The movie Sideways crushed Merlot almost a decade ago. Is it time to show a little mercy – and appreciation – for a much maligned wine?
By Bob Hosmon
For the past decade, Merlot has gotten a bad rap it really doesn’t deserve. It’s actually the one red wine you should be drinking, but are not.
Consider the indisputable attributes of Merlot: It’s a “noble grape,” like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. It’s the major grape in the blend that produces popular reds from the St. Emilion region of Bordeaux, including such luminaries as Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone. And it’s the only grape in a bottle of Château Petrus, the most expensive wine produced in Bordeaux. The best argument for Merlot is that, when well-made, it is a wine that is low in tannins, soft and voluptuous on the palate, and yet rich and filled with complexity and nuances of spice and red and black fruits.
So, with all of those attributes, how did Merlot get such a bad reputation? In the 1990s it was riding high, prompted by the revelation of the French Paradox, heralded as a nice, entry-level, smooth red that was easy to drink and like. So what prompted Miles, the lead actor (Paul Giamatti) on his way to a restaurant dinner party in the 2004 movie Sideways, to insist to his sidekick, Jack, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving”? And what moved the audience in the movie theaters to laugh at that line?
The answer is simple: opportunism and greed. No sooner had American consumers learned to ask for “a glass of Merlot” instead of “a glass of Chardonnay,” when too many wineries, from California, Australia, Argentina and several other countries, began making too many mediocre – and sometimes really awful – wines called “Merlot.” Merlot vines were planted in places where they would never yield quality fruit but could yield high quantities of fruit. To add insult to injury, the bad or, at best mediocre, wines weren’t necessarily bargain priced. I remember sampling some unmemorable Merlots that were, at the time, retailing for up to $50 a bottle.
The upshot was, consumers were drinking unpleasant Merlots, and they didn’t like it. So they moved on to another red, Pinot Noir (a varietal, perhaps not coincidentally, praised in Sideways). Unfortunately, well-made quality Merlots from California and Washington State suffered sales losses as well. Indeed, because of the bitter taste left in the mouths of so many consumers, some people in the wine industry seriously believed that the future of high quality California-produced Merlot was finished.
Fortunately, they proved to be wrong. Enough wine fans realized that the Merlot grape, if planted in the right places, could produce red wines that were worthy of our attention. Some of those that deserve your attention include the budget-priced Merlots from Bogle, Bonterra, Frei Brothers, Murphy-Goode and Newton. Among the premium-priced (and worth it) Merlots from California, I like Duckhorn, Grgich Hills, and MacRostie.
And if you’re looking for some ultimate, non-French Merlot you’ll not find any better than Mt. Brave and Mt. Veeder Merlot, the La Jota Vineyard Co. Howell Mountain Merlot and the La Jota Vineyard Co. Keyes Vineyard Merlot. Each of these wines are made by Christopher Carpenter, a 48-year-old genius who clearly understands the virtue of mountain vineyards and just as clearly knows how to turn the grapes from those vines into liquid nirvana.
The point is: if you’re still thinking like Miles, you’re living in the wrong decade. There are lots of very good to excellent Merlots out there. Do yourself a favor and discover them before they get trendy again – you won’t be sorry. λ