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One Varietal Fits All: Merlot


Mostly we buy wine for everyday drinking, but sometimes we want a special bottle to hide in the back of the closet for the perfect occasion. Particularly for the holidays.

Now, it's my job to help you find the wine that will make you and your guests happy. Not only do I taste hundreds of wines every year, I also have a lot of assistants--a large extended family with varied tastes in wine.

My wife likes "slurpy" reds, which means she almost always prefers open, ripe, lusty Zins and Merlots to the classically structured Cabernets that are my first love. My brother Richard thinks the more tannic a wine is, the better. He's the only person I know who would drink Petite Sirah with Thanksgiving dinner. My mother-in-law, the Lord bless her, told us the other night that she was happy as a clam with a glass of Port alongside her tacos. When I tell you I have great experience soothing the needs of the thirsty masses, I do not exaggerate.

One wine I often choose for this motley crew is Merlot. It seems to offer something for everyone (although not every bottling will, particularly for my tannin-loving brother). As you peruse the list below, you will find wines of varying price levels, wines that are round and juicy and wines that have the character for aging (in case you care to put some away for another year or three hence).

Because it soon will be the holiday season, and because we will not return to the subject of Merlot until after the New Year, I offer a fairly long list of recommendations. There are plenty of good choices.

1997 Andretti Winery, Napa Valley, $21. This wine is a bit skimpy for my taste, but it has enough cherry fruit and herb-tinged varietal character to do the job. Most important, it's one wine I can get my brother Richard to drink, not because it's tannic (it isn't), but because it comes from the winery of race-car driver Mario Andretti.

* 1998 Barnwood Trio, Santa Barbara County, $26. With its mix of Cabernet and Syrah, this Merlot-dominated wine (65%) is not your typical wine. It manages to combine some of the supple aspects of Merlot with the ripe berry and spicy qualities of Syrah and the firmer tannins of Cabernet. It offers something for almost every palate and will go with a wide range of foods. But only my brother would drink it with turkey.

* 1998 Canoe Ridge, Columbia Valley, $24. Here is a soft, rich Merlot sure to please virtually anyone who likes the open style that Mrs. Olken demands of me. Yet for all its ripe cherry and creme bru^lee generosity, it has a quiet backbone of tannin. This is a wonderful wine that holds little back for aging and seems to have that kind of sensual sweetness of fruit and oak that will allow it to work with foods ranging from beef roasts to turkey and gravy.

*** 1997 Cuvaison, Napa Valley, $29. This wine is like a deeper, more tannic version of the Canoe Ridge. It's wonderfully tasty now, but since it's also a bit stiff, it will not appeal to all palates, so it will not make it onto the table at my house this year. But if you, like me, put some wine away for tomorrow, here's an outstanding candidate for aging.

$ 1998 Echelon, Central Coast, $13. This one gets it right in terms of ripe cherry character and medium-full body. While it may not measure up to the pricey crowd in depth, complexity and aging potential, it's a delightful find for the money.

* 1997 Flora Springs, Estate, Napa Valley, $20. Rich scents of vanilla and cocoa are underlain by ripe cherry fruit in this lovely, well-balanced wine. It's rounded in feel and altogether friendly on the palate, and it has plenty of depth to partner foods like rib roasts and juicy steaks--now and for a few years yet.

$ 1998 Gallo of Sonoma, Sonoma County, $10. If any winery is consistently making a broader collection of delectable, moderately priced wines than Gallo of Sonoma, I have yet to discover it. Here is another relatively ripe, deep wine, perhaps a bit on the rustic, rough-hewn side but with plenty of fruit to match its size and its herbal, loamy side notes. At our house, this is the wine that comes out on the day after, with the turkey sandwiches and the sausage stuffing dripping in gravy, but it doesn't have to be in your house. After all, for years I have been training the Olkens to expect more, and now they are a very demanding audience.

** 1997 Harrison, Napa Valley, $37. This big, broad, oak-infused wine will never be accused of subtlety, but fans of rich and effusive Merlots will love it. Its dense, deeply filled aromas and flavors are long on black cherries, herbs, vanilla and milk chocolate, and its tannins provide plenty of backbone now and promise an even rounder, more complex future.

* 1996 Hidden Cellars, Mendocino, $16. Intriguing notes of coffee and briary spice fill out the young, nicely ripened cherryish flavors of this direct, likable and very reliable offering. No bells and whistles here, just good Merlot.

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