California Merlot 

The Sideways phenomenon continues: Pinot Noir sales are still going through the roof while Merlot sales continue to plummet. Things are particularly bad for Merlot in California. Where once you could find half a dozen selections on a wine list, now you're lucky to find one. Older vintages sit on the shelf gathering dust, newer ones have a hard time finding their way into a wine shop. That's a shame because there are any number of outstanding California Merlots. Of course, what Miles forgot to tell us was that his favorite Cheval Blanc is a blend with a heavy dose of Merlot but without a single drop of Pinot Noir.

Here are the panel's top picks for the unfairly maligned California Merlot:

2000 Bell Merlot, Napa Valley, $29

This Merlot offers up enticing aromas of dried golden currants, black cherry and cranberry with light hints of leather and dark chocolate and subtle, supple flavors of chocolate-covered cherries and dark berry with a balancing hit of acidity. Secondary flavors of black olive and herb come through on the mid-palate and finish. The bad news for Merlot sales is good news for open-minded consumers because it's a real treat to taste a Merlot with some bottle age.

2002 Havens Merlot, Napa Valley, $22

On the earthy side of the aroma spectrum, this one has a nice meaty quality marked by dark berry, mushroom and leather, and is beautifully balanced between sweet cherry cola up front and bracing acidity throughout. Smooth, ripe tannins add a little bite on the silky finish. it's definitely a food-friendly style of Merlot that would love to be paired with a thick, juicy steak.

2004 Wente Merlot, Crane Ridge, $21

Family-owned wineries are becoming a rarity in California, but Wente goes back five generations in the Livermore Valley. Their Crane Ridge Merlot is a marvelously complex wine that evolves nicely in the glass with opening aromas of light cedar, tobacco and dill segueing into dark berry backed by licorice and creme brulee. An elegantly structured wine with distinctive depth, velvety plum and berry fruit flavors caress the palate closing with a soft hit of spice. This is an exceptional effort.

This week's panel: David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op Wine Shop; Cindy Limber, Bardenay; Kyle Mahler, Bardenay; Karen McMillin, Youngs Market.

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