It's ironic, but one of the best things to happen to merlot was the movie Sideways. That film extolled the virtues of pinot noir while dismissing merlot, and a backlash against the grape resulted. Truth is, because of its previous popularity, there was a lot of less-than-great merlot out there. Now, most of that is gone, while better wines have survived and merlot is making a comeback. One thing is certain, the grape thrives in Washington. Two wines from that state topped our tasting.

2006 Columbia Crest Grand Estates, $10.99

This Washington winery offers bargain-priced wines that garner great press, and the merlot helps to show why. Lots of toasty oak comes through on the nose, rich but not overwhelming. It's matched by bright cherry, dark berry, mocha and spice notes. Big fruit flavors with an enticing silkiness fill the mouth with bold berry, red currant and plum. It's a definite best buy.

2005 Napa Cellars Merlot, $17.99

Subdued, but complex aromas are highlighted by soft cherry, herb and black tea, backed by pleasant hints of vanilla and fresh dill. This elegantly structured wine is filled with ripe and lively cherry and berry fruit wrapped around a core of soft tannin. The flavors show good persistence on the finish with just the right hit of acidity adding balance. This is a classic Napa Valley merlot at a great price.

2007 Seven Hills Merlot, $22

This merlot is light but lovely on the nose with soft plum and cherry fruit laced with earthy touches of coffee, mocha, mineral and herb. Much more expressive on the palate, it offers bold bursts of velvety cherry, berry and plum. Supple layers of toasty oak, licorice and dark chocolate add depth, and the creamy finish lingers nicely with sweet berry playing against tart cherry. A definite winner from this Walla Walla, Wash. winery.

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