Drinking wine shouldn’t simply be about the consumption of a relaxing beverage. It’s about the experience. It’s about enjoying your surroundings while you drink, and it’s about your relationships with the people sharing the wine.
Attending a wine tasting can be equally enjoyable … or not. I’ve experienced wine tastings where six to 26 distributors and wineries were all trying to get my attention. These are often crowded events, with some folks on hand just to get their free tastes and walk out a bit tipsy. After tasting 50 or so wines, my taste buds are tired. It is hard work to walk into a room with so much to offer as you try to find the five or six hidden gems. I have also attended a few high-end tastings where the cost of the wine was a minimum of $75 per bottle. And I have come away from those having tasted many expensive wines that failed to impress my taste buds.
Then there are the local retailers whose tastings become a weekly social event. Some are very well done, with attentive wine experts offering details about their products. Others simply pour the smallest amount of wine into the smallest and cheapest plastic cups with little or no explanation. Recently, I was treated to a particularly unique and enjoyable tasting at the home of Peter Merriam: wine collector, grape farmer, winemaker and owner of Merriam Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif.
Peter’s passion for fine wine was expressed in the detail he maintains in his wine cellar and dedicated tasting room. We sat in that small and comfortable room with a table between us. The spit bucket was hanging off the side of the table, and there were no distractions from the task at hand. The purpose of my visit was to interview him for the article that appears in this issue of mvm, so we talked for an hour and I learned all about his history in the wine business before we opened a bottle.
He eventually opened six current offerings so I could experience the full range of Merriam Vineyards’ wine collection. My wife and I had traveled to Healdsburg about seven years earlier, after they’d just opened their tasting room, and we bought a few bottles that day. Although the surroundings were beautiful, the wine was not among the most impressive offerings we had tasted during our visit to the area. Now I’m sitting in front of the owner in a rather intimate setting, a little concerned about how my honesty and opinions would be received. Sometimes I have difficulty containing those opinions.
First, we tasted his sauvignon blanc — my favorite white, and I was immediately impressed. It had a great floral bouquet, citrus and peach notes on the palate, along with a crisp finish. Next we tasted the rosé pinot noir. Peter explained that this was made using the traditional saignée method, which allows for a full crush with a limited amount of contact with the grape skins. I’m not a big fan of rosé. Too many just leave me flat. This had real character. It had strawberry notes on the nose with a crisp mineral finish. Both of these wines would be great with fish or salad at the beginning of a nice dinner. Next we tasted the Three Sons pinot noir, which was truly outstanding. This was a full body pinot with a note of cherry on the nose and some dark fruit on the palate.
I understood at this point that it was still early afternoon and that spitting was the polite and appropriate thing to do, but I was beginning to have some trouble. I was enjoying these wines more than I had anticipated, and we had three more bottles to taste.
The first three wines may be difficult to procure, but if you visit Butcher Boy in North Andover, you will find the 2012 Merriam Vineyards Estate merlot and the 2012 Russian River Valley Estate cabernet sauvignon, two of the other three bottles we sampled.”
The merlot is among the best I have tasted. Merlot got a black eye when the movie “Sideways” came out. Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, was somewhat justified in his expletive-driven rant. Many domestic merlots are overripe and have no structure, but not this offering from Merriam. This grape was picked a little early, allowing the acid and fruit to shine through. It is complex on the palate and would complement a full-bodied meal with a sweet sauce.
The cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand, had much higher tannins, so I might shy away from pairing it with a sweet dish. It has a classic, complex fruit flavor with a touch of vanilla on the finish. I would suggest decanting these wines for about an hour before enjoying them. Both cost about $28 and would go well with one of the fabulous meat selections that Butcher Boy features as you walk into the store.
The final wine we tasted was a cab called Rockpile, which won gold medals at the San Francisco International Wine Competition and the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. This was highly structured and delicious, and if you find some at around $60 per bottle, I would suggest leaving it in your cellar for a few years before opening, or at least decant it for two to three hours before serving. I have to admit that I didn’t spit too much from the last few bottles and was pleased that Peter offered to let me take some home. We concluded our tasting with a brief tour of Peter’s climate-controlled wine cellar, where he was preserving about 3,000 bottles of wine.
This was truly a Grand Tasting. I thoroughly enjoyed each of Merriam Vineyards’ fine wines and recommend that you seek these out at your local retailer. The experience of sitting with the owner and having him present each of his wines was priceless. Salute!
Butcher Boy Market
North Andover, Mass.