2007 Ehlers Estate Napa Valley Merlot St. Helena 14.6%, $45
Low and deep on the nose with a noticeable if well integrated underlay of oak, over which are layered notes of soil, crushed black fruits, hints of bramble, chocolate shavings and a floral top note. On entry, this is a touch hollow and it really takes some time to fill in. Still very young, this is in a bit of a difficult stage but once it gets some air the wine reveals wonderfully ripe yet transparent berry, plum, and black currant fruit with an nice hint of thistle on the palate. The tannins are wonderfully ripe and round here, but offer plenty of support, and the acidity is bright enough to keep this fresh, yet it remains in the background. The finish is moderately long with that pure black fruit continuing on married to subtle oak shadings that add to the spicy finale. This is powerful, balanced and complex. Love it. 93pts

2007 Gainey Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley Merlot 13.9%, $30
Herbal and earthy at first, with candied black cherry and blackberry fruit that features a touch of tarragon and sage, along with some medicinal and coffee bean background notes and a touch of caramely oak. Round and almost soft upfront with lots of sweet, almost candied fruit that is offset by some citrusy acidity. There is a nice bed of tannin that emerges in the mouth, keeping this firm and poised and allowing the intense but pure fruit to dominate the mid-palate. Lots of red plummy fruit here, with a touch of peach pit and then lightly aromatic herbal tones coming in to add some complexity on the moderately long finish that ends with a fine black fruit tone. Refreshing, bright, juicy and delicious. 91pts

2007 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot 14.5%, $45
Tight and focused on the nose, with subtle, sweet, toasty French oak tones supporting light plum and berry fruit with a gravelly, mineral edge and topped with some gentle, ripe herb tones and a hint of creamy mocha. This is really soft and rich right out of the gate, with finely polished tannins and well-integrated acids. The fruit is creamy and rich in the mouth, with slightly exotic berry tones, red plum notes and more of that creamy mocha quality that was found on the nose. This is really well balanced and comes off as a smaller wine than it really is, but this is a full, rich wine with great fruit that powers through on the finish. The finish is really quite interesting with a long, slow crawl of tannin on the tongue yet a veritable explosion of perfumed fruit in the mouth that seems detached from the structure. Elegant and refined and almost understated. A really nice showing. 91pts

2006 Toad Hollow Russian River Valley Merlot Reserve Richard McDowell Vineyard 14.5%, $19
Pungent, weedy and smoky, this smells lean, old-world, and cool-climate at first, though with air, the nose gains focus and fruit. In the mouth, it’s again quite cool-climate styled with lots of bright red cherry fruit, some stiff little tannins and juicy acids all making this an outlier in the world of California Merlot. Definitely not a particularly big wine, it is ripe and complex and well styled for the dinner table. There’s a bit of cocoa on the backend and the finish is fairly long with a bit of an earthy character and some slight vanilla and spice tones from oak. This is a little rustic, and tough at times without the flamboyance or opulence of most California Merlot but therein lies its beauty. A lovely, expressive, distinctive wine that one can drink all night long and never tire from it. 90pts

2008 Seven Hills Columbia Valley Merlot 13.7%, $28
A bit spicy on the nose with a peppery top note and some cocoa nib accents to the black berry/cherry fruit. The oak becomes more assertive with air. Nice richness on entry with a soft, caressing texture. The tannins are really well covered by the rich fruit, which is fresh and a touch jammy, but not particularly sweet or sticky. In fact, the integrated acidity helps lighten up the mid-palate and gives this a fine, balanced feel. The tannins pop a bit in the mouth, breaking up the silken texture and adding a touch of spice on the backend and onto the finish, which ends with a bit of woody spice and licorice. This needs a year, maybe two, to let the tannins mellow a bit but it’s already attractive and can only improve. 90pts

2008 Wente Livermore Valley Merlot Sandstone 13.5%, $15
Sweet cherry fruit on the nose with some nice floral and citrus accents and just a shading of wood spice with a hint of red licorice candy.  Very soft up front but not lacking in acidity. The tannins creep up on the mid-palate a bit stiff and dry but rather small-scaled. The fruit recalls the nose with cherry tones and hints of candied pink grapefruit and orange peels. There’s not much length here, but the overall impression of the wine is of an aromatic, well balanced, easy to drink yet not texturally neutral, wine. This just needs a bit of time to gain some length and while it’s not your typical California Merlot it’s pretty tasty and fun to drink. 89pts

2007 Kramer Walla Walla Merlot 15.3%, $28
Candied, herbal and scorched earthy with a spicy, almost beefy top note. There’s some lightly toasty oak here, as well as gentle almost red curranty fruit. Rich and broad in the mouth with bright acidity and a nice burnished note to the wild berry fruit. This is showing some nice maturity with softening edges and some earthy, almost boulliony but not quite extracty notes. Well fruity but not a fruity style with good balance and a nice brightness. The finish is a little lean and minty with a nice stony mineral note on the finale. A nice tense wine with good intensity and complexity. 89pts