Welcome to Merlot March Madness. Squid Ink has been training for weeks, swirling and sipping — definitely not spitting — to come up with just the right wines to drink during the Road to the Final Four. Why Merlot? It's just so college basketball friendly — a wine with none of the haughtiness of a high-dollar Cabernet (we advise you cellar those Cabs until The Masters, which conveniently begin the same day as the championship BB game), and many are wallet-friendly enough that even those paying out of state tuition can afford them. Oh, and we happen to dig alliterations.
The Rules: The wines must all be from the U.S., where basketball was born (which in Merlot-speak, pretty much limits the offerings to California and Washington), and reasonably priced. With sixty five teams in the running, who has the funds for $65 wines? You, of course, should choose the right wine based on your game-day confidence (we've provided suggestions after the jump), but we're saving the $80 Duckhorn for when we win the office pool. With three weeks ahead of missed free throws, crappy referee calls and reminders from the annoying intern that your NCAA office pool picks stink, we say let the wine pouring begin.
Blackstone 2007 Merlot
A solid basketball and burgers wine. Don't expect bells and whistles, but the newest release from Blackstone's everyday line is hard working, reliable and will get you through the second half. We suggest you drink it in the early rounds, when there are still way too many teams in the pool to justify an early celebration with a pricier wine. Available at BevMo, $10.
Blackstone Sonoma County 2007 Reserve
My what a difference $10 makes from the same head coach. This is the kind of Merlot you imagine winemaker Gary Sitton pulling out when he's certain you're a fan, but not quite sure he wants to pull out the $70 limited release Merlot. Bring on the prosciutto and bacon-wrapped dates, and we'll see who makes it to halftime. Available at most Ralph's, Von's and Albertson's, $20.
Charles Smith 2008 Velvet Devil Merlot
For those of us who so wanted to hate this wine (is this Merlot or a glam rock band?), just as we'd like to hate those teams that always seem de facto to make it into the brackets, we stand corrected. This Columbia Valley, Washington wine from Charles Smith Wines is reasonably priced and a crown pleaser — and so much more interesting than the price tag suggests. Available at Wally's Wine, $13.
Trader Joe's 2007 Merlot
We knew picking up a $4 bottle of Merlot was asking for Round 2 trouble, but the cheap stuff was too tempting to pass up on a recent crème fraiche run. And ya, it turns out a grocery store chain's Merlot is impossibly bad to drink straight up, but it's just fine in this speedy sangria recipe. Make the cocktails during the first half, when you've still got a hopeful enough crowd glued to the television that will volunteer to buy the pizza. Available at Trader Joe's, $4.
Flora Springs 2007 Napa Valley Merlot
Bright, young and at the ready with a Stelvin closure (fancy wine speak for a screw cap), Flora Springs is ideal for bad calls. We recommend keeping it on hand for last-minute, anger-reducing swigging. Available at Hi-Time Wine, $17.
Charles Krug 2006 Napa Valley Merlot
The 2006 Charles Krug is an easy drinking wine, with lots of fruit and high alcohol but just enough complexity to get you through the regional semifinals. Or you so hope. Don't blame us if your team loses, but do invite us over for the pork chops and chocolate soufflé. Available at Bevmo, $23.
Shafer 2007 Napa Valley Merlot
If your team makes it to the championship, go ahead, rub it in. Then buy a bottle of Shafer for the rest of us who weren't so lucky. It's half the price of the other big boys on the court, but still dark and fruity, a powerhouse wine. Available at Los Angeles Wine Co., $40.