Making Merlot Memorable

Bargain-priced merlot put Blackstone Winery on the map, but this Sonoma Valley institution is no one-trick pony when it comes to good wine.

The winery produces 1.4 million cases of merlot each year. The guy responsible for that ocean of red is Gary Sitton.

Blackstone California Merlot

Blackstone Merlot

“Merlot, in particular, is what Blackstone was founded upon.,” said Sitton, who started as head winemaker at Blackstone with the 2007 vintage. “The Blackstone merlot is the No. 1 selling merlot in the country, so my job was not to screw it up.

He didn’t.

This mellow red wine is a great buy at $10. I like it’s red cherry edge with just enough acidity to make it fit in well at the table with red meats and tomato-sauced dishes.

Sitton cut his teeth in the winemaking game at Ravenswood, a Sonoma County winery that, like Blackstone, is owned by Constellation Brands.

As a new winemaker, taking over a well-established brand, you really need to maintain the status quo while looking for ways to make it better.

“As a winemaker, however, you are always looking for ways to improve the product and yourself,” he explained. “If you stop doing that, you ultimately lose the edge that got you here in the first place.”

Sitton’s creativity shows itself most profoundly in the second tier or wines, Sonoma Reserve, made for customers with a bit more sophisticated taste.

Gary Sitton, Blackstone Winemaker

Gary Sitton

“We have this huge base of consumers that had nothing to buy up to before,” Sitton said. “Now, we have a line of wines that are more focused by appellation. These wines are a little more serious in structure and tannins and they appeal more to a higher-end wine consumer, but that still deliver the value proposition that Blackstone is built upon.”

One of the reserve wines is called Rubric, a $20 red blend that gives the winemaker a broader palate to work with.

The idea was to make a terrific cab-based blend using a handful of other varietals, like tannat and petite sirah, Sitton explained.

“For me to make a wine like Rubric, which compares favorably with $40-$60 bottles of wine and to be able to sell it for around $20,” said the winemaker. “I take pride in delivering that value.”

Other reserve wines in current release include a merlot, cabernet, another meritage blend and a chardonnay — all drawn from different vineyards across Sonoma County.

“We are not trying to make huge, overly extracted wines pandering to wine publications,” Sitton said. “I like good acid structure and balance. In keeping with that, I want to make wines that are varietally correct in keeping with that.”

He also values positive vegetal characteristics — like cedar and cigar box — which can enhance these red wines.

“I still want ample fruit character,” Sitton said. “And with the merlot and cab, that is definitely the goal — rich, ripe fruit but also that depth and complexity and a more nuanced character.”

Blackstone operates two wineries — in Kenwood and Monterey. Tasting rooms at both sites are open on a daily basis.

Holiday Happenings

Tis the season to shop and celebrate and many wineries are holding special Holiday events and open houses — all within an easy drive from the Bay Area.

Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda, which operates as a winery and as an incubator for winemaking start-ups, will  hold a holiday open house on Saturday (Dec. 5). Rock Wall will show off four new releases with a mx of other new wines from Blacksmith Cellars, Carica Wines, Ehrenberg Cellars, John Robert Eppler Wines, R&B Cellars and Virgo Cellars. Tickets are $30 in advance and $40 at the door.

Peju Winery in Napa will be holding a holiday open house on Friday (Dec. 4)  with complimentary tastings offered from 6:30-8:00 p.m.

About 20 Calistoga-area wineries will open their doors for a “Winter in the Wineries” three-day weekend starting Friday (Dec. 4). Tickets are $40, available through the Calistoga Visitors Center.

About a dozen wineries in the Rutherford section of Napa are celebrating in similar fashion with their own weekend passport event this Saturday and Sunday. Tickets for the two-day affair are $65. Sunday only tickets cost $50. For more info, check out the Rutherford Appellation website.

At Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma on Saturday (Dec. 5) , a holiday open house features free tasting for visitors who bring an unwrapped toy to donate to local charities. For more details, check the Gunbun website.

Pelligrini Family Vineyards is hosting a holiday open house in Santa Rosa on Saturday (Dec. 5). Tasting is free at the winery.

The San Francisco Wine Association, a group of 20 small urban winemakers, will hold its annual holiday event on Thursday (Dec. 10) at Crushpad, the custom-crush facility in the city (2573 Third Street, San Francisco). Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online through the association’s website.

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