Merlo Family Estate Vineyards
Producing a rare collection of richly flavored and expressive wines from California's rugged North Coast
The Merlo Family of Redding in Northern California can trace their family roots back to the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, the source of many of Italy’s greatest wines. Some hoarier relatives of the family were actually in the wine business, a fact made clear to Ray and Robin Merlo on a trip there several decades ago. The Merlos actually visited the old Merlo family vineyard, planted four generations before and still perfectly maintained to this day by a cousin.
The first hand experience proved critical to the young couple and increased their appreciation of wine and the complexity and dedication involved in growing world-class grapes.
The couple returned to California and their existing medical practices, but kept the idea of growing grapes and owning a winery in the back of their minds. An old school friend, Randall Meredith, had discovered an area not far from their home that he considered ideal for planting grapes and establishing a winery. The Merlos began visiting the area and helping with the harvests. In the late 1990’s, some already planted land in the remote Hyampom Valley beckoned and the wick was lit on the candle that would eventually become Merlo Family Estate Vineyards.
As a means of explanation, the Hyampom Valley is a pristine place located in Trinity County, a bit more than halfway between interior Redding and Eureka, on the California Coast. It is currently the home to several wineries and more importantly, a place that contains marvelous alluvial soils that are perfect for growing serious, world-class fruit.
Ray and Robin Merlo immediately set out to plant additional vineyards (Sangiovese and Nebbiolo) and build a small winery on the property. The first release of some 10,000 cases of Merlo Family Estate Vineyards wine came in 2004. The winery began selling its product and has since continued on that course.
Merlo Family Estate Vineyards is a true family business, with a number of the family members involved.
In addition to the parents, Ray and Robin, who serve as owners (Ray is also general manager), son Duane is the vineyard manager. Travis does the administrative duties and assists with sales. Sisters Heather and Megan help around harvest time for the close knit family.
The winery today remains at the 10,000-case level, but can be expanded if the situation arises. A total of sixty acres is currently under vine and produces exceptional fruit from the growing region that is just a small blip on the California growing regions’ radar.
The winery has two tasting rooms, one at the winery in Hyampom Valley, and the other in Clarksburg, CA, some 15 minutes south of Sacramento.
The winery’s labels feature a red-winged blackbird, a natural inhabitant of Northern California’s vineyard lands and the family bird - so to speak. Merlo means blackbird in Italian and thus the obvious choice to adorn the Merlo family’s incredible wine labels.
Under the hand of Ray Merlo, the entire family continues to strive to make world-class wines that will bring even more exposure to their idyllic growing area.
“Our valley must be seen to be believed,” Ray Jr. declared. “It is almost as perfect as one could imagine for growing superior grapes.”
Map of the area
The Art of Fine Wine
Old Vineyard with Peasant Woman
Vincent van Gogh made this drawing in May 1890 when he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. It was later washed in diluted oils and watercolor to give it some warmth.
Hyampom Valley of Trinity County
Many wine insiders have not heard of the region supporting this month’s Gold Wine Club selection, Merlo Family Estate Vineyards. The actual region is called the Hyampom Valley, a remote river valley hidden amongst the inter-coastal mountains of Southern Trinity County in upper Northern California.
The Hyampom Valley is formed by the convergence of the South Fork of the Trinity River and Hayfork Creek. It is an area of only 20 square miles and is sparsely populated. It is approximately 100 miles north of Napa Valley as a means of comparison. This northerly, cooler location allows for longer growing and ripening seasons, decidedly important for certain varietals. Its geologic composition makes for excellent vine growing conditions, and its natural altitude (around 2,500 feet) assures the Hyampom Valley excellent availability of rain, heat and humidity. It is completely surrounded by 6,000-foot mountains that tend to hold the nearly pristine conditions. There are 2,000 arable acres that are composed of ancient shales, metamorphic rocks and decomposing granite. The result is a virtual cornucopia of alluvial soils that accommodates a large number of varietals, in particular, varietals that enjoy colder, damp weather.
The word ‘Hyampom’ comes from the northern Wintu Indian word ‘Hien-pom.” The actual meaning is not clear, but there have been many speculations. According to anthropologist, A.L. Kroeber, the term “pom” means “land” or “place,” but the meaning of the balance of the word is unknown. “High Valley”, “Low Valley,” “Pleasant Valley,” “Place of Plenty,” and “Place at the Base of the Mountain” are some of the speculations of the actual meaning of the word, Hyampom.
Steve Canter - Winemaker
Winemaker Steven Canter grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, about twenty miles outside of Boston, and came all the way to Trinity County to accept the position of Winemaker and Viticulturist for Merlo Family Estate Vineyards.
Although neither of his parents were foodies nor wine enthusiasts while he was growing up, Steve developed an early interest in cooking and found that he had both a well tuned palate and thirst for wine knowledge. He began his quest by working in wine retail before traveling the world and gaining a unique global understanding of the world of wine as well as learning the fine art of winemaking.
He brings a distinctive perspective to Merlo Family Estate Vineyards and enjoys the challenge of crafting the expressive, unique varietal wines of Hyampom Valley. His family couldn’t be happier with their move to the region, as he declares, “I feel incredibly lucky to grow and make wine in such a pristine environment, and am able to raise my family here. We feel like we have truly found our home.”
Ray Merlo, Jr. - Second Generation
When he discusses his family’s vineyards and winery, Ray Merlo Jr. is awash in praise for his parents and siblings in their efforts to produce world-class fruit and wines.
“Our efforts are truly a communal effort,” he explained. “And, it all comes from our hearts. We take our jobs most seriously and are determined to make the winery into something special. We all wear a number of different hats to accomplish our family’s goals.”
Ray Merlo, Jr., and his clan have undertaken a monumental job in attempting to establish a previously unknown area located in extremely rural Northern California.
“No one expected it to be easy,” the personable Ray Merlo, Jr., stated during a recent interview. “But, my father and mother were determined to carry on an old family tradition. They wanted to make our wines with the old world influences of our family’s history. Translated, that means simply that our wines will age well, because they are meant to be aged. They are also food-specific wines that will compliment certain food groups. That is another of our intentions, a return to food friendly wines.”
From the initial public response, it seems that Merlo Family Estate Vineyards is well on its way to fulfilling a number of its goals.
Ray Merlo Jr., is pleased with the accolades his family’s winery has garnered. “We have always taken great pride in our fruit,” he explained. “We work the vineyards and only extract between 2 and 3 tons per acre, on the lower side of yields as vineyards go. Our wines are powerful. They are made to be set down and aged. The fruit develops in the bottle - the classical method of development that our relatives in Italy have perfected.”
Another important aspect of his family’s business directly affects Ray Jr. It involves the pricing of his wine portfolio, his direct responsibility as national sales manager.
“I really believe we enjoy a superior price/quality ratio,” he informed. “We give more for the buck than many wineries. Part of it involves our location in Hyampom Valley, which is not yet exactly a household name. The other is our relationship with our customer base. When the recession hit everyone, we were sympathetic to the blast everyone was taking. The recession hit just as we were coming into the national market and we, like most of our customers, were forced to take in a notch on our belts.”
Ray Merlo Jr., also possesses a keen sense of humor. With a name that sounds and is pronounced just like Merlot, he has suffered the barbs of well-intended friends and customers.
“We use the similarity to explain our heritage. The name comes with the territory and there isn’t much any of us can do about it,” he said.
“We are a unique opportunity to enjoy some marvelous wines made from exceptional fruit,” he concluded. “Since our last name it Merlo, we think it’s one winery name you won’t soon forget.”