Hey, merlot — where did you go?

No sooner had those slackers from Cycle Oregon skedaddled out of Ashland after only biking up a 4,647-foot ascent to the ski resort on their day off before continuing on their quest to lap Southern Oregon than I got a brilliant idea. Instead of arriving in my usual auto-provided, air-conditioned comfort, I could glide over to tasting rooms on a bike to test-drive wines.

On a brisk, 93-degree day, I dusted off my '80s padded bike pants, stepped into my Keds with the sexy toe guards and jumped onto a trusty two-wheeler. I packed light: credit card, health-insurance card and scribbled notes on combating heatstroke. I propped a helmet onto my inflated head and took off with such a self-propelled forced that I'm sure people south of me heard what sounded like a sonic boom.

After one complete rotation of the wheels, I was slightly winded. A few more times around, and my mind was whirling more than the bike tires. I looked down at my wide thighs, glistening and heating in the sun, and enjoyed a fleeting thought about getting some doughnut dough and seeing if I could use this greasy surface to prepare a fresh snack, like beignets.

Two minutes into my ride, I regrettably joined up with hard-core locals who have bikes unlike the one I was riding. Theirs have brand names like Trek and Specialized that have not been rubbed off over time or scratched off by embarrassed passengers. These carbon-framed aerodynamic machines would make a NASA engineer cry with envy.

The riders were even sleeker machines. They had shoes with steel pegs that attached to the bike pedals, making these humans look like Transformers. They had moisture-wicking, spandex shorts with chafe-resistant chamois lining and body-fitting shirts. My body-fitting XXL shorts and cotton T-shirt absorbed every ounce of sweat and turned me into a squishy SpongeBob SquarePants.

The seasoned riders took off from the Bear Creek Greenway in Talent toward Medford, and I followed — so slowly it was an anti-gravity miracle that I stayed upright. Suddenly — well, really hours later — I met the downside of a slope that sent me flying at full speed. The wheels spun by themselves, and I remembered the youthful joy of bike riding. It seemed that with each freewheeling minute, I was in a time machine backpedaling into the past. It felt like the year 2000, then 1990. A stop sign at the foot of the slope forced me to linger in 1980.

Ah, 1980. Those heady days of nightclubbing in Madonna-inspired black lace and proudly ordering a fruit-bomb merlot.

Yes, merlot once was in vogue. Like pricier cabernet sauvignon, merlot tasted great with steak. But the cool, cab alternative brought out the best of humble pizza, pasta and meatloaf, too. Its versatility was touted by every waiter praying for a happy customer and a big tip.

Then, sadly, merlot went the way of scrunched leggings, exposed brassieres and fishnet gloves. Some people think Miles Raymond, the inflexible wine drinker in the 2004 movie "Sideways," made it social suicide to even glance at a merlot. Still, without status, it remains the third-most-purchased wine in the United States, mainly because people can pronounce it and afford it, and winemakers blend it with other grapes.

The snooty joke about merlot: How do you make a great merlot? Use as little as possible.

In Oregon, merlot is planted far less than pinot noir, cabernet sauvigon and syrah. But there is a sweet spot for it in the Rogue Valley, where the sometimes-impulsive climate allows this early-ripener to reach its peak flavor every year. Small and large wine producers are making it, though it's not always on the top of the tasting list.

"It's predictable," says Dick Ellis of Pebblestone Cellars in Medford. And he means that in a good way. On the day I pedaled his way, he was pouring 2008 Merlot ($21) from vines he planted nine years ago. More so than Miles slamming it, merlot got a bad rap from time- and cost-cutting producers, Ellis says. He makes 100-percent merlot as he does his syrah and cab, aging it in oak barrels for 18 months, then in bottles for one to two years to develop the aromas and flavors.

Try a glass at Gogi's in Jacksonville, Pomodori Ristorante in Medford and Roscoe's in Phoenix. Yes, Miles, merlot also goes great with barbecue.

Maybe easy-drinking, unpretentious merlot is like my bland bike while cabernet is more like those slick rockets the Cycle Oregon people ride. But that's OK. There are plenty of country roads for all of us.

TASTED: I always think a Rogue Valley party is elevated when Willamette Valley winemaker Joe Dobbes shows up. The Southern Oregon University graduate now is one of the state's top wine producers with his Wine by Joe and Dobbes Family Estate wines, as well as other labels. He returns to his roots often, mostly to check out grapes he's been buying from the Moore family's Quail Run Vineyards since the early 1990s.

A few Saturdays ago, Dobbes was the star of a winemaker's dinner at the Moores' South Stage Cellars tasting room in Jacksonville. Poured during three courses were wines Dobbes makes for South Stage Cellars: 2009 Marsanne-Roussanne Serendipity ($26), 2009 Grenache-Syrah Rhapsody ($28), 2008 Tempranillo-Cab Alchemy ($35) and 2010 Semi-Sparkling Early Muscat ($23). What? No merlot? Vino trivia: The Moores' Griffin Creek merlot was named by Wine Spectator as the best wine from Oregon in 1996, placing Southern Oregon in critics' consciousness for the first time.

EVENT: The long-anticipated grand opening of Kriselle Cellars is this weekend in Sams Valley. Taste 2009 Tempranillo ($34), Cabernet Franc ($27), Cabernet Sauvigon ($32) or 2010 Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier, each $19, on the expansive viewing deck that sits above 25 acres of vines, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 28 and Sept. 29, and from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30. The tasting room at 12956 Modoc Road in White City will be open daily from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

While in the Upper Rogue, soak in bluegrass and enjoy Crater Lake Cellars wine by the ounce, glass or bottle at the Prospect Historic Hotel's Music in the Mountains Festival, starting at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 29 and Sept. 30. I think the town of Prospect has recovered from the Cycle Oregon stay. I haven't.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email jeastman@mailtribune.com


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