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St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, Santa Rosa: Start with the original who put merlot on the map: St. Francis. In 1972, founder Joe Martin planted 60 acres of merlot in Sonoma Valley - the first in the area - at Behler Vineyard. Eventually, his merlot became the best in the country. Martin bottled it up as a delicious single varietal wine, rather than a blend, making his merlot mark in the hearts and palates of wine critics and everyday wine drinkers. Today, you can sip a glass of merlot at Behler Vineyard, with a visit to the St. Francis tasting room. Opt for an award-winning wine and food pairing prepared by on-site chefs. 707-538-9463, 100 Pythian Rd., Santa Rosa, stfranciswinery.com.
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Wine to try: 2014 St. Francis Sonoma Valley Merlot ($22): St. Francis was the first winery to plant merlot vineyards in Sonoma County, so on a recent trip to the East Coast, where I stayed at a rather corporate hotel for a number of nights, I made this wine my "house wine" during my nightly happy hour. Not only was I drinking local (even though I was 2,000 miles away from home) but, I was sipping one of the best merlots in the country - and at a great value. A fruity merlot, this wine is lush with cherry, plums, cranberry and baking spices. Pair it with an earthy mushroom risotto or sautéed duck breast and you'll have the ultimate comfort food and wine experience.
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Passaggio Wines, Sonoma: Tucked away in Vine Alley, just off the historic downtown Sonoma Plaza, Passaggio Wines is a labor of love for law enforcement officer-turned-winemaker, Cynthia Cosco. The modern, yet cozy, dog-friendly tasting room offers plenty of wines to try - Cosco is best known for her stellar white winemaking skills (up to eight white wines are offered in the tasting room). However, she is also gaining a reputation for her small lot reds, which are old world inspired and made using grapes from small, family-owned vineyards in Yolo and Sonoma counties. Passaggio epitomizes the small producer, crafting around 2,000 cases annually. 707-934-8941, 25 E. Napa St., Suite C, Sonoma, passaggiowines.com.
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Wine to try: Passaggio Wines 2015 Coplan Vineyards Merlot ($56): Hands down the best red wine that Passaggio Wines winemaker and owner Cynthia Cosco has crafted to date, this wine is made from organically grown grapes from Coplan Vineyards, located on the east side of the town of Sonoma. Passaggio's merlot is a bright, eye-opening red shade, with a fresh earthiness often found in merlots made in St-Émilion, France. Lovely flavors of blackberry, licorice and violet make this a food friendly and age-worthy wine that is sure to convince even the pickiest of Sideways fans.
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Duckhorn Vineyards, St. Helena: If one must drink merlot for the rest of their lives, it best be merlot from Duckhorn. While cabernet sauvignon was king in Napa Valley, Duckhorn decided to specialize in merlot, planting the varietal at their estate vineyard. In 1978, they released their first vintage of what would become one of the most sought after, collected wines in the world - their Three Palms Vineyards Merlot. Today, you can visit their charming Estate House for a tasting of their portfolio of wines, including sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. Opt for reservation-only tastings, which include private tours of the property and cheese accompaniments with each wine served - including merlot! Reservations recommended, 888-354-8885, 1000 Lodi Ln., St. Helena, duckhorn.com.
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Wine to try: 2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot Three Palms Vineyard ($98): It's the original gangster: Duckhorn's merlot from Three Palms Vineyard. The 2014 vintage was named Wine Spectator's #1 wine of the year and the 2015 is on the verge of showing up its older sister. A full-bodied, new world merlot, it's lush with aromas of blueberry, fig and a touch of cocoa, and filled with cherry and molasses at taste. It's a rich, sexy wine, and its tannins are so silky you'll soon realize you've probably had a little more to drink than expected - oops, it's just that good. Thank goodness you bought an extra bottle.
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Soda Rock Winery, Healdsburg: A colorful history lights up Soda Rock Winery, which became a bonded winery in the 1880s. Prior to being a winery, it was a general store and post office. Today, Ken and Diane Wilson operate the property, keeping a connection to the past by expertly maintaining the historic buildings and bringing in contemporary art and a relaxing vibe that has created a hardcore following. Focusing on Bordeaux varietals, guests can sip vino and play bocce, picnic on the grounds, and learn about the history of property. 707-433-3303, 8015 Highway 128, Healdsburg, sodarockwinery.com. (Photo by Jeremy Portje)
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Wine to try: Soda Rock 2014 Smith Orchard Merlot ($30): Smith Orchard is best known as a cabernet sauvignon vineyard, but it also produces a great merlot. This is a pretty wine. It isn't a big fruit bomb, it's balanced and nuanced, crafted for those of us seeking more complexity to our wines, not just one to knock back mindlessly while Netflix binging. Its nose is lush with earth and fresh red cherries. It tastes of blackberry, raspberry, and lavender, the latter which tickles the tip of your tongue like a tiny dancer. Great value, too.
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Chappellet, St. Helena: Founded in 1967, Chappellet is best known for their allotted cabernet sauvignon, which they grow on their Pritchard Hill vineyard outside of the town of St. Helena. The winery, which also produces other Bordeaux varietals like merlot, is family owned and operated, with the second generation of Chappellets overseeing everything from sustainable farming practices to the wine tasting experience. Visits to Chappellet may include a tour of their lush gardens, which overlook the vineyards, which, in turn, overlook a lake (safe to say the views don't stink). The tour also includes a visit to the winery and barrel room followed by a tasting of winery exclusive wines. Appointment only, 707-286-4219, chappellet.com.
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Wine to try: Chappellet 2015 Merlot Napa Valley ($45): While cab might be the leading lady at Chappellet, the breakthrough star is their merlot. A whopping 22 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which was new, gives this a rounded, rich structure that new school fans of "fruit forward" zinfandel will adore. The deep garnet color gives way to aromas of espresso, chocolate and rose. Upon taste, it lingers long, with soft, silky tannins and hints of chocolate, vanilla and sweet cassis. Dessert in a glass, if you will. Drink now or age for 5-10 years.