Merlot’s popularity — it’s the most requested red wine in restaurants, for example — means there are a lot of bottles out there that most of us would just as soon not drink. Merlot comes from everywhere (California, Pacific Northwest, Australia, France, Italy, South America), and much of it is churned out in such vast quantities that it’s not hard to imagine a huge herd of merlot cows, with milking machines running from their udders to the bottling plant.

Poorly made merlot is ashy tasting or bitter or both, with little of the smoothness that differentiates the wine from the much stronger-bodied cabernet sauvignon. But it’s possible to find well-made merlot, even at the lowest price range. Consider the following, each of which goes with a wide range of red wine-style meals:

• Barwang 2001 ($9). The Australians keep flooding the U.S. with their wine, so prices keep dropping, and values like this keep cropping up. It’s more European than a California merlot, which means it’s crisper and less soft.

• Chateau St. Michelle 2000 ($17). A traditional American-style merlot from the Pacific Northwest that is velvety, as a good merlot should be, and that provides a pleasant aftertaste — the mark of a properly produced wine.

• Steele Lake County 2000 ($20). Jed Steele is one of California’s most respected independent producers, and almost all of his wines are worth tasting. This is high-end merlot that could even stand a little aging, which isn’t common at this price.

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