Highway 12, 2019 Merlot, Sonoma County

Highway 12 Vineyards and Winery winemaker Michael Sebastiani said he was wary of Mother Nature during fire season. So if the grapes are ready, he doesn’t hesitate to pick them.

“We’ve had to cancel picks in the past due to smoke damage,” he said. “We increased some tonnages (produced more wine) in response to smoke damage, to keep our wines available.”

Sebastiani is behind our wine of the week winner – the Highway 12, 2019 Merlot, Sonoma County, 14.2%, $28. It is a seamless merlot with aromas and flavors of black raspberry, plum and vanilla. It is well integrated, with a nice length. As for a house style, the winemaker said he and his team wanted to create a Merlot that could stand on its own.

“Merlot has taken a hit in popularity over the years,” the winemaker said. “But people can be presented with a Merlot that exceeds their expectations, because it all starts in the vineyard. We know we want to make this grape and treat it with as much respect as Cabernet.

The winning Merlot came from a vineyard in which Sebastiani has grown grapes for decades.

“We know the characteristics of each block, to determine which blocks will be used for mixing,” he said. “This particular Merlot is in a perfect terroir. The Merlot shows strong tannins and body and is highlighted by its natural fruit characters.

Sebastiani, 49, graduated in 1993 with a degree in enology and viticulture from UC Davis.

“I worked with wine for 32 harvests, I was born there and raised there,” he said. “It’s very important to understand that this is a team effort, from the producers to the winery to the tasting room. Everyone who stays involved makes great wine.

The winemaker began working the crops when he was a teenager, at Sonoma’s Sebastiani Vineyards, his family’s winery which was founded in 1904 and is now owned by the Foley Wine Group.

Highway 12, on its website, is referred to as “friendly ownership” instead of family ownership. There’s a story there: Sebastiani and Paul Giusto, longtime friends, pooled their resources and talents in 2004 and co-founded the brand. They named it Highway 12 because, they say, they are the stewards of this west-to-east highway that is home to so many vineyards.

“Anyone who has visited the Sonoma wine country will know that Highway 12 is considered California’s ‘Wine Highway’, stretching from Sevastopol to the Russian River Valley in the west, then rolling east through Sonoma Valley, Carneros, Napa Valley, the California Delta region and ending just past Lodi at the San Andreas Fault,” their website states.

The key to winemaking, Sebastiani said, is understanding what people like best in a wine.

“The idea is not (to) make the wine for oneself but for everyone to enjoy,” he said. “My business partner (Giusto) and I work hard to understand flavor profiles, what people prefer, and work together to produce wines accordingly. As far as I am concerned, we are all winegrowers here.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at [email protected] or 707-521-5310.

Elisha A. Tilghman