Suddenly, I am imagining myself in the fruit orchard up the dirt road from our house. Summer is starting to give way to fall. The peaches, berries, and plums have pretty much been picked but there is fallen fruit left behind on the ground. Ripeness fills the air as the earth begins to reclaim the sweet smells of summer. There is nothing quite like it.
Only I am breathing in these heady aromas in a glass of red wine. It is the weekend. Good friends have arrived, and it is time for the evening's main course. The wine was opened and left to breathe several hours ago. It is in its glory.
The dinner - grilled game hens with lemon and herbs, sweet corn from one of the local farm stands, and grilled zucchini, peppers, and onions in olive oil and balsamic vinegar - is delicious, but is overshadowed and relegated to a context, more or less, for the wine.
This is the kind of experience wine lovers dream about. Now, to be honest, this was not an everyday wine. You are not likely to find it at your local wine store. The label on the back puts it in perspective: "Bottle 426 of 600." That's exactly 50 cases produced, not including some half-bottles. One of our friends asked if that made it a so-called "garage wine." I guess it did, I replied.
The 2001 Carter Cellars Merlot from the Napa Valley represents California at its best. The aromas, as described above, were among the more enticing and remarkable I have inhaled. Merlot, of course, was the wine of the moment five or 10 years ago. Softer and more accessible than Cabernet Sauvignon, it became the red Chardonnay - ubiquitous, easy to pronounce, easier to drink and, more often than not, nondescript.
This first vintage of Carter's Merlot (there is also a Cabernet Sauvignon) is the antithesis of that. In the mouth, I was struck at first by its bright acidity, which makes the fruit come alive and balances just the right level of toasted oak in the background (from 18 months of aging in new French barrels). The fresh, ripe fruit is mainly raspberry and cassis with chocolate emerging as it lingers. It is well structured with its acidity and tannins that provide good "mouth-feel" but don't dominate.
Key to the success of any wine is the quality of the fruit. As is often the case, Carter does not grow its fruit but sources, or buys it, from some top vineyards. The Merlot comes from Truchard Vineyards in Napa's Carneros district, hence the Truchard reference on the Carter label. The fruit is then crafted into its wonderful final form by Nils Venge, the winemaker, at his Saddleback Cellars.
By now, you must be asking yourself, "How can I get my hands on this wine?" For starters, I would call the folks at Carter at 707-444-8062 and ask them where you can purchase the wine - if not this vintage, then maybe the next, which will be released in a few months or so. The price is $38.
The larger point here is that California can make some great, original wines, in a style that is unmistakably Californian but universally appealing. The problem is that, to me at least, "unmistakably Californian" has often meant over-extracted fruit, over-oaked in the aging and, well, just overbearing. Carter's 2001 Merlot is a case study in how to do it right.