R. Merlo Estate Vineyards

North Coast AVA

A new family winery emerges from California’s most remote wine region

The Merlo Family of Redding in Northern California 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.

That 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 R. 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 R. Merlo Estate Vineyards wine came in 2004. The winery began selling its product and continued on that course until the disastrous recession of the past few years took its course. “The recession really shook up everyone in the wine industry,” commented Ray Merlo, Jr., the company’s general sales manager. “A good number of small wineries were forced out of business. We were fortunate to have survived. If anything, the experience actually made us closer. We are a true family business, with a number of my brothers and sisters also involved.”

In addition to the parents, Ray and Robin, who serve as owners (Ray is also general manager), son Duane, 35, is vineyard manager. Travis, 34, does the administrative duties and assists with sales. Sisters Heather and Megan help around harvest time for the close knit family.

“We are actually heading to the time where we call R. Merlo Estate Vineyards the Merlo Family Estate Vineyards,” Ray Jr., further explained. “That name is more genuine to the nature of our business.” 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.”

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About the Vineyard

Many wine insiders have not heard of the region supporting this month’s Gold Selection, R. Merlo Estate Vineyards. The actual region is called the Hyampom Valley, a remote area 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 location allows for a longer growing and ripening seasons, decidedly important for certain varietals.

Its geologic composition makes for excellent vine growing conditions, and its natural altitude (around 2500 feet) assure 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 2000 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, and in particular, varietals that enjoy colder, damp weather.

Steve Canter - Winemaker

The R. Merlo Estate Vineyards winery has recently gained a new winemaker, Steve Canter, who comes to Trinity County all the way from Lexington, Massachusetts. Although neither of his parents were foodies or 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 R. Merlo Estate Vineyards and enjoys the challenge of crafting the expressive, unique varietal wines of Hyampom Valley. His family couldn’t be happier with the recent move, as he declares, ‘We now 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 growing area located in extremely rural Northern California. No one expected it to be easy,” the personable 36-year-old 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 R. Merlo Estate Vineyards is well on its way to fulfilling a number of its goals.

‘We are available in some twelve states at this time,” Ray Jr., stated proudly. ‘Of course, California is our largest market. Then, the East Coast, from New York through the Carolinas is productive as well. I have also established an excellent relationship with the Pennsylvania state control people, and Pennsylvania is our second largest market.” 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 involved the pricing of the 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 consumer 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 is Merlo, we think it’s one winery name you won’t soon forget.”