Exploring California in 5 Merlots (#MerlotMe #WinePW)

#MerlotMe month is here again. It’s that time of year where we shine the spotlight on this underdog grape.

This is my third year participating, so we’ve covered a lot of ground regarding Merlot in the past. Check these posts out for more background:

A point to know is that this often overlooked grape is extremely food friendly, and is a good option when you’re not sure what to pair with a meal. This time around, I decided (for the most part) to search around the interwebs for pairing suggestions. I found this post on Food & Wine and decided to take their suggestions as inspiration for three of the pairings to see how we’d fare.

Additionally, I have to say that I was quite overwhelmed with the generous quantity of  #MerlotMe month samples! I chose the selection here (plus, one I bought) as a means to explore different areas of California, so I’m including little highlights on the various regions. It’s a big state after all!

All of the wines in today’s post are also reasonably priced for most all purpose situations. You can expect another #MerlotMe post with some of the other samples that came my way later this month.

So without further ado . . . 

Bonterra Organic Merlot California 2017 & Instant Pot Baby Back Ribs in Orange BBQ Sauce

SRP: $16. (Sample)
Blend: 76% Merlot, with other reds including Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. (Their website also say a bit of Malbec was in the blend.)
Alcohol: 14.1%

Area:  The grapes for this wine come predominantly from inland vineyards in Mendocino County, and San Luis Obispo County. We’ll hit up San Luis Obispo with the next wine, so let’s look at  Mendocino now.

Mendocino is pretty much the northern end of California quality vineyard areas. It’s a pretty big zone, encompassing 10 different AVA’s. Broadly speaking though, the area is divided into 2 major climatic zones by the Mendocino Range. The coastal areas tend to be cool and wet–lots of good sparkling wine around this section. It gets warmer and drier as you move inland, since the area is protected by the mountains. It’s unusual in California, but for this reason, there’s actually more vineyard land as you move inland, and indeed the grapes for this wine are coming from these sections where the Merlot can ripen nicely.

Bonterra’s vineyards have been farmed organically since 1987, and the three ranches they own are certified biodynamic by Demeter.  They won Winery of the Year from Wine Enthusiast in 2016.

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets:
Made from 100%  certified organic grapes. Lots were fermented separately in stainless steel tanks, then blended after fermentation. The wine was aged 18 months in a mix of new and neutral, predominantly French, oak barrels.

Tasting Notes: Raspberry, black cherries, and red plum topped with a dusting of cocoa, a little vanilla and clove, with just a hint of orange zest hanging out in the background. It was bright and juicy and medium bodied. An easy drinker and solid at the price point.

Pairing: I basically crossed 2 recipes for the baby back ribs we had with this wine. Food & Wine  recommends their Grilled Pork Chops with Orange Barbecue Sauce as an option for a “Deep, Velvety Merlot.” This wine was more medium-bodied and fruity, but we still thought the flavors were likely to work together. I made the sauce from that recipe, but used the cooking instructions from this recipe for ribs in a pressure cooker from NYT Cooking.  On the side we had roasted butternut squash on a kale salad. We were very happy with the results!

On their website, Bonaterra also offers up a recipe for Beet Hummus to pair with their Merlot.


J. Lohr Merlot Paso Robles 2017 & Pizza

SRP: $15. (Sample)
Blend: 82% Merlot, 16% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon

Area: Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County.

We’re jumping south now. San Luis Obsipo county is halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Santa Lucia Hills keeps the region corralled fairly close to the coast. The Paso Robles AVA takes up most of the northern half of this county. Despite being so close to the Pacific, it tends to be quite warm here, making it a “hot spot” for sun-loving grapes like Merlot (as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and of course Zin, which it’s probably best known for.)

Winery: J. Lohr has been a family owned winery since 1974. Jerry Lohr began the company, first planting vines in Arroyo Seco in Monterey, then later expanding to Paso Robles. He also won Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s ‘American Wine Legend’  in 2017. His children – Steve, Cynthia and Lawrence – now work with him and are partners in the company. 

J. Lohr is a Certified California Sustainable Vineyard & Winery. They were one of the first 17 wineries in the state to achieve the certification.

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets: The winery harvests their Merlot grapes across an array of sugar ripeness levels to capture to a full spectrum of Merlot’s characteristics and to create a balanced wine.
Whole-berry fermentation in stainless steel tanks. The wine spends 12 months in barrel with 18% being new. The barrels are made from American oak. Farming is sustainable, as noted above.

Tasting Notes:  On the nose there were notes of chocolate-dipped black cherries, dark raspberries, plums, and a touch of spice. Very light hints of savory herbs joined on the palate. It was medium bodied, with well-balanced acidity and smooth tannins. The flavors weren’t super complex, but both Greg and I thought this wine presented good value for the money.  It was easy drinking and great for a casual night in.

Pairing: Pizza Night! Sometimes it’s just too hard to resist giving into the temptation of pizza’s siren call. Greg had the craving for sausage pizza from our favorite local joint and I was happy to follow his lead. 

The winery also recommends this wine with grilled sausages or herb-roasted chicken. 

Beaver Creek Vineyards Mystery Creek Rose Ranch, Sonoma Valley 2017 & Pork Chops 

Price: $24. I think I purchased it for a little less than that earlier this year, so keep an eye out.
Blend: 100% Merlot.
Alcohol: 14.5%

Area: This is the first of two wines from Sonoma County. Rose Ranch vineyard is situated at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, which was once an active volcano and home to the Native American Pomo Indian tribe. The soils of the region are alluvial with volcanic material.

The winery is located in Lake County, which is just north of Napa and Sonoma, and it’s just east of Mendocino. While the grapes aren’t coming from here, I just wanted to call it out because I’ve been seeing quite a few interesting wines emerging from the region, and since it doesn’t have the name recognition of its neighbors to the south, the wines are often found at a good value. The area is made up of ancient volcanoes, so you see volcanic soils across the region, which is often great terroir for wines.

Winery: Martin Pohl began this project  in 2007 with his partners at the time. He’s now the proprietary grower and vintner. The vision was always to create wines from sustainable, organic, and biodynamic vineyards. Beaver Creek Vineyards is also home to a variety of animals and gardens that support the organic and biodynamic processes.

Sadly, while most of their vineyards were spared, a portion of Beaver Creek’s were lost in the Valley fire in September of 2015. Martin has taken this as an opportunity to plant new vines in the affected areas.

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets: The vineyard source for this wine has been certified organic since 1999, and  biodynamic by Demeter since 2005. The fermentations are done with all native yeast, and no chemicals or additives are used in the winemaking process. The wine spends 9 months in 10% new French oak barrels.

Tasting Notes: Guys, I must tell you that I really don’t care for the label of the wine – it just screams “critter wine” to me. Don’t judge the book by it’s cover in this case though, because the juice inside is really good. It showed notes of blackberry and dark red fruits that are rich without being hit-you-over-the-head jammy. It’s been a while on this one, but the wine stands out in my memory for its purity of fruit, with hints of minerality and spice, and smooth tannins. It was medium/medium+ in body.

Pairing: We had this with pork chops topped with an herbed pan sauce and a side of roasted sweet potatoes.  

Decoy Merlot Sonoma County 2017 & Seared Sesame-Soy Flank Steak

SRP: $25. (Sample)
Blend: 96% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Alcohol: 14.1%

Area: Our second wine from the Sonoma today. The winery uses fruit from their Ridgeline vineyard in Alexander Valley for their Decoy Merlot (among some of their other wines). It’s a steep mountainside vineyard on Oak Mountain with elevations ranging from 100 to nearly 2,000 feet.

Alexander Valley is one of the warmer sections of Sonoma, with vineyards stretching from the Russian River into the foothills of the Mayacamas mountains that divide Sonoma from Napa.

Winery: Duckhorn Winery has established itself as pretty benchmark producer of California Merlot. Their Three Palms Vineyard Merlot 2014 won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year in 2017. Duckhorn has also been big supporters of #MerlotMe month, so I’ve covered their wines in the past here and here. Their Decoy line evolved from Duckhorn, establishing a reputation in its own right for quality at a great price 

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets:
According to the winery, 2017 showed overall great quality. It started with lots of winter rain, followed by mild spring temperatures. Late-season heat brought great ripeness and lush flavors to the wines. 100% French oak.

Tasting Notes: We picked up notes of lightly smoked red plums, raspberry sauce, and a dusting of Dutch cocoa, and a light earthiness like beets just pulled from the ground with the greens included. A hint of soy sauce joined in on the palate, particularly when sipped alongside the food. It was medium bodied, with nice zing of acidity, and smooth tannins. Solid on its own, but it improved considerably with the food.

Pairing: Food & Wine recommends this recipe for Grilled Beef with Sesame Dressing for “Lively, Fruity” Merlots, and this wine kind of rides the line between that and a deeper style. I used the dressing from the recipe, and put it on flank steak instead of the tenderloin called for. The rest of the dressing got drizzled on roasted broccolini. 

This pairing worked really well. The food brought out a deeper, darker side of the wine, with black plums, mocha, and more savory soy sauce notes.

Charles Krug Merlot Napa Valley 2016 & a Spicy Burger with Brie

SRP: $25. (Sample)
Blend: 83% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot.

Area: We’re hoping over the Mayacamas mountains to Napa Valley. Let’s be honest, Napa doesn’t really need much of an intro.

Winery: A whole lot of California wine history right here! Established in 1861, Charles Krug is actually Napa Valley’s oldest wine estate. They opened the very first public tasting room in 1882. The Mondavi family has owned the winery since 1943.

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets: The winery shares details on their 2016 vintage, which had rain in the winter and a cool spring, followed by a warm, moderate summer great for ripening the grapes. The wine spent 18 months in French Oak.

Tasting Notes: We picked up notes of dark plums, chocolate, raspberry sauce, baking spices, and tea on the nose. On the palate we also picked up notes of black cherry, a little black pepper, and dark spices. This was the most robust of the wines in this line up, but nonetheless, the tannins were still smooth and supple. When we first opened the wine, the alcohol came across a little hot, but give it some air and it comes together.

Pairing: I took inspiration from Food & Wine one more time with this recipe for Scallion-and-Brie-Stuffed Burgers recommended for a “Deep, Velvety Merlot,” which this one definitely was. I decided not to stuff the burger, got lazy, and just put the brie on top. The Spicy Scallion Paste that topped the burger gave it a pleasant kick without being overpowering. Extra sauce was delicious drizzled over smashed potatoes. This was also a really fantastic pairing. Similar to the pairing above, the wine got deeper and more intense in the combination. 

The rest of the Wine Pairing Weekend Group is celebrating #MerlotMe Month as well. If you catch this early enough, you can join our Twitter chat on by following #WinePW.  We'll meet at 1 am ET/ 8am PT.

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  1. Scallion and Brie burger...Oh MY YUM!!! Great pairings, thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm excited to have so many new Merlot bottles to try and so many yummy bites to pair with it. Thanks for laying out a plan for eating well this month!

  3. I was hoping someone would explore the terroirs of California merlot, and you did just that. Thank you!! You have also outdone yourself with all those delectable food pairings. I am going to try the soy sauce steak with that Decoy. Yum!

  4. Impressive commitment to make so many serious plans for all these Merlots! The pictures are superb. The flank steak looks perfect!

    1. Thanks so much, must say it was pretty tasty homework!

  5. A great post and pairing Nicole. I love how you explored the state via Merlot.

  6. What fantastic pairings! I love the fall flavors of those ribs!


Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!