Merlot: The Busy One

At the start of October I had a conversation with Paul Clifton, winemaker at Hahn Family Wines, and several other wine writers. The chat was about smoke-tainted grapes and it was spurred on by an article written by Kevin Day at the beautiful blog Opening a Bottle.

In the story, Day references the 2008 vintage of Navarro Vineyards in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino. “The natural state of 2008 was unavoidably smoky. As certain wines came to form in the winery, it became clear that they had a problem. If they released the wines, they could potentially repel hundreds of new customers with a first impression of their brand that is akin to licking a campfire. Their other option, seemingly, was to chalk up the vintage as a total loss. (Try explaining that decision to your accountant). But Navarro Vineyards found a third option: own the smokiness of the vintage, but label the wines under a different brand (Indian Creek) and release them at a deep discount — to suckers like me.”

At the time, California wine country fires seemed to be a reflection on the past, something that had already happened. Certainly, after the week we’ve experienced, I’m reminded that that hug of safety was impermanent and that wineries once again face the challenge of deciding how to move forward.

During a recent trip to Napa, I’d begun asking around about Atlas Peak. What are they doing up there? It seemed the woolly edge of familiar, the potential of adding a lusty and wild layer to the polished cultivation of Napa County wines. Atlas Peak is the highest vineyard elevation in Napa, and Bordeaux-style varietals are elemental up there. I gotta go, I said more than once. But I didn’t make it up there that trip, with the idea that I’d be back, or at least make some calls and start learning. Atlas Peak, as you’ve heard, was at the heart of one of the deadly fires of the week – leaving the world in mourning for the loss of life, the loss of liveliness.

And again, after the week we’ve experienced, I’m left with the edgy feeling of impermanence.

This feels shaky and for that reason, it feels shaky to write as if nothing happened. Then yesterday I got the following note on Facebook from fellow writer Thea Dwelle, author of Luscious Lushes. It went like this, “Friends: A little good news as the winds are calmer today and we have crews coming from as far away as AUSTRALIA!!!! I am declaring Friday DRINK SONOMA AND NAPA WINE! Please open your favorite Napa or Sonoma wine and share it here or on twitter with #napastrong #sonomastrong. This is the best way to help other than monetary donations and MOST wineries are still harvesting and making wine and need the cash flow to keep moving. This industry is vital to the state and in turn drives other industries. Many employees are displaced and need our wallets to help them recover.”

On my kitchen counter, at that very moment, was the collection of Merlot that I planned to feature in this post – all of which hail from either Napa or Sonoma. And I was reminded that while everything is impermanent, wine included, that wine is the essence of moments – the structure of life and vibrancy and nature and work – packaged for us to evoke the actual elements of vitality from any given spot where wine grapes can be grown. I’ve thought so much about this over the years, as have we all, the atomic jazz of wine. I’ve had wines that feel so alive in the glass I couldn’t dump a single tear of it – and when this happens I’m left in awe of both nature and folks – the magic of what we make and the magic of what makes us. Yes, we are made of the stuff of stars and so is everything else…and not get too philosophical, but those bottles on my counter gave me a source of connection so powerful it felt like the California sun was shining right through the shirt on my back.

#NapaStrong, Napa Wine, Napa Vineyards, Merlot,

Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard in Napa Valley, with iconic trees and stunning backdrop. Courtesy: Duckhorn Vineyards

I got on my computer and looked up vineyards – for example, the Three Palms Vineyard where the grapes for Duckhorn’s single-vineyard Merlot were grown and harvested in 2014. How’s that vineyard doing?, I thought. Characteristically, this vineyard has three stunning palm trees as a feature of their view.

Ok, so listen to this and see if it doesn’t give you chills. From Duckhorn’s website: “In the late 1800s, the land that is now home to the Three Palms Vineyard was a residence for famed San Francisco socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit. She called her home Larkmead, and it was here that she hosted legendary parties and numerous celebrities of the time. Mrs. Coit is best remembered in San Francisco for her devotion to the Knickerbocker Fire Engine Company #5. At the age of seven, Mrs. Coit was rescued by a firefighter from a burning hotel. To repay her debt, she became the fire engine company’s patron and an honorary member. She left her mark on San Francisco in the form of Coit Tower. She left her mark in the Napa Valley in the form of three lone palm trees, which were all that remained from her estate after the house fell into disuse and ruin. Lillie died in 1929 at the age of 86.”

From the San Francisco Museum website, “She is the patron saint of all pioneer firemen of the city, and if the survivors of that once sturdy brotherhood could have their most ardent wish gratified then the lot of Mrs. Hitchcock-Coit would be a supremely happy one in this life.”

I always say it is the stories that make the wine – sometimes you just can’t make it up any better than how it actually went the first time around.

This post was originally designed around the the title Merlot: The Busy One and as you see I’ve stuck to it. I was going to design a story about our busy lives and how Merlot is symbolic of versatility and balance – essential bubbles of relief in our modern lives. I was going to share how the Merlot varietal is herself busy, working hard to produce vigorously in California vineyards to satisfy a big need for thirsty wine lovers. I was going to be like, we are all busy, we all strive to offer quality and taste at home and this is the same gumption as Merlot. We are all in it together – us and Merlot. After getting my thoughts together, I decided that what might make the most sense is to do what Dwelle suggested. Make dinner for our families, appreciate the nutritious and nurturing moments around the table, pour a beautiful wine from your favorite California vintner and hold this impermanent moment tight.

For those that are hurting, I feel you. For those that are hopeful, I feel you too. For all of us that hunger and thirst for safety and peace – we share it – and there is something beautiful in that.

Decoy Wine, Peju Wine, Duckhorn Wine, Cannonball Wine

#MerlotMe lineup from Napa and Sonoma vintners. #Napastrong #Sonomastrong. Credit: Jill Barth

#MerlotMe with Wine Pairing Weekend

I received some lovely bottles of Merlot to highlight during this special October celebration of the varietal. I’ve pulled recipes from one of our dearest chefs, Jacques Pépin, and found inspiration for some pairings – for zip-wild days or calmer ones. Merlot, the busy one, can be paired in a hurry or opened early while a long-roasting meal bubbles for hours. On the busy scale, let’s see what we can come up with dinner and Merlot:

Weeknight in which you see the steering wheel of your car more than you see your husband > Busy Scale 10 > Fines Herbes Omelet paired with Cannonball Sonoma County Merlot 2014.  15 must be the magic number for this pairing; 15 mins total time on the omelet and $15 for this high-quality and elegant wine.

Weeknight in which you get to carpool, or maybe someone skips something and a few extra minutes open up > Busy Scale 7 > 30-Minute Cassoulet doubled with Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot 2014. Ok, I get that the first blush of this pairing seems intimating, with a classic French meal and a wine with a $54 price tag. Hear me out. This wine has a very gentle blend with other Bordeaux-style varietals and I argue that if you re-cork it, it will taste delicious a second day, maybe you split it over two nights. And the cassoulet, well, it employs easy-to-use ingredients and has step-by-step pictures to guide you through the making.

Friday night, a chance to breathe but nobody wants to work very hard > Busy Scale 5 > Meatballs with Tomato Sauce meets Decoy Sonoma County Merlot 2015. This recipe uses leftover cooked meat from a previous meal and so the 50 or so minutes of prep for dinner result in what feels like a many-houred process. Might impress dinner guests. Or, might impress your spouse as you both peel on a cozy blanket and watch a show. (If you have a recommended show for such an instance, please say so in the comments.) I’ll be honest, I’d actually let this Merlot age a bit, but at $25 this bottle is dubbed an “everyday wine for the well-informed”. Go ahead and get two bottles if you want to let one span towards elderly.

Saturday night dinner with friends on a cool night > Busy Scale 3 > Julia Child (partnered with Jaques Pépin) Chicken Fricasse paired with Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot 2014. Tell the great story of the three palm trees over dinner and start a conversation about places you all love. A bit of a splurge at around $98, and a bit of a time splurge requiring just less than two hours total – but there is a long simmer period in which you can open the bottle and sip a few taste tests for yourself while you wait on the guests to arrive.

Snow day! > Busy Scale: there’s nowhere to go and nothin’ to do > Slow Cooked Roast Beef steps in time with Peju Province Winery Napa Valley Merlot 2013. This baby needs time and lots of it. “Family, work and wine are the three essentials in my life.” says founder Tony Peju. For $38 you get a bottle with this heritage, sustainably-farmed and delicious. I can think of no better essentials for a snow day in.


On Saturday, October 14th our Wine Pairing Weekend group will post and chat about MerlotMe – a month long hurrah for this classic varietal. Join us at 10am central on twitter with our hashtag #WinePW and look for other #MerlotMe conversations initiated by the following talented writers:

Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Celebrating the Harvest with Eggplant Lasagna and J Lohr #MerlotMe

David from Cooking Chat shares “Pork Tenderloin with Blackberry Merlot Sauce

Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “A Paddling of Duck(horn)s”

Gwen from Wine Predator shares 3 Merlot from Sonoma with Colorful Fall Pasta #WinePW

Sarah from Curious Cuisiniere shares “Individual Beef Wellington Paired With Merlot Wine”

Jeff from FoodWineClick! shares “Grill Braised Brisket with Duckhorn Merlot”

Nicole from Somms Table shares “Many Merlots Make Marvelous Mediterranean Meal

Jane from Always Ravenous shares “Roasted Pork Loin with Brandy Prune Sauce Paired with Merlot”

Nancy from Pull That Cork shares “A Fall Pairing for Merlot”

Jill from L’Occasion shares “Merlot, the Busy One”

Cindy from Grape Experiences shares “#MerlotMe and Savory Chicken and Mushrooms”

Michelle from Rockin Red Blog shares”Celebrating Napa and Sonoma with #MerlotMe”


How and where to help fire victims in California Wine Country.


These wines were provided as samples for MerlotMe, but the editorial content is my own.

29 thoughts on “Merlot: The Busy One

  1. Sonoma and Napa have been in my heart, thoughts and prayers all week. A perfect tribute to this special region is to drink their wines with family, friends and good food!
    Beautiful post Jill and also love your time cooking management pairing suggestions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Michelle! Isn’t it the truth? In fact, Jason has a meal planned for Thursday to pair with with one of the bottles and we got too busy for that! Life lives itself some days.


  2. WOW! That story on the Three Palms Vineyard is just incredible. And a really wonderful tribute post across the board. And I love the little vignettes of dinners, pairings, and business scales.

    Liked by 1 person

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