Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Set up in the shadow of Skygate, site of this weekend's
Taste of Honolulu, are the top Merlot medal winners:
1999 Turning Leaf "Coastal" (Sensational Value) and
1997 Charles Krug "Reserve" (Best of Show).

Merlot for the masses
Where and when

By Betty Shimabukuro

Here we are in the dining room of one of the swankiest places in town -- La Mer -- sipping wine with some of the best-trained palates in town. Down at the other end of the table, they're talking about sense of taste, when one of the guys states quite cheerfully that he used to eat his mother's lipstick.

Well, he says, it smelled good and it was a pretty color.

The point here is not that eating lipstick builds better wine geeks, but that wine, wine drinking and wine knowledge don't have to be difficult, snobby pursuits.

And that brings us to today's point: Merlot.

Merlot is red wine with training wheels -- a soft, approachable wine that doesn't bite back in the manner of the "big reds" with their boatloads of tannin. Easy to drink, easy to spell, easy to pronounce (mare-low, with soft emphasis on the "mare"), Merlot has led many white-wine and non-wine drinkers into the land of the reds over the last decade.

And that brings us to Taste of Honolulu, specifically the R. Field Wine Tasting Center, which this weekend is paying particular attention to Merlot. Each year, in advance of Taste, a group of wine professionals gathers to award medals for the best locally available Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, these varietals being the most popular among American wine drinkers. But this year, Cabernet is out and Merlot is in, for the medal round, anyway.

Kevin Toyama of R. Field, who organized last month's Merlot tasting at La Mer, has sold Merlot as a retailer and poured it in his previous job at Padovani's Wine Bar & Bistro. It's a transition wine, Toyama says, more food-friendly than Cabernet. "Merlot, from a restaurant standpoint, is an easy way to introduce people to a red wine."

The popularity of Merlot in the last few years caught growers and wine makers unprepared, Toyama says, but they've caught up. "There's really a lot of good Merlot out there." That's opposed to 10 years ago, when Merlots were "kind of leafy and stemmy."

All things considered, he says, "it was time to do Merlot."

WINE NOTES (this is the part you'll be tested on later): Classic Merlot reflects rich plum and berry flavors, with silky smoothness and good use of oak to provide structure without harshness or the bitterness that can mark other reds.

The grape is often used in combination with others; for example, to smooth out a Cabernet Sauvignon.

A classic food pairing would be Merlot with beef tenderloin served with earthy mushrooms, or lamb flavored with rosemary and garlic.

"If God invented a more seductive grape, it would be downright dangerous," wine writer Michael Deves once said in the Australia & New Zealand Wine Industry Journal.

THE DANGER with Merlot is that it risks becoming a victim of its own success. Chuck Furuya, master sommelier and lead taster at the La Mer session, says Merlot's popularity is enticing growers to turn more and more land over to this grape, at the expense of other varietals.

One California winemaker calls it "Merlot-noma."

Bottom line: Merlot may be easy to drink, but good Merlot grapes are difficult to cultivate. The right soil, altitude, climate and growing practices all come into play, Furuya says, and all that is a challenge when growers start planting en masse.

Unlike varietals that can be manipulated by the winemaker's skills, great Merlots are born in the vineyard. "The challenge with Merlot is to maximize and enhance its flavor spectrum."

Be selective, he warns. "Make sure the flavor and character come from serious vineyard work, as opposed to overzealous winemaking."

Randy Ching, cellarmaster for La Mer, also advises selectiveness. "You have a lot of bogus Merlot out there."

A good way to avoid that is to spend a little more -- get out of that lowest price range into the midlevel of around $20, Ching says. "That's a real happy area."

Beware the very expensive wines, though, he says. Some of those can be overmanipulated, overmuscled and harsh.

MEDALS FOR Taste of Honolulu's Merlots were awarded at a marathon tasting session, amid a great deal of swishing, sniffing and spitting (the usual wine-tasting stuff). Wines submitted for tasting had to be available retail in Hawaii.

At one point, Ching noted that a certain Merlot had a lipstick aroma -- and from this came a story out of his preschool years, when he'd sneak into the bathroom and nibble the tip of his mother's lipstick. He kept hoping it would taste like the candy smell he'd catch when she kissed his cheek. It never did.

And he did get caught -- "you know, you can't get the red out of your teeth."

All this goes to prove that wine tasting is as much art and personal experience as it is science.

To this day, Ching can pick out a candied-fruit smell that he identifies as lipstick in certain Merlots and Pinot Noirs.

"Only I can relate to it, I guess."



Taste of Honolulu

Featuring: Foods from two dozen Oahu restaurants:
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday
Place: Honolulu Civic Grounds (next to city hall)
Admission: $3; seniors and children free. Purchase scrip to buy food.
Free parking: Underground city lot, off Beretania and Alapai streets
Call: 536-1015

R. Field Wine Tasting Center

What you get: Open tasting of more than 150 wines, one cheese plate, admission to classes, souvenir glass
Cost: $18 or $31.50 per couple
Hours: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday, 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, noon to 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Cheese tasting

What you get: 10 gourmet cheeses offered per day, including a variety of blue cheeses, bries, camemberts and goat cheeses, in the wine center
Cost: $2 per plate

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