Hayes Valley Merlot.
Hayes Valley Merlot.
There’s no question that merlot gets a bad rap, but is it deserved? No. By any objective measure, merlot is one of the world’s top three red wine grapes in quality potential, along with its half-sibling cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux and Burgundy’s more ancient pinot noir. Merlot also is arguably the most crowd-pleasing of the three, with plump, berry-cherry flavors that are neither as harshly tannic as cabernet sauvignon nor as sharply acidic as pinot noir. Merlot also is easier to grow, so its wines are often more affordable in practice. So, if merlot has it all, why is it so often dissed as a lesser grape? The short answer is the fickleness of fashion. Merlot was hot in the ’90s, when velvety-rich red wines from places like California and Chile were consistently overdelivering on price and flavor. But the very traits that made merlot great made it easy to exploit for profit, tempting vintners to over-crop, cut corners, and coast on the grape’s famous name. Sadly, more people remember merlot’s resulting flameout than the reasons for its rise to stardom. On the upside, this means today’s savvy shoppers can get some delicious wines at unfairly low prices — like this sustainably grown California merlot brimming with flavors of bing cherries, black plums, and vanilla.

Hayes Valley Merlot, Central Coast, Calif., $9.99 (sale price through Oct. 1; regularly $12.99). PLCB Item #4510. Also available at Joe Canal's in Lawrenceville, N.J., $11.99.