Wine column no. 36: Merlot can be a star

Merlot: It's famous, it's easy to find, and yet we've managed to write around it for almost a year. Why? Well, we're still trying to figure that out.
This versatile red wine grape doesn't have the heavy handed seriousness of a Cabernet Sauvignon. It's not prickly and difficult like many Pinot Noir. And it's less rough, less rustic, than the Malbec we've often tended to come across.
And yet still, Merlot has remained a supporting cast member on the stage that is our column. Want a tasty, smooth Meritage? Well, Merlot's likely one of the ingredients that'll make it wonderful. Want
something that will go well -- and yet know enough not to overshadow -- that high-maintenance, well-marbled Delmonico steak? Then think of Merlot, the wingman's grape.
But that all stops now, because we've found two Merlot that have wrestled our taste buds to the ground. Both are from Sonoma County in California, too.
The first is actually 97 percent Merlot. The rest of what's labeled as the 2008 Simi Merlot contains 2 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 1 percent Malbec. We found this on sale at Schnucks on North Green River Road for $14.49, and it gave us cherry, cedar and mocha notes in return. Lighter than we expected, its strength was its flavor. We had this with steak, too, and it did not disappoint. Especially in these steamy, rather oppressive summer months, lighter Merlot like this Simi can really make an impact, especially if you're wanting a red but don't want to have to deal with something overwhelmingly robust. 13.5 percent alcohol.
Then there's the 2009 Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Merlot, which also came in at 13.5 percent alcohol. This roughly $22 purchase at Winetree started out slightly acidic but quickly turned soft and
elegant in the mouth. It had a fruity nose and tasted of menthol, red fruit and some cedar. We paired this with some chorizo-and-rice stuffed peppers that Greg prepared from scratch, since he's quite the
urban gardener (jalepeno and other hot peppers are his specialty).
This is a really good well-rounded wine in terms of its flavors, textures and nose, and we wouldn't hesitate to get it again.
What's interesting about Simi Winery and Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates is that they've both, at some point, had the same winemaker. Steve Reeder is now the general manager and vice-president of Winemaking at Simi, but before he started there, he was appointed the head winemaker at Kendall-Jackson. Reeder's also got a partnership with musician Dave Matthews (the pair produce Dreaming Tree Wines, which we've written about before), so it's clear that Reeder is a man with a lot of
connections in the wine-making industry.
His connection to Simi, though, is more recent. After all, this is a company that was created by Italian immigrant Giuseppe Simi after he made his fortune during the California Gold Rush in 1849. It was in 1876 that Giuseppe and his brother Pietro produced their first wines under the Simi name, according to www.simiwinery.com. The company continued under the leadership of Giuseppe's daughter, Isabelle, in 1904, who sold all vineyard holdings in 1920 after the implementation of Prohibition. When the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933, 500,000 cellared Simi bottles were immediately ready for sale. The next year, the company built a tasting room fashioned from a 25,000 gallon cask.
These days, Simi is owned by Constellation Brands, a conglomerate that owns companies producing more than 100 wines, beers and spirts.
Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, however, has remained family owned ever since its first bottling of Chardonnay in 1982. Founded by Jess Jackson and his first wife, Jane Kendall, the Jackson Family now owns 14 other wine companies in the United States, as well as one each in France, Italy, Australia and Chile. Jackson, who died in 2011, made millions as a land-use attorney in San Francisco before starting his own wine company. In fact, according to www.kj.com, he also created
his own California distribution company "to remain free of industry consolidation," and he was a leader in the sustainable farming movement within the wine industry. In 2009, Jackson was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame.
Meawhile, those who are just looking for a tasty bottle of Merlot without the accompanying history lesson can't go wrong with these two Sonoma County creations. So plunk those dollars down and take a chance on something that millions have already found to be a reliable grape for the price, because Merlot is no longer just a wingman. It can be a star.

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