From the greatest wine-producing country on Earth comes a varietal that has made memories fond to the heart in red wine drinkers. Its? origins date back centuries and it is Bordeaux?s most planted black-grape variety. Its true name is merlot noir but here and most everywhere, now, it is referred to as merlot.

In French and, even further in Latin, the word merlot means ?young blackbird.? With this, it was probably given this name to allude to the grape?s dark-blue color. These wines are rich and fruity, very dark in color and have characteristics of ripe cherry and black currants.

Merlot definitely tends to mature on the vine and ripen fairly early compared to its counterpart, cabernet sauvignon. It has lower tannins and higher sugar levels and, certainly, does not age as long.

Merlot also tends to be a bit rounder than cabernet and although many people believe it is mainly used to blend with cabernet, it does amazingly on its own and is the main grape in St. Emilion and Pomerol. As of today, it has moved all over the world from Italy to South America and has made a tremendous splash right here in California where such producers as Schaffer, Swanson, Duckhorn, Keenan and the O?Brien family produce outstanding versions of this ancient and prominent varietal.

After the 2005 film ?Sideways,? the merlot market, worldwide, took and incredible hit when the main character, Paul Giamatti, exclaimed, ?I?m not drinking any #$%@!!#$ merlot!? At this time, he had lost the love of his life, was wandering aimlessly, and was partying like a college student on spring break. We loved him for his words and, for many, loved to hate merlot. Paul?s character, actually, did not.

Pinot noir sales skyrocketed and merlot went into the tank. Herein, lays the irony. What was that big, beautiful bottle that Paul Giamatti opened to drink at the very end of the movie by himself? What finished that crazy pinot noir tour of these two insane men that partied and played like they were the direct descendants of John Belushi? It was not pinot noir. It was merlot noir, or merlot.

As it is my aspiration to help people get introduced or re-introduced to this fantastic wine. I personally love it and enjoy the way it? soft velvet and deep, dark fruit work on the palette. Although hilarious, don?t let Uncle Paul?s words get in the way from you experiencing one of the most important grapes in the wine industry.

If you are interested, Vine and Barrel will be holding its Valentine merlot tasting on Saturday, Feb. 9 from 3 to 6 p.m. Fourteen-plus wineries have already signed up and each of the ones I mentioned above will be there. There will be food to pair and a great chance to learn, in depth, about the wine with winemakers and sample an entire array of merlots from St. Emilion right here to Sonoma County!

(Jason Jenkins is the owner of Vine and Barrel, a wine shop at 143 Kentucky St. He offers Wednesday night wine education classes from 6 to 8 p.m. and Saturday tastings from 4 to 7 p.m. He can be contacted at 765-1112. The Web site is www.vineand barrel.com)