Daughter Julian once dated a young man named Julian Brain. We called him “boy Julian” to distinguish him from “our Julian,” and he caused some consternation in a family who cared not at all about the gender, race or socioeconomic status of significant others but tended to balk at Republicans.
Boy Julian’s father was “Dr. Brain,” a shrink. During the same years, our Julian had a friend named Josh Footer, whose father was a podiatrist.
I remembered these giggle-producing coincidences when I met Raymond Merlo. Yes, Ray really is part of a grape-growing and wine-making family, whose estate vineyards are in the Hyampom Valley of Trinity County. As a native Californian, I’m embarrassed to admit that I had to look up not only Hyampom Valley (an excusable ignorance perhaps, given its hidden and remote location) but also Trinity County (not so excusable) on a map.
North of Mendocino, mountainous Trinity doesn’t conjure images of lush vineyards, but the photos that Ray Merlo showed me look pretty convincing. The vineyards are along the banks of the south fork of the Trinity River and at the base of South Fork Mountain, part of the longest contiguous ridge in the continental United States.
Ray also set me straight on the pronunciation of the family name. Put the accent on the first syllable, pronounce the “e” continental style, and you have it — as well as the Italian for “blackbird,” hence the bird on the Merlo family label.
They make some terrific wines. And, yes, they do grow Merlot — in small amounts.
The Ray in question is actually the son of the vineyard founders, Ray and Robin Merlo, who produced their first wines in 2002. Luckily for us Yolo County folks, they recently opened a tasting room at the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg.
The Merlo family philosophy of wine-making is simple: producing wines that are “true expressions of the varietal fruit from which they are made” and true expressions of the land itself. To facilitate this, both consulting winemaker David Georges and head winemaker Bix Lane take a minimalist approach to their craft, letting the late-ripening Hyampom Valley fruit show off its high natural acidity, which results in “very structured wines with deep, elegant, and yet, fresh, fruit flavors.”
The complexity is enhanced by the not-unusual 50 degree variation between day and night temperatures in this elevated — 1,250 feet high — place.
Both David and Bix, you will not be surprised to learn, studied viticulture and enology at UCD.
The wines I tasted were, besides structured and elegant, delicious, (relatively) low in alcohol and eminently food-friendly. I rant a lot (sorry!) about “generic California wines”; to experience some wines that definitely do not fall into this category, Merlo is a good place to start. Interestingly, their one non-estate wine, a Napa (Oak Knoll) Cabernet, was the one I liked least, perhaps because it didn’t have the unusual terroir of the other wines. It’s significantly more expensive, too.
My first Merlo taste was the ’09 Chardonnay. If you’re weary of big oaky buttery Chards, you really should give this a try. Although it spent 12 months in French oak (25 percent new oak), the oak is quite restrained. With aromas of orange blossoms and apples, it tastes fresh and lemony. At only 12.7 percent alcohol, it won’t overwhelm a mild fish or simple vegetable dish. It will pair well with cheeses and generally enhance rather than overtake most food. And it’s currently on sale at the Davis Food Co-op for $13.99.
The ’08 Pinot Noir followed. I hear a lot of wine tasters say they just don’t like Pinot Noir. I used to say that myself. One reason is that Pinot’s a persnickety grape that needs lots of careful tending — and some good cool nights. Cheap Pinot Noir doesn’t get either. But this Merlo family Pinot obviously gets both, which may be why only 900 cases were made.
The cherry and lilac aroma gives way to tastes of lively plum and good minerals. It’s earthy but elegant — and, less than $30, it easily equals most $40 Pinots from the Andersen Valley. I’m looking forward to drinking a bottle with a piece of wild sockeye as soon as the season provides it.
(Now that I’ve caught the Pinot bug, I’ve tried a couple of inexpensive French Pinot Noirs available locally to see if I could find one that would do for everyday drinking. No luck. And, as I suggested, inexpensive California Pinots are usually at best unoffensive, at worst pretty vile. One exception — at $12 on the upper end of the “inexpensive” scale — is the new The Crusher Pinot from Wilson Vineyards in Clarksburg — a very likable, drinkable, lively, local wine that tastes like a real Pinot, though without the complexity of the lovely Merlo Pinot. You can try Crusher by the glass at Monticello.)
Ray also wanted me to taste two Syrahs — the ’07 and the ’05. Both rich, dark, smooth but spicy wines, I had a hard time deciding which I preferred. In the end, I voted for the very elegant, slightly lighter, slightly less oaked (14 as opposed to 18 months in mixed oak) ’05.
Comparing the two also made clear that the Merlo family doesn’t try to make their wines taste the same every year. They go with the grapes and the weather conditions. Right now, the Co-op has the ’05 on sale for $15, which seems to me a serious bargain.
Kudos to the Merlo family for trusting their land and their grapes. And for their commitment to wine which, in the European tradition, pairs well with a wide variety of food and is low enough in alcohol that you can drink enough to savor all its complexity. It’s a short drive to the Old Sugar Mill, where you can taste their whole array.
An even shorter drive — or bike ride — will get you to the most wine-related fun you can have on a Thursday night. After their 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Happy Thursday happy hours, the Rominger West staff will clear the winery floor for dancing, including some easy lessons. For more information, go to romingerwest.com — or better yet, sign up for Mark West’s charming weekly e-newsletter.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com