's a like a menthol cigarette, mint and tobacco. Medium, slightly spiky acidity that isn't quite gelling with the pillowy fruit. Watery finely-tannic finish--better in the middle, where the warmth of the ripe fruit is soothing and decent. I don't know, this is okay for a glass or two, has a bit more character and restraint than some cheap Aussies, but it gets boring fast, and after the ninth glass I'm up for something different. [Buy again? Maybe.] (11/04)

Matanzas Creek Merlot Sonoma Valley 1992 ($40)( Cult Madness): Medium garnet color, a bit lighter than the other wines; interesting nose--muted red fruit with a stewed tomato-green herby edge. A taste, and dark berry-cassis fruit comes up fast but fades away equally fast, leaving a bit of crisp hollowness before some strong dry tannins kick in. This seems a little out of whack. Shrug. (2/8/00)

Mt. Mary Quintet Yarra Valley 1995(a Bordeaux-style blend)($60)(Cab Franc Blowout+): Medium garnet; slight ketchupy aromas on first whiff, a little green-bean stalkiness; pleasant dark muted fruit at first, touch of nice earthiness, but fruit fades quickly on the midpalate, leaving gritty tannins. Young and tight. Six days later: Nose is much more open--light raisiny nose of honey, cedar & prunes--on the palate tangy forward blackberry, pruney fruit comes on strong, then kind of melts away, leaving wateriness & light tannins. (6/8/99)

Newton Claret Napa Valley Naturally Fermented 1997 ($20) (Scheduling): Medium-dark garnet color. Smells of dark blackberry/cassis, warm and ripe smelling--all fruit all the time. I take a taste, and there's an initial juicy rush of warm black and red fruit, so far so good, but the middle turns diffuse, the fruit just expanding out into nothingness, leaving a raspy-charred coaldusty finish. A strange three-stage wine whose parts don't add up. To recap: 1) initial fleshy easygoing ripe fruit; 2) diffuse midpalate; 3) finish that Simonizes the tongue. (12/8/02)

Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon Rutherford 1984: Slightly browning around the rim. Sniff, sniff... older cabernet nose, smoky, cedary, slightly tomatoey, but still fairly forward. Nice weight in the mouth, but the fruit is fading and it doesn't last all the way through the finish. Nice, tasty wine, got some age, got some balance... everyone else says various mid-to-upper level Bordeaux, but I, contrarian ever, am reminded of a mid-80s Monte Bello, and that's what I vote for. (9/23/99)

Pahlmeyer Merlot Napa Valley 1996 ($50)(Motor Oil): Deep garnet-purple color. Here indeed is a motor oil of a wine. Smells of lush choco-cherry, baking chocolate and dark candied cherries, yes, this is the real deal. A sip, and it's creamy-toasty-rich, a mess of chocolatey oak, HUGE! lush over-red ripe fruit, a creamy-choco-wave of a mouthfeel, good fleshiness, some nice heat on the finish, this is a ripe beast indeed, slouching towards a slightly astringent wood-tannic finish for good measure. Drinkable, just a tiny bit unpleasant due to the astringency, although really far more blowsily generic than actively nasty. (6/29/00)

Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Caldwell Vineyard Minty Cuvée 1990 (Culling Me Softly): "Minty Cuvée"? Yes, strangely enough, it's quite minty: this wins the Truth in Advertising Award for this evening. Smells of blackcurrant and cedar down below, vivid high note of mint above. After the limpid Long it's crisper, more lively in the piehole, but it's also rather disjointed and messy. Lots of cedar in the middle along with the persistent mint, finishes with a curious black olive tone that seems to come from nowhere. Manuel gags, makes faces, turns blue and falls on the floor, but it's not so bad, really, if you don't mind a good dose of mint. (9/03)

Paloma Merlot Napa Valley 1996 ($45)(Jason Takes Manhattan): Medium-dark to dark garnet-purple; smells of cherry-cassis and chocolate, rich smelling but very two-noteish, with lots of redfruit and lots of chocolatey oakiness, smells like a cocoaberry breakfast cereal. Tastes rich and dark at first, a big burst of choco-berry fruit, but quickly turns astringently wood-tannic and bitter. Kane tries feebly to think of nice things to say about it, but by the second or third sip he's decided to get rid of his remaining bottles. I go back to it late in the evening, and it's even worse, with the exuberant fruit fading and the wood tannins emerging to dominate even the initial attack. (6/3/00)

Pellegrini Vineyards Merlot North Fork of Long Island 'Eastend Select' 2002 ($7) (Boatloads IX): This wine goes in with at least two strikes against it. Wine from the island next door has long represented the most ludicrously overpriced wines outside of Canada, and merlot is a grape I have little use for outside of Pomerol or St. Emilion. Yet here's a decent little quaffer for seven bucks, ripe in a cool-climate kind of way, dark berry redfruit mingling with cedar and oregano hints, kind of hard around the edges, kind of twotone, but pretty decent all in all. Damn, knock me down with a feather. [Buy again? Yup.] (11/06)

Joseph Phelps Napa Valley 'Insignia' 1991 (Culling Me Softly): Spicier-smelling than the Mondavi, more cedar, hints of old bookspine over dusty black and red fruit. Tastes similarly solid, on a larger scale. Supple and dark in the middle, spicy-dusty finish, a medium-large wine with a good sense of composure. Summer-Fun Cthulhu, from his place of honor on the sideboard, gives it two tentacles-up. (9/03)

Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 1995: ($62.50) Much has been said about this, but I hadn't had any of mine until recently, and it made me very happy. Rich and darkly-colored, with a nose that is tight and slow to emerge (the difference between the last glass of the first bottle and the first of the next is striking), but eventually blooms into layers of dense cassis, coffee, plum & smoke. Sweetly rich crisp fruit, with big ol' tannins that still manage to seem integrated. This wine, too is wonderfully balanced and is just a rich glassful of pleasure. A happy guest calls this a killer wine, and he is not wrong. (9/17/99)

Joseph Phelps Napa Valley 'Insignia' 1995 ($62.75) (Oceans of Overpriced Swill III): I approach this with trepidation, as it was one of those 'I used to love this wine back in the day' kind of wines, but I'm pleasantly surprised at the smoky-cassis-blackfruit-earth aromatics, which are ripe but relatively restrained. The initial mouthfeel is broad but rather supple for a big wine, velvety-smoky in the middle, with just the beginnings of secondary development. It's plush and has no angularity to speak of, but there's a sense of focus and calm that I like. Plus, it has that rarest of commodities in big California wine, a decent finish. If I recall correctly, this wine went nutzoid some time around the 1997 vintage, turning spoofy and freaky, but the '95 is another animal entirely, broadshouldered California proprietary wine, just starting to come into its own. (11/06)

Joseph Phelps Napa Valley 'Insignia' 1997 ($125)(Cape May Geeks): Dark garnet-purple, almost black. In the snout there's plenty of rich, dark smoky cherry-blueberry fruit, but there's not a lot of complexity; it smells rich, but simple and vanilla-smoky-oaky. Tastes rich and rough and ripe as well, but still fairly one-notish, and the wine veers towards chunkiness in the midpalate, with plenty of dark oak banging into the red fruit that turns slightly plummy, then colliding head-on with some rough tannins. I enjoyed the 94 & 95 young, skipped the 96 and find this one a bit problematic. It's a big young wine, rough and a bit obvious, but it's got plenty of stuffing, and we put most of the bottle away for continued experimentation. (6/3/00)

Pride Mountain Vineyard Merlot Napa Valley 1996 (No Hook): Dark garnet color. Sweetly oaky black cherry-cassis-toast-vanilla-smoke aromatics, I haven't had this in a few years and Pride Mountain wines are notoriously short-lived; this one is beginning to show clear cracks in the fruitcade, the bright creamy raspberry-sauce flavor has receded somewhat, leaving a whole lot of charry wood behind. Interestingly, it has also smoothed and calmed down, turning from the odd over-the-top portlike concoction that it was on release into a reasonable facsimile of a drinkable overwooded generic big red New World wine or one of those ugly garagiste St. Emilions. Probably as good now as it's ever going to get. Drink up, kiddies. (6/7/03)

Pride Mountain Vineyard Merlot Napa Valley 1997 ($35): Dark, dense purply-red; ripe, gushing nose of raspberry-plum and dark oaky notes; to the taste this wine is a bit fruitbomby, with dark, robitussiny flavors, black raspberry, oak; dense and rich, but a bit disjointed and overwhelming, with some dry tannins floating up from under a quilt of fruit. Not quite 'liquified Viagra,' I'm afraid, although I like it more than I like most California merlot. (8/27/99)

Pride Mountain Vineyard Reserve Claret Napa Valley 1995 ($100)(Cellar Gems): In style very similar to all of the other Pride wines I've had--lots of new oak, rich, crisp cherry/cassis fruit, which is darker in tone and denser than the fruit in the non-reserve bottlings, some dry fine tannins. Smoky-dense fruit, rich and a bit tight & brooding, with a nice tangy tarry purple finish. This is a monolith of a wine, as most of their wines are. I do like the regular bottlings of the cab and merlot and this is a tad richer, but it doesn't seem like a very big jump in quality to me-- the flavor profile is very similar. I wonder how this would compare with a table cuvée of half each of their Napa cab & merlot? (10/14/99)

Ravenswood Merlot Sonoma County 1985 ($10): Deep reddy-purple, bricking around the rim; sweet, honeyed, dark plum & cherry nose. Round & plush in the mouth, meaty in texture, with fairly low acidity. Muted but full plum & cherry notes float through the thick midpalate, along with a trace of green bean stalkiness. Just a hint of tannins on the finish. Actually, seems to be doing surprisingly well, given its age and the fact that it wasn't a top-drawer specimen to begin with; there was a good deal of sediment in it, that and the ghostly tannins were the only clue to its advancing years.

Ravenswood Pickberry Red Table Wine 1987 (50% cab, 35% franc, 15% merlot)(Joao/Kansas): Slightly funky-barny edge to the plain, slightly tired cassis flavors, an odd earthy-mushroomy quality. Tangy cassis fruit is a bit thin and gives way to a host of gritty tannins. Very acidic for the remaining fruit. Strange, disjointed and over the hill. (3/2/00)

Red Flyer California Red Table Wine 2003 ($10) (Boatloads IX): Smells broadly frooty-ripe, plum candy and black cherry soda mixed with burnt toast. Tastes soft, plump and loose, grapey and cedar-chippy. Plump and blandly generic fruitcracker. [Buy again? Nope.] (11/06)

Red Newt Cellars Merlot Finger Lakes 1998 ($17) (Finger Lakin' Good): Deep garnet color, darkest red so far; hmmm... there's more of that burnt-match scent, but it's not overwhelming, and there's also some dark red fruit and some smoky oakiness, but overall the nose is fairly reticent. Tastes dark and monolithic, kind of a wall of dense but simple red fruit. Drinkable. (12/8/99)

Baron Philippe de Rothschild 'Escudo Rojo' Chile 2002 ($13) (Boatloads IV): Medium-dark garnet color. Smells dark and smoky, tobacco-cassis right at first, with air blackberry-toasty notes come to the fore. Generously wooded, the flavors turn plummy in the middle, then veer back towards blackfruit on the finish, finishing with a cigarstub tobacco note. Meaty and muscular, there's supple medium acidity and some rough tannins. This has the feel of a marketing project, a focus group version of a goblovers' Bordeaux, but it's actually not bad, getting in and scratching some nooks and crannies that less abrasive wines don't reach. I find myself enjoying it despite myself. [Buy again? Yes, but don't tell anyone.] (6/05)

Sextant Red Wine South Eastern Australia 2005 ($7) (Boatloads IX): Simple plum-raspberry-shoe polish aromatics, loose and lightly jammy wine, ripe but bland and watery, with spiky SweeTart acidity. FAKE CORK! [Buy again? No.] (11/06)

Six Prong Red Wine Columbia Valley 2002 ($12) (Boatloads VIII): I received this as a gift from an anonymous admirer, who I suspect was tickled by the name. At any rate, it smells like it's auditioning for an understudy role in the Gobfield Follies--ripe cassis & cherry candy laced with vanilla and toasty cedar hints, squat and tritonal and rather bumptious, Danny DeVito in a glass. [Buy again? Only for the name.] (9/06)

Standing Stone Vineyard Pinnacle Finger Lakes 1997 (60% cab sauv, 20% each merlot & cab franc) (Finger Lakin'-Good): Medium-dark garnet; ooh, I like this nose--tobaccoey hints above dark red fruit, bit of a leafy quality, perhaps some dark vegetation, but kind of interesting. Nice layers of dark red fruit and earthy flavors and especially good balance, nice grip in the mouth. My favorite of the Finger Lake reds. (12/8/99)

Thunder Mountain Star Ruby Santa Cruz Mountains 1996 ($60) (Elegant Americans): Richer cassis nose, no gunpowder here, pizza herbs, velvety & smooth; tastes good, too, a very decent forward-type cab blend, some slightly gritty tannins, lush and full-bodied. I wouldn't call this elegant, really, but I do like it. (9/99)

Venge Family Reserve Merlot 1996 ($30): Medium ruby, fully colored; sweet plummy nose, hint of cherry & sweet buttery oak. Meaty, rough mouthfeel, gritty tannins. Muted flavors of soft, earthy cherry; tangy & medium-crisp. Oakiness emerges on finish. Nice, but somewhat reserved, no pun intended. A little disappointing. (3/99)

Venge Family Reserve Merlot Napa Valley 1996 ($30) (McNetta 2002): I fully expected to dislike this; the two bottles I'd tasted before had been brutally oaky and clumsy, but once again a little age has been surprisingly kind--the smoky wood component is still too prominent, but has calmed down enough that the meaty red fruit doesn't seem battered into submission. There's a hint of VA and some gritty tannins; the smoky plum-berry fruit has turned muted and lost its bright redness but is rich and chewy and the acidity is firm and supportive. Decent, quite drinkable if you don't mind a good dose of toasty wood in your merlot. (6/02)

Veramonte Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenere Casablanca Valley 'Primus' 2003 ($12) (Boatloads V): Ripe, dark smoky-plummy wine, wooded within an inch of its life, burnt toast and sawdusty vanilla, touch of spicy beef broth. A chewy, meaty wine but just too clumsily wooded to do much for me. Still, there's a lot of robust dark smoky blackfruit, if only it didn't have that burnt-toast taste it would go farther with me. [Buy again? Nah.] (10/05)

Viader Napa Valley 1989($25)(Scraps): Medium dark garnet color, with a tobacco-drenched cassis nose, sweet and velvety-brown smelling, earthy and interesting with a high hint of bright mintiness. Rich and well balanced, a silky wine that flows well down the gullet, in a pretty good place right now. Only a rather disagreeable burn on the finish keeps this from having its four burlap-wrapped Prongs dipped into a tub full of nice dark English ale and then placed near the radiator to dry, filling the Prongroom with the warm smell of toasted hops and barley. (3/01)

Viader Napa Valley 1994 ($30)(Elegant Americans): Very light nose, bit tight, bit of cassis & chocolate, hint of blueberry, smoky oak; medium-light bodied, more cassis-mocha flavors. Finishes short, but still fairly tasty. (9/99)

Viader Napa Valley 1997 ($50)(Trilateral Offline): Medium-dark garnet; cassis with chocolate on the nose, soft and slightly rough in the mouth--gritty textured aggressive tannins beat up on soft, fleshy fruit. I only get about a half-ounce of this, so it's a bit hard to figure out, but it seems a little flat & fleshy to me. (3/14/00)

Les Vigneaux (Andrew Rich) Mésalliance 1999 ($18) (Oregon): Hmmm... here's an aromatic change of pace: light but interesting plum-cassis fruit, hints of cedar and oregano. Medium-bodied, with better focus and more grab than the others, some bright acidity gives it good mouthzip. This is apparently some kind of syrah/cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend; it comes off as fairly Bordeauxish. Pretty good, an interesting wine with a lot of character. (5/04)

York Creek Meritage 1994 (Elegant Americans): Deep purple; smoky purplefruit nose, stony & dense; in the mouth equally dense and purplefruity, with a dark tarry finish. A rich, dark wine that is comes on a little too strong to qualify for elegance in my book. (9/99)

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