This is the story of someone who went to Napa Valley to taste cabernet sauvignon but came home smitten with merlot, a varietal he generally doesn't pay much heed.
That would be me. Last summer, I attended a blind tasting organized by the Rutherford Dust Society, a group promoting wines made from grapes grown in Napa Valley's central Rutherford district.
All the wines were cabernet sauvignons from the 2008 vintage. Many of them were terrific, and I subsequently wrote of several.
After the formal tasting, invitees convened at a neighboring hall at Rubicon Estate Winery to revisit in a more casual setting the wines that had been poured, as well as others brought along by participating vintners.
At the table of Frog's Leap Winery, I paused to taste again its sweetly fruity and persistent 2008 cabernet sauvignon. That done, I lingered a bit longer for a taste of Frog's Leap 2008 Rutherford Merlot.
Though ordinarily I'm not a big fan of merlot, there was no denying the allure of this interpretation. It was broad and deep with sunny, plummy fruit, a touch of intriguing leafiness, gentle tannins despite a supportive superstructure, and refreshing acidity. It is precisely the kind of merlot that accounted for the varietal's booming popularity a couple of decades ago fresh, juicy and long, but mostly readily accessible.
In glancing at the bottle, I was struck by its modest alcohol 12.9 percent.
I asked John Williams, the Frog's Leap proprietor and winemaker, how he could produce such a lush take on merlot with so little alcohol.
At the time, winemakers and wine critics were much debating the overall rise in alcohol levels of California table wines. Historically, the state's table wines have contained not much more than 13.5 percent alcohol, and often the content has been in the neighborhood of 12.5 percent. The level today often is 14.5 percent or more.
The reason often given for this rise is that vintners need riper, more sugar-packed grapes to get the flavors they want in the resulting wines, and with that comes more alcohol.
It's a heated discussion that continues today.
At any rate, Williams replied, "If you need 15 percent alcohol to get flavor you aren't doing something right."
Given the congestion and the time constraints of the tasting, we didn't discuss the matter further. Later, however, I called him to talk about how he can make a merlot packed with so much character but hardly any alcohol, at least by today's standards.
He credits the quality and restraint of his merlot to a couple of factors. For one, he says, "all the great merlots are grown in clay soils." There's not much clay in Napa Valley, but on his Rutherford spread, which he has been tending since 1981, he has some patches with enough of it to help set apart his merlot from much of the rest of the pack.
Secondly, his merlot is from grapes that have been dry farmed that is, he eschews irrigation.
"That's the secret for the whole Napa Valley," said Williams. "All the wines that established the reputation of Napa Valley were grown on dry-farmed soil."
With the advent of irrigated vineyards, the roots of the vines don't have to penetrate far into the earth to get water, Williams says. When a vine's roots are satisfied so close to the surface, grapes don't develop the same sorts of flavors, he's convinced.
Other growers must sense the same thing, he suspects, thus they leave their fruit on the vine longer and longer, hoping for more flavor, but getting more sugar, more alcohol, higher pH levels and less natural acidity.
The result, he said, is a new category of table wine, which emphasize lushness, opulence and high alcohol.
"We prefer more balance and structure," Williams said.
He gets it pretty consistently, judging by his follow- up to the 2008 merlot, the newly released Frog's Leap Winery 2009 Napa Valley Rutherford Merlot.
As its predecessor, the 2009 is a downright delicious merlot, juicy with suggestions of cherries and plums, virtually free of tannins yet supported by solid bones, and refreshingly tangy in the finish.
There are whiffs of smoke from the French and American oak barrels in which the wine was aged, and streaks of licorice course through the fresh juiciness.
It's a little higher in alcohol than the 2008, coming in at 13.2 percent, but no one will notice that without looking at the label.
And speaking of label, Williams and his crew like to have some quiet fun with their packaging. The back label, for example, contains the mysterious letters "TFWYHF," which looks to be some sort of industry- insider code. In a sense, it is, standing for the winery's motto: "Time's fun when you're having flies."
Also in small print at the bottom of the back label is the tongue-in-cheek advice, "Open other end."
As we chatted, Williams said this is a great time for consumers to become acquainted or reacquainted with merlot. A few years ago, the popular wine- centric movie "Sideways" dismissed merlot rather peevishly while praising the charm of pinot noir.
Consumers bought into the movie's message, turned their back on merlot and raised pinot noir to new heights of popularity.
" 'Sideways' saved merlot and destroyed pinot noir," said Williams, giving a novel twist to the popular perception of the movie's fallout.
His reasoning goes like this: Grape growers and winemakers eager to capitalize on the movie's view of the two varietals abandoned merlot and began to plant like crazy pinot noir, sometimes putting it where it doesn't perform particularly well. Thus, as the proportion of weak pinot noirs rose on the market, the proportion of strong merlots increased.
"The only people left making merlot are those truly dedicated to this complicated wine. The merlots on the market today offer excellent value," Williams said.
Frog's Leap Winery
2009 Napa Valley Rutherford Merlot
By the numbers: 13.2 percent alcohol, 7,000 cases, $36
Context: To Frog's Leap proprietor John Williams, merlot is the perfect wine to accompany foods for which pinot noir is too simple and cabernet sauvignon too intense. Specifically, the richness and plushness of his merlot, coupled with the wine's bright acidity, makes it a splendid companion for roast chicken, braised veal shank and grilled portobello mushrooms. "It's the perfect wine with salmon, and a lot of my family is vegetarian, and they like it with vegetarian dishes," Williams added.
Availability: The 2009 version of the merlot is just entering local markets, but some of the 2008 still may be available at Corti Brothers, where the 2009 likely also will be found. Also, check with Whole Foods Market and Nugget Markets. The wine also can be ordered at the winery's website, www.frogsleap.com, one of the more entertaining sites in the business (it even includes a video game to challenge the fly-catching skills of visitors).
More information: The Frog's Leap tasting room, 8815 Conn Creek Road, Rutherford, is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.