by Fred McMillin
for September 29, 1999


The Merlot Mystery
Where to Grow the Best Merlot??


James Laube in the Wine Spectator: "Some say Merlot does best where it gets [a modest amount of warmth] like Cabernet Sauvignon. Others think Merlot needs a bit cooler climate..." and later,

"The odds are heavily in your favor that you'll uncork a rich and distinctive red...if you open a Shafer Merlot."

John Shafer (l),
and Doug Shafer, (r)

The Rest of the Story

So, does Doug Shafer use grapes from the warmer, upper Napa Valley (Cabernet country) or the cool Carneros district (too chilly for Cab)?

Here's Doug's answer: "We use a good portion of Merlot from our Red Shoulder Ranch in the Carneros, at the marine-cooled southern end of the Napa Valley. HOWEVER, we blend it with even more Merlot from warmer, Upper Valley sources. Each area contributes a different element, making for a more interesting wine." There are four "Upper Valley sources" in today's 1996 bottle, and there are some big names...Stags Leap District, Oakville, Oak Knoll and Calistoga.

The Beginnings

Doug's dad, John, made their first Merlot in 1983. I can recall talking with him not long after that at a major San Francisco tasting, and even then he saw a fine future for the wine. Today he says, "From day one, we nailed our Merlot style...true varietal character and drinkable early on. We produced complexity with structure from the Carneros and lushness from the mid-valley."

My panel was impressed. I checked the last three months of results (nine tastings, about 200 wines, with plenty of Merlots) and no Merlot matched the EXCELLENT rating of this one.

1996 Merlot, Napa Valley
Shafer Vineyards, Napa, CA
Tasting Notes—Buy now, drink now. No need to age. Lovely, gentle charm right now.
Food— Lamb, pork, ham, smoked turkey, cheese plate. These drinkable wines are FLEXIBLE. Contact—Susan McWilliams, (707) 944-2877, FAX (707) 944-9454


In talking with John Shafer, I found he has as many dimensions as today's Merlot...bomber pilot in World War II...23 years as a book publisher in Chicago...the insight to select the Stags Leap District when he decided to make wine exactly 20 years ago. For more, see the Nov. 6, 1997 WineDay, "The Shafer Supertuscan Saga".

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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