Merlot from elegant to badass. Time to #MerlotMe with #WinePW

Pairing with Merlots from Peju and LaZarre

Merlot from elegant to badass. Time to #MerlotMe with #WinePW

#MerlotMe…while this is my first year participating in this event with the writers at #WinePW, it is the sixth year for this event, where writer’s partner with Merlot producers to celebrate Merlot Month. 

The official celebration day is Saturday, October 10th.  You will see pieces roll out the day before, and we will all gather that morning at 8 am Pacific time on Twitter under hashtags #MerlotMe & #WinePW.   We will discuss Merlot and all the wonderful things you can pair with it.  Jeff Burrows of Food Wine Click leads us on this journey into the variety, you can read his invitation post here.

#MerlotMe Selections to celebrate Merlot Month

I received 5 Media #Samples, from producers in Washington, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Paso Robles.  We will start out with 2 in this post and promise to share more with you about the other 3 later this month.  I recieved these bottles as samples, but received no other compensation and the opinions shared here, are my own.

I have always been a Right Bank girl.  When it comes to Bordeaux, the right bank Merlot driven wines have always been more appealing than their left bank Cabernet Sauvignon driven counterparts.  Perhaps, it’s just my love-hate relationship with Cab Sav.  I don’t want to have to wait so long for it to be ready to drink, and I don’t want to spend that much!  Or, perhaps I just like the way it tastes more.  It’s approachable and nuanced, I don’t care what Miles says.

As this was my first year participating, I was surprised at the range of samples I received.  They included L’Ecole 41 2017 Columbia Valley Merlot, Selby 2018 Merlot from Sonoma County, Bonterra 2018 California Merlot, Peju 2016 Merlot from Napa Valley, and LaZarre 2017 Merlot from Paso Robles.

UPDATE* We took this shot and then yesterday 2 more wines arrived from Rutherford Hill, the 2017 Atlas Peak Merlot and the 2019 Rosé of Merlot.

We begin with two wines that, while both are Merlot, are decidedly different.  This is the wonderful thing about wine.  It can remain attuned to its variety, in this case, Merlot, but through where and how it is grown, winemaking techniques, as well as vintages, it can exude its own personality.

My title says from “elegant to badass”.  You will find this difference in the wines, but also in the personality of the two wineries. Both were delicious, but in quite different ways.

The Wineries

Peju Province, Napa Valley

Tony Peju was born near the Caspian Sea. That sounds so romantic, doesn’t it?  The Caspian Sea is of course close to the region where we believe wine grapes first evolved.  So perhaps wine was in his blood from an early age.  He traveled Europe and in 1960 found himself in LA.  Here, he and his wife Herta, built a thriving nursery and florist business. 

This love of growing things led them to purchase 30 acres in Rutherford, where they could farm, and Tony decided he wanted to grow wine grapes and learn to make wine.  A degree at UC Davis and some Garagiste winemaking led them to build a winery in 1991.  This winery grew, along with its gardens.  Today the 50-foot tower is a landmark in the Valley. 

The property sits in Rutherford, east of the St. Helena Highway.  The drive is lined with sycamore trees, the gardens are whimsical and transport you to another world.  There are sculptures, manicured gardens, a creek, and fountains. 

They have 5 vineyards: the HB Estate Vineyard at the winery in Rutherford, two in the Pope Valley, Persephone and Tess, Wappo Vineyard in Calistoga, and one in Oak Knoll.  This allows them to have estate fruit in 4 different Napa Valley sub AVAs.

They have been lucky in that they were safe from the recent fires.  It’s not been easy in Napa this year.  I spoke with Christine Lilienthal at the winery. She said they felt very fortunate.

“The fires came too close for comfort in Calistoga and evened brushed up against several rows of vines. We don’t know what the full results will be but we do encourage wine lovers to show their support for all of Napa Valley Wineries… the best way to do that is purchase Napa Valley wines or visit us in person. Covid regulations and the fires have impacted our small, hard-working community and we appreciate all the support. Also, we are donating 10% of all online wine sales in October to support Fire Relief and our community.”

Christine Lilienthal, Director of Marketing Peju Province Winery

They do have another property in Carneros called Calmére, where they focus on Pinot Noir and Viognier.


Angie and Adam LaZarre of LaZarre Wines - Photo courtesy LaZarre Wines
Angie and Adam LaZarre of LaZarre Wines – Photo courtesy LaZarre Wines

LaZarre Wines is the wine love child of Adam and Angie LaZarre and is meant to showcase Central Coast fruit.  The two are co-winemakers, both with long careers in the industry.  They do have a bit of a “Rockstar” vibe.  The photo above is for an event that they typically do annually called “Metal & Merlot”. This year, I guess you just need to grab a bottle of their Merlot and crank up the Metal at your house!

Adam worked with Hahn, Villa San-Juliette, and helped to create Rex-Goliath & Cycles-Gladiator labels. Angie has worked in wine from hospitality to hands on work.  She is the “boots on the ground”, “get this wine to the people” force at this winery in addition to spending time out in the vineyards, checking and tasting the grapes to see if they are ready. (Check that our on their IG page).

“We invite you to experience the wine we love to drink. After all, wine is a gift from God and should be enjoyed responsibly, or at least naked…”

Adam LaZarre, winemaker (from their site)

The Wines!

2016 Peju Merlot and 2017 LaZarre Merlot
2016 Peju Merlot and 2017 LaZarre Merlot

The Elegant – Peju 2016 Merlot – Napa Valley

This wine is sourced from the Estate vineyard in Rutherford and the Persephone vineyard which is located on the east side of Howell Mountain in the Pope Valley.  They practice sustainable farming, and the Rutherford property is Certified Organic.  They are working to certify all their vineyards in the next few years.  They also have a solar array covering over 10,000 square feet of the winery’s roof.

The details:

  • 95% Merlot, 5% Cab Sav
  • They describe the 2016 season as “near-perfect”
  • 17 months in French & American Oak (40% new)
  • 4,857 cases produced
  • 15% abv
  • SRP $48

The Badass – LaZarre 2017 Merlot – Paso Robles

This wine is from the Casa Grande Vineyard in the Adelaida District.  They note that this vineyard is on Vineyard Road almost as far as where it meets Adelaida Road.  The Merlot is grown on a south-facing slope in this cool-climate vineyard.  This is an area I love in Paso.  The trees and winding roads make for a heavenly drive.

The details:

  • 100% Merlot
  • 18 months is 60% New French oak, the rest in American Oak
  • 160 cases produced
  • 14% abv
  • SRP $48

What to eat with these?

Before we go into our thoughts on the wine, let’s tell you what we paired them with.

Red meat is a given for this, and we did steaks in garlic and Worcestershire. That’s pretty simple, buy we kicked it up with our sides doing a medley of sautéed carrots and potato swirls with parmesan.  The kicker was dessert…

The potatoes were the time-consuming part of the meal; boil, cool, rice, add delicious stuff, pipe into swirls, freeze then bake!  Whew!  But they were delicious.

Now to dessert which was heaven…. Molten chocolate cake with raspberry mousse!

The chocolate cake?  Okay, this felt like a cheat, but man it works well.  I did a chocolate mug cake in the microwave.  You can find the recipe here.  We did this once before, the problem is, it’s too big for one person to eat.  It’s just too rich.  So, we share.  It’s perfect for two.

The Raspberry Mousse was a bit more time and work, gelatin, water, raspberries, sugar, and crème.  There is some soaking and boiling and mixing and whipping and folding and chilling. But it’s all worth it.  This is lovely and not too sweet, which contrasts beautifully with the rich sweet chocolate cake.

I spooned the warm chocolate mug cake into 2 very fancy dessert glasses (Thanks RuBen!) then topped with the raspberry mousse, fresh raspberries, and mint.  This was heaven.

Beef Stirfry with bok choy and peppers

We also did a Day 2 pairing. These are big wines and we could not polish them off in one evening. That was actually perfect though, we could taste these again a second time after they had time to open up. This time we paired them with a steak stir fry with bok choy and peppers.

How did the wines do?

The Peju

Immediately I noticed the color in the glass, more red tones, and lighter than the LaZarre.  Upon dipping my nose in the glass I smelled red fruits like currant or plum and spice.  It opened to licorice, white pepper, and a bit of 5-spice.  In my mouth, there were tannins, medium in strength but rough in my mouth, like rubbing suede where the grain is not always in the same direction.  I felt a lift of alcohol on the back of my palate, that was not unpleasant. 

This was 15% abv, I expected it to blow me away and come off hot, but it did not.  It was balanced and elegant with good acid.  My final impression was “prim, forthright and elegant”.  It was beautiful with the food, elevating the steak.  It was a stunner with dessert.

The LaZarre

The nose was detailed and nuanced, I got multiple spices, light tobacco, and tea leaf with a background of light cocoa and cherries.  It opened to cherry cola with bits of cool eucalyptus.  In my mouth, this was fuller and came off as sweeter, still dry, but with sweet fruit notes. This is concentrated with fine smooth tannins.  Decidedly flashier, it has that Rockstar edge but toned down, this is the songwriter in the group, not the frontman.  It is big, but there is depth and nuance here. 

This is a wine that demands attention and didn’t want to share as much with the food.  However, the second day with the stir fry, this wine sang. I don’t know if it was the peppers or the onions or the seasonings, or if it had just opened up to a happy spot, but it came out on top with this second pairing.

#MerlotMe on #WinePW

We are just getting started!  We have 5 more wines we intend to share with you over the remainder of the month!  It’s Merlot Month people!  What’s in your glass?

In the meantime…take a gander at the pieces written by my colleagues at #WinePW and plan to join us Saturday morning on Twitter!

As always be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up to date on all of our posts.

Robin Renken CSW (photo credit RuBen Permel)

Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.

When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.

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Robin Renken
[email protected]
  • Andrea Lemieux
    Posted at 23:45h, 09 October Reply

    I love the elegant/rock star balance these two wines created! What great descriptions Robin.

  • Deanna
    Posted at 12:21h, 10 October Reply

    How refreshing to hear about your love/hate relationship with Cab Sauv. I usually just hear people raving about it all the time. Happy to hear you were able to join in the #merlotme celebration this year! These food pairings sounded just so fun and comforting with steak stir fry and chocolate mug cake??? Does it get any better?

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 08:14h, 11 October

      I have never been a big Cab Sav girl. It can be pretentious and expensive, and there are so many other wonderful wines to explore. Don’t get me wrong, if you offer me a cab, I won’t turn it down, I just find the culture surrounding this wine is not my typical jam.
      I am thrilled to have found a recipe for gooey chocolate cake that mixed in a mug and cooks in 90 seconds. Red wine and chocolate is a weakness! Lookout waistline!

  • advinetures
    Posted at 12:54h, 10 October Reply

    I’m also a right bank girl (no surprise) and you definitely got a wonderfully varied group of samples. LaZarre is new to us so we’ll be on the lookout. Despite being familiar with the other wines, we’re really looking forward to reading your reviews!

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 08:20h, 11 October

      LaZarre is a small producer, but worth looking out for! I will admit, that we tend to have a cellar stocked with Rhónes (imagine that). But, I do have a real soft spot for Merlot.

  • Nicole Ruiz Hudson
    Posted at 13:14h, 10 October Reply

    Elegant vs. Rock Stars — I love it! Such a fun way to frame it. Also, I’m so impressed with those potatoes!

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 08:17h, 11 October

      The potatoes were Michael’s idea. I found a cake decorating set that I don’t think I had ever opened to do the piping of the swirls, something I had never done. Michael helped (he was sure his piping skills were better lol). They were tasty, but next time I will add more cheese! Everything is better with more cheese!

  • Gwendolyn Alley aka Art Predator
    Posted at 23:09h, 10 October Reply

    Fun contrast! Also, only 160 cases for the Lazarre — no wonder I didn’t get one! And that dessert is making me hungry!

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 09:23h, 12 October

      I was so amazed when I saw that case count. It was a rare gem.
      As to the dessert, I could not believe how easy the cake was, and the mousse was so good (we ate it on its own for dessert for the next few days!

  • Always Ravenous
    Posted at 09:04h, 11 October Reply

    Always fun to compare two different wines of the same variety…sounds like you had two very different styles.
    Fun pairings, you had me at the mug chocolate cake with raspberry!

  • theswirlingdervish
    Posted at 15:02h, 11 October Reply

    Robin, I love your style continuum of Merlot wines! If I have to choose, I’ll take the Bad-Ass and pair it with Metallica’s Master of Puppets album. It would be old-school style delicious. 🙂

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 09:05h, 12 October

      I am sure Angie & Adam LaZarre would approve!

  • Lynn
    Posted at 03:06h, 12 October Reply

    So you’re a right bank girl?!? We mostly align. When you visit, because we WILL be able to travel one day, I’ll take you to Pessac-Leognan! Peju is a classic, the rock star is new to me. Seems a tad rebellious?!? We’ve experienced that day 2 phenomenon too… it’s like a stew or soup sitting overnight.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 09:21h, 12 October

      You can’t imagine how much I’m looking forward to planning a trip and getting to sip wine with you! I feel like in wine, as in most things, there is room for the classic and the rebel and so much more!
      I love thinking of wine like a stew on day 2! You are right, so often the flavors meld and grow richer! Cheers to you and a future visit to Pessac-Leognan!

  • Lori
    Posted at 14:16h, 13 October Reply

    So happy to see a Paso Merlot! I have not had his wines, but have heard wonderful things!

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 15:03h, 14 October

      There are so many wineries in Paso to explore. It’s been way too long since I have visited.

  • Linda Whipple, CSW
    Posted at 14:10h, 14 October Reply

    You had me at molten chocolate cake with raspberry mousse. I’m surprised but delighted to hear it paired so beautifully with the Peju. Love all your tasting notes and descriptive comparison!

  • Martin D. Redmond
    Posted at 21:11h, 16 October Reply

    I had a chance to do a media visit with Peju last year. A great property and Sarah Fowler is one helluva winemaker. Definitely elegant wines. Great tasting notes on the Lazarre too. It was great to have him join the chat. Nice pairing too Robin!

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 07:41h, 17 October

      The folks at Peju were so lovely when I spoke with them remotely, it’s nice to hear good things from someone who visited in person also.
      I do love it when wineries and winemakers join us for the chats and it was very nice to have Adam along.
      And thanks for the pairing compliment!

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