2008 Whitehall Lane pinot noir, St. Helena CA
fresh, herbal, caramel-musk
very sweet, sharp acid right away
earth -- chewy, almost bitter -- tannins?
thin fruit -- hi alcohol? (heat in chest) (14.2%) (11 months in oak)
2007 Whitehall Lane merlot, Napa
licorice -- acid -- spare --
(18 months oak)
opened slowly -- subtle -- balanced smoothness
2007 Whitehall Lane cabernet sauvignon, Napa
dark -- opaque -- black
faint licorice-cedar scent
full bodied -- heavy berry
black pepper -- prickly
(20 months oak)
As a learning experience, at least on the first night of my private blind tasting, the least interesting of all these wines proved the most interesting: the merlot. I did some reading and found anew the startlingly unflattering things wine writers say of this noble grape. Oz Clarke in Grapes and Wines avers frankly that merlot was always much the secondary player in its home, Bordeaux, where it was and still is blended with the more difficult-to-like but compelling cabernet sauvignon so as to give the latter a bit of "plummy" softness. He avers just as frankly that the main reason merlot began to be vinified on its own outside of Pomerol was because of a 60 Minutes program, broadcast in the early '90s, explaining "the French paradox" to American audiences. Daily consumption of red wine, 60 Minutes reported, accounted for the fact that the French enjoy low levels of heart disease despite also enjoying what looks to Americans like a suicidally high-fat diet.
Show us a new health fad, and stand back. We love them. "Suddenly," Clarke says, "millions of Americans who [had] never drunk wine before [were] queuing up for their daily dose. American consumption of red wine quadrupled within the year. But these were novice wine drinkers. They didn't necessarily like the flavour of red wine very much -- and what they needed was something that was soft, easy, and mild, and yet discernibly, undeniably red -- and one grape fitted the bill perfectly -- Merlot."
Ouch. I'm not sure what or who is getting the worst of it here, the grape or the people. At any rate, while all the best experts acknowledge the exceptions, such as that complex and interesting merlots are made here and there, don't forget Château Pétrus, etc., the rule remains. Merlot is unthreatening because low in tannin and acid, goes down smooth, is lush, velvety, round, fleshy, fruity, and generally all things "soft" and agreeable. "The red chardonnay," as Jancis Robinson describes it. Did I say the evening's least interesting wine proved the most interesting? It's because it's always interesting when wine homework validates your experience of a wine seeming so bland you could think of no more than two words to note about it. This is to cast no aspersions on Whitehall Lane -- all three of these samples struck me as very finely, properly made, crinolined and tuxedo-ed and ready for a formal night out. But it is satisfying to learn, perhaps, why things are as they are. A small, merlotian tidbit: according to our faithful instructors Ron and Sharon Tyler Herbst of The New Wine Lover's Companion, merlot is, correctly, merlot noir. There is a merlot blanc, although current research from the University of California-Davis now suggests the two are not related.
My private tasting, no longer blind, went on for three more nights. That bottle of soft and agreeable merlot is the one that has managed to get itself consumed the fastest. I can't think why. And, after these nights of mellowing beside the cold pantry wall, at an almost perfect cellar temperature, all three wines begin to taste very much like each other. The pinot noir especially has evolved from something musky, leafy, and acidic into a good old California fruit bomb. Tasty, certainly. And so interesting.