Trinity County has the distinction of being the third leg of the infamous “Emerald Triangle,” the prolific and prosperous Northern California marijuana growing region. Landlocked, it is somewhat less famous than its coastal neighbors, Mendocino and Humboldt counties. It is also much more remote and difficult to access, which contributes to its mystery and intrigue. The primary legal industry (at the time of this writing, cultivation of marijuana is still illegal) is timber, although that has been in decline for some years. Fortunately, Trinity County boasts some very rugged terrain with a variety of rich soils, the result of centuries of geologic upheaval, which are excellent for growing vitis vinifera.
The official American Viticultural Area (AVA) located within Trinity County is the Trinity Lakes AVA. There are only two wineries located within the Trinity Lakes AVA, (Alpen Cellars and One Maple Estate Vineyards & Winery), but there are others in the greater Trinity County region. The entirety of Trinity County is not yet recognized as an AVA yet, but it is just a matter of time. The rugged beauty of this part of the state is breathtaking, but takes real dedication to make the journey. There simply is no easy way to get there! Trinity County may never achieve anywhere near the wine-tourism traffic as Napa or Sonoma, but one wonders if that’s a bad thing. The trip from Napa or Sonoma to greater Trinity County is anywhere from four to six hours by car. If you are up it, you will be rewarded by the stunning scenery and fantastic wines!
Fortunately for the less adventurous among us, we don’t have to travel hours of backroads and switchbacks. One Trinity County winery has its tasting room solidly rooted on the floor of the Sacramento Valley: Merlo Family Estate Vineyards. Located inside The Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg, just minutes from Lodi, Merlo produces some outstanding wines. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Merlo Wine Club.) I recently stopped in to pick up my club order, and tasted through their current releases. These are some amazing wines: a lightly oaked, refined Chardonnay; a light and crisp Syrah Rosé; and some blockbuster, big, bold reds. Their signature red blend, Blackbird (the family name Merlo means Blackbird in Italian) is an addictive 50/50 blend of Syrah and Zinfandel. So addictive, I’ve heard that it’s sometimes lovingly referred to as “Crackbird.”
I spent the better part of an hour chatting with proprietor, Ray Merlo, in between other customers. Ray is an engaging, personable man, who is passionate about his wine, and dedicated to educating people to help enhance their enjoyment. Ray is committed to quality; so much so that he pulled his 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the market for several years because he felt it just wasn’t ready. For only a few vintages, Ray was able to procure some high quality Napa fruit, which he hand-harvested in the wee hours of the morning, and then rushed to his winery in Trinity County for crush and vinification. Of such high quality were these grapes that they required years of bottle aging before the wine matured enough to really enjoy. He only recently reintroduced it, and from the generous tasted I had, I can say it was well worth the wait. Rich and full bodied, with classic Napa Cabernet aromas and flavors, this 2006 is amazingly smooth. You’d expect to pay $75 to $100 for a Napa Cab of this quality, but retail price is only $59, and club members pay only $48.
Below are my reviews of the current release portfolio. Some are pretty brief; I was enjoying the conversation and didn’t take copious notes…
Merlo Family Estate Chardonnay 2012
Lightly oaked allowing the fruit to take center stage. Apple and pear with some grapefruit notes. Soft mouthfeel and just a hint of toasted oak on the finish.
4.0 Stars (88-91 points) $20 Retail/$16 Club
Merlo Family Estate Syrah Rosé 2014
Light, crisp rose. Medium pink color, with Flavors of strawberry, raspberry, and watermelon. A nice, dry rose for those hot summer days!
4.0 Stars (88-91 points) $18 Retail/$15 Club
Merlo Family Estate Pinot Noir 2012
Rich, earthy Pinot Noir, in the classic NorCal style. Purple color with ruby rim. Aromas of ripe plums and spice. Flavors of ripe plum, blueberry, cherry, and earth with a lingering finish of dark fruit and soft earth tones.
4.0 Stars (88-91 points) $27 Retail/$22 Club
Merlo Family Estate Blackbird (NV)
Delicious blend of Syrah and Zinfandel. Smooth tannins reveal flavors of blackberry, blueberry, and spice. Nice, long, spicy finish.
4.5 Stars (92-94 points) $18 Retail/$15 Club
Merlo Family Estate Syrah 2012
Deep and brooding, this is a rich, full bodied Syrah. Inky purple, with aromas of blackberry and spice. Flavors of dark berry, ripe blueberry, black pepper, and oak. The wine coats the mouth and lingers with an earthy, spicy finish.
4.5 Stars (92-94 points) $25 Retail/$20 Club
Merlo Family Estate Zinfandel 2011
Big, bold, juicy, and spicy. This is an “in your face” wine that doesn’t hold back. Ripe, juicy blackberry and black cherry mingle with spicy black pepper. The tannins are big and chewy, balanced with light acidity. The finish hangs around awhile to remind you of just how amazing that last sip was, inviting you to take another sip.
4.5 Stars (92-94 points) $25 Retail/$20 Club
I hope you get the opportunity to try some of these exceptional Trinity County wines, and that you’re inspired to get out and explore some Lesser Known AVAs.