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I didn’t get the Merlot memo

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Apparently, Merlot is “back.” That’s what Bloomberg News’s Ryan Flinn (my friend and a fellow Oaklander) says in this online article, which has the wine “rebounding” after its Sideways debacle.

I did not know that, but then, there are lots of things I don’t know. So I decided to do a little research and see if Merlot really is rebounding.

The statement that got me was, “California winemakers say sales of upscale merlots are rising. And, after four years of declines, new acreage devoted to the grape almost tripled in 2009.”

I went to my “California Grape Acreage Report, 2009 Crop” (the most recent available from the Calfornia Dept. of Food and Agriculture): In 2009 there were 46,229 acres of Merlot in California (bearing and non-bearing). In 2008 there were 47,263 acres. In 2007 there were 49,781 acres. In 2006 there were 53,384 acres. So what’s this “new acreage devoted to the grape almost tripled in 2009.”?

Nor did non-bearing acreage increase in 2009 over previous years. (The Dept. of Food and Agriculture considers vines under 3 years of age to be non-bearing.) I won’t bore you with the numbers, but in 2009 there were actually fewer non-bearing acres of Merlot than in 2008, 2007 or 2006. So I called Ryan and asked how he got the “almost tripled” statistic.

He said he got it because in 2008 there were 57 new acres of Merlot planted in California, and in 2009 the number of new acres had risen to 158. So it was technically true that from 2008 to 2009 the number of new acres of Merlot “almost tripled.”

But consider a few more facts. In 2006, the number of new acres of Merlot was 449–way more than 2009’s 158, which was the lowest number of acres of new Merlot of the entire decade (except for 2008). So 2009 did not represent some new era of Merlot installation. It was just a few more vineyards.

And consider, also, that 2009’s 158 new acres represented about .03% of the total number of acres of Merlot in California. That hardly seems indicative of a rebound.

Finally, where were those new Merlot vines planted? In order, by county: San Luis Obispo, San Joaquin, Napa (49 acres), Mendocino, Sonoma and Alameda (!!). The problems here are obvious. There may be some decent new plantings of Merlot coming online, here and there, but not enough to make the slightest different in the overall market.

I don’t blame the winemakers Ryan interviewed for talking Merlot up. They included Philippe Melka, Janet Trefethen, Jeff Smith (Hourglass) and Doug Shafer. They all make great Merlots. But of course they’re going to say positive things about it when a reporter asks them.

I think the truth about the state of Merlot was more accurately expressed by Christian Moueix, in an interview in the Jan. 31, 2011 issue of Sommelier Journal. “The fame of Merlot was partly destroyed by that stupid movie Sideways…Petrus was not directly affected by that movie, but my basic Merlot that I used to sell in the States–about 1 million cases all told–was almost destroyed…”.

There are difficulties with Merlot, more so than with any of the other Bordeaux red varieties. Give it too much heat, and the wine turns heavy and dull. Not enough heat, and it’s thin and harsh. It seems to like clay soils, which are not found everywhere in California, especially in the mountains and hills. In my experience, more serious winemakers are eliminating Merlot from their Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends, relying more on Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Yes, there will always be great Merlots and popular ones on restaurant wine lists, but I have to respectfully disagree with Ryan. I don’t think Merlot is on the rebound. It had its day in the sun. It may still be the third-most consumed variety in America (after Cabernet and Chardonnay), but I’ll bet a lot of that Merlot is in boxes and jugs, and was grown in the Central Valley.

  1. We did a survey in 2005 of regular wine drinkers that included questions on frequency of drinking several varieties and whether respondents had seen a list of current movies. There was a strong correlation between seeing Sideways and drinking more Pinot Noir, but a very small, barely significant correlation between seeing the movie and drinking less Merlot. Nielsen came to a similar conclusion in their scan and survey research on Merlot in 2009-10. There was no real “Sideways Effect” on Merlot for consumers. Merlot’s main troubles are with the trade and wine media. Sideways was just an excuse.

    I agree that the Merlot market does skew more towards $10 and below than most other varieties, and selling $20+ Merlot is problematic. But again I wonder how much is due to the gatekeepers and influencers vs. genuine consumer perceptions.

  2. “The fame of Merlot was partly destroyed by that stupid movie Sideways…”

    Ooooh, now, steady on. Are we really saying that people’s personal tastes are so fickle that they can be destroyed by one particular movie character’s belligerent opinion? People are not suddenly going to dislike Merlot just because a character does. Christian Miller is right; that’s just an excuse.

    And clearly, it was not a “stupid” movie; it actually promoted wine drinking, describing and understanding in a very valuable way to an enormous audience.

  3. Ryan Flinn says:

    Hi Steve — I’d like to give a little more background on my article for your readers. As a reporter who happens to love wine, I frequently attend tastings, talk to industry types and read a wide range of publications, blogs (including yours, which I check out on a daily basis) and columns on wine. I also try to write about both the business of wine and review bottles whenever my editors let me. Something that surprised me last year was the number of merlots I tried that stood out at some of these tastings. So I started to ask around, what’s the status of merlot these days? Are people making better versions? Are sales up? And the answer I heard from numerous people across the industry was yes. I found several grape growers in Napa who were adding new acreage, as well as winemakers who were debuting new bottles. These are people who are putting capital into the varietal, not the more popular cab, in an economy where drinkers aren’t splurging like they used to. So that was one factor that, to me, said there is movement toward the grape again. I also heard from several sommeliers, including Petra at Epic, that drinkers were ordering merlot more frequently at restaurants than they had in the past. As for the overall acreage totals, if you look at the USDA stats (http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Grape_Acreage/200904gabtb05.pdf)
    You see that new acreage of merlot has been on a pretty stark decline last decade — 2002: 1,291 new acres, 2003: 879 acres, 2004: 810 acres; 2005: 575 acres, 2006: 449 acres, 2007: 143 acres, 2008: 57 acres, 2009: 158 acres. So from 2002 to 2008, the number of new acres of merlot fell 95 percent. Then, in 2009, we see the number jump up for the first time in years (when overall total red wine new grape acreage fell that year 46 percent to 2,382 acres in California). Does that stat alone say merlot is back? No, but I don’t hang the entire article just on that number. If you add in the comments from winemakers saying sales are up, grape growers who are planting more acreage, and sommeliers who say drinkers are asking for more merlot, I felt I had a solid case showing some movement back to merlot. Merlot certainly isn’t back to where it was pre-Sideways, but I never say that in the article. In fact I say that the grape hasn’t reclaimed its previous No. 1 status as the top red wine in the U.S. And I quote Petra again saying that some drinkers till won’t touch the stuff. But overall I found it to be an interesting trend, with enough facts and figures for my piece. You certainly taste more wine and interact with more people than I do in the industry, and maybe you’re hearing differently, but I stand by the article. But I’ll happily debate with you more next time we run into each other at an event.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Ryan. Another aspect of this is the question, do varieties in California resurrect once they decline? We may not have a long enough history to answer that conclusively. Zinfandel famously has had more ups and downs than almost any other variety. But I’m not aware of a major wine type that, once is began to decline, came back in force. If Merlot can do that, it will be the first.

  5. Thanks. That ’07 Cab is one of my favorites. When are you coming to wine country again?? I have some old wine that needs consuming, and we can start some nasty rumors about Dick Peterson.

  6. You’re right, Steve.
    To produce the opulent, lush, soft wines, found in Bordeaux’s Right Bank, Merlot needs a mild growing season (i.e. mild mean highs, milder solar radiation levels), controlled yields and structured (iron-clay) soils.
    The trouble with Merlot in CA, IMHO, is due to the fact that it has never been planted in the right places.

  7. Hmmm…did one throwaway line by an actor in a movie–who admits to knowing [bleep]-all about wine by the way–cause the demand for Merlot to tank? Or, was it just coincidental that consumers en masse stopped buying Merlot right after Sideways was released? How many people actually SAW the movie?

    To this observer, a lot of planets must have been in perfect alignment for these two phenomenon to be independent of each other. Is a puzzlement, no?

  8. Once Americans get over the concept of varietal wines, I think Merlot will get greater appceptance, as it does particularly well as the major component of blends containing lesser %s of Cab, PV, cab franc, petite verdot, malbec and syrah. This is quite common (and delicious) in Washington. The ones I’ve tried here (Amuse Bouche comes to mind but there are a few others) have also been really nice

  9. Steve
    Consumer trends are unpredictable, and the cultural memory is short: a few years and we’re on to the next thing. When customers taste, they buy based on what they like and the price, not on the variety, vintage, or zeitgeist. I agree that Cab F and PV are playing an increasing role in my own blends. Cab Sauv is still king, though, for good reason. One telling indication of grape production and sales trends is the bulk market. Merlot is still cheap, Pinot more expensive (although getting cheaper), and Cab S rules. It may be that people aren’t stupid, cheap Pinot Noir tastes better than cheap Merlot, but it took a stupid movie to get them to switch. Trying to compare really good, more expensive Merlot with similar Pinot is another matter, and one that doesn’t bear parsing by grape report data.
    As for the American Phoenix Wine question, American sparkling wine fits perfectly. In the 19th century, I believe sparkling wine from Ohio was the most popular wine in America. Now it comes from all over the U.S., mostly the west coast, but it undeniably is a huge popular success. If anyone gets enough good Norton out there, it could be a future candidate, as well. Before the wine industry existed in California, Norton was a popular red wine. Norton, or a hybrid of it, will be THE post-apocalypse go-to wine, once the environment crashes and the West Coast becomes a toxic desert and all our wine has to be grown where it rains, and with minimal chemical input. You heard it here first.

  10. Bunt Marker, what do you think the cult Nortons will be?

  11. Norton? About the only Norton every worth a damn was Ed–and he is not likely to be resurrected any time soon.

    As for Merlot, we have lost the lush, fruity Merlot that made the grape popular in the first place because of two thing, in my opinion, of course. The first is, as already mentioned, we do not have Merlot planted in the right places,thus there is not enough very good Merlot no matter how much of it is selling at low prices, and secondly, Merlot makers, in their attempts to get Cab-like prices for Merlot are making the wine more and more like Cabernet Sauvignon.

    There are plenty of good ersatz Cabs among Merlots, but not enough Merlot-like Merlots.

  12. Charlie, whose Merlots do you like from California?

  13. Charlie, sweeping stereotypes like your “the only Norton every [sic] worth a damn” do more harm than good. Quality wine is produced in states other than California (and from grapes other than the traditional) and you might find some if you opened your eyes. You provide a great disservice to the wine industry as a whole when consumers see “experts,” like you, make uneducated comments like that. The French said the same things about Californian wines before the 70s (and still do today); and they were wrong. While there is a lot of crappy wine still being made in California (probably more crappy wine than quality wine), most people celebrate the good stuff. Why can’t you California-philes also celebrate the quality wine in other states? I get that the center of the U.S. wine industry is and will continue to be in California but that doesn’t mean you have to show disregard to ‘lesser’ grapes and/or regions.

  14. Steve
    Admit it. You must really love to crack yourself up. Predicting cult Nortons? I am feeling the strong pull of the leg. Nicely done- I almost bit. Norton aficionados are such a rare breed it already qualifies as a “cult” wine. The good ones are uncommon, even among the producers with the most experience, in Missouri. Stone Hill is the standard-bearer there. The variety needs to be re-thought. Its aggressive acidity and pungent varietal character are tolerated by its defenders, but until it is made to taste and feel more like Cabernet it can’t become widely popular. (Disclaimer- I made it for Chrysalis in Middleburg, Virginia in 05 and 06). I made a tour of the top producers in Missouri in 2008. Unpleasantly high titrateable acidity was a universal feature, high VA too common, and the unusual flavors of elderberry and horehound that are part of its nature were pronounced. I am familiar with many of the very similar Virginia versions, and more Nortons are being made every year in other mid-Atlantic states like PA. It even grows reasonably well in Arkansas, and passably in Louisiana. Horton in Virginia has made some notable examples, (and it’s a great label just to look at)including an early-90s wine I had in 2005 that was very very good. They have also made some not so good. At Unified in Sacramento the East Coast table was pouring a Virginia Norton from Wisteria Farm that was better balanced than many. Stone Hill in Missouri and Chrysalis in Virginia have had the biggest stake in Norton, but it will take a revolution in Norton growing and winemaking and especially marketing to put it on the map. It is a very idiosyncratic, abnormal grape, compared to vinifera cultivars. It grows and ripens well in relatively warm, humid conditions, has lots of flavor, plenty of (malic)acid, and so much color (in Virginia) it will ruin your winery floor, never mind your teeth- so there’s a lot there to work with. Based on the progress made with so many varieties in many different places previously thought hopeless, it’s just a matter of time before someone makes a Norton that will get a Cab drinker’s attention. They will have to obsess on the project, get technical and intervene with the wine’s structure and flavor, not accept the Norton status quo, think creatively, be patient, thick-skinned, and not mind getting their leg pulled frequently. With no new innovation at all Norton already makes a distinctive and tasty semi-sweet to semi-dry rose, and with blending and deacidification a very drinkable medium bodied red. But a hugely popular wine? I have no guess who will do it first, or where. I bet it won’t be in Napa, though. As for Charlie’s favorite Merlot- I had a 95 Cuvaison that was remarkable, and not a Cab imitator. Clos du Val was good last time I did it. Truchard also. It was a homemade winegrower’s wine but I had a Santa Cruz Mtns (Corralitos area) 1999 that might be the best Merlot I ever had. He admitted that many years it never ripened enough to pick (some years the pinot doesn’t, either). The ’99 was 13% alcohol, and it needed all that time to soften the acid and tannin until it was both mature and sublimely lively. I don’t know how much iron and clay were in his soil, but his chard was good, too.

  15. Hey, CWP, if Bunt Marker can joke that Norton will (only) emerge after the apocalypse, I can make a joke about Ed Norton.

    I can only guess that you are too young to remember Ed, but he was known to take a sip or two of some useful beverage. And he was pretty funny. He was a friend of Ralph Cramden’s. Another funny guy.

    Chill, my friend. This part of the thread is all in fun.

  16. I thought the Nortons poured by Missouri folks at Unified this year were notably better than my last mass exposure to Norton (around 2005). They’re getting close, but outside Missouri it will be hard to move that grape beyond the respected but unloved category. (A limbo inhabited by the likes of Semillon and Mourvedre.) Norton can make an excellent dry rose’, but you probably already knew that.

  17. Dear Bunt Marker, you have stumbled into the truth. My remark about cult Nortons was made with my tongue firmly in my cheek.

  18. Charlie, I do apologize for over reacting (not the first or last time that this has happened ;) ) and do understand that it was a joke. Now, I cannot specifically defend Norton (the grape) as there are zero bottles in Colorado retail stores, but do stand by my comments of people needing to take off their California/traditional cultivar blinders.

  19. The day may come when CA will willingly grow something other than the established European varieties, but given that we have yet to succeed with several very significant grapes that have established worldwide reputations (Sangiovese, Temrpanillo, Fiano, Albarinho, Nero D’Avola, Nebbiolo, Corvina and some would say Grenache.

    We won’t even bother with the whole “CA can’t make Pinot Noir” or the “Napa Valley Cabernet has become a pardoy of itself” arguments. It is clear that CA still has a long way to go with many grapes of substantial reputation before it starts working with varieties that do not even show up in Colorado.

    Do you think that maybe Bunt Marker is right? Norton is the post-apocalypse grape for CA.

  20. I think Bunt Marker meant that post-apocalypse wine will not come from CA and the U.S. wine industry will fall back to what/where it was when Missouri Norton and Sparlking Catawba were wowing the Europeans before the creation of the 1855 Classification. And given what is being put out by states far away from like VA, NY and MI, I think traditional grapes will stay dominant. Though, you never know if consumers (or Robert Parker or Steve Heimoffs) tastes will shift to the likes of Marechal Foch, Chambourcin or Traminette…

  21. I would think, knowing them both, that Steve Heimoff is the more adventuresome of the two.

    He could move to Missouri and fall in love with Norton. You’re right. After all, he got a tattoo at the ripe old age of ….

  22. nick Gold says:

    chelsea Goldschmidt is nw our number one selling wine. In the the last 18 months this wine has quickly gained huge on premise pours??? weird aye

  23. Merlot rebounding? I think this really a marketing ploy. That’s ok.

    The blame for reduced sales is probably not restricted to one cause.
    Did the PN movie help? Yes, and so does wine that is not worth the asking price when other wines are available and also folks are buying wines from Argentina and such. Some disatisfied merlot drinkers were also probably switching to Cabs and some were taking advantage of the glut of Aussie wines.
    The number of vines planted does not mean consumers are drinking it more. It only means there are more vines planted.

  24. I am biased because I own a winery that only produces Merlot. However, our sales are growing steadily over the past 6 months. It may have to do with a slight rebound in the economy, but our Merlot sales are advancing. Also, I am seeing more “high-end” Merlot in the marketplace. That shows me that winemakers are paying more attention to making better Merlot. I do think the majority of Merlot will be cheap wines from the central coast, but isn’t that true for every well known varietal? I think the acreage part of the arguement is irrelevant to the actual argument. More acreage just means more low end wines, unless, you looked only in premium vineyard locations. Steve, you taste a ton of wines. In your tasting experience over the last few years, is Merlot getting better? Have you seen more high-end Merlot?

  25. Eric, actually in California I haven’t seen any evidence that Merlot is getting better. I’ve never been a Merlot basher and have always given high scores to certain producers. But there don’t seem to be more of them now than before.

  26. Mr. Olken,
    Allow me to disagree with you when you assert that “Merlot is not, by itself, a noble variety in terms of its best foot forward all by itself”.
    Some of the greatest and most expensive wines in the world are made with at least 75% Merlot; a percentage that would qualify these wines as varietals.
    In point of fact, the average percentage of Merlot in Pomerol is around 80%.
    The first wines that come to my mind are: Valandraud (Saint Emilion; 75% Merlot), La Mondotte (Saint Emilion; 75%), Masseto (Ornelaia; 100%), Vigna L’Apparita (Castello di Ama; 100%), Le Pin (Pomerol; 92%), Pétrus (Pomerol; 95%), Trotanoy (Pomerol; 80%), Clinet (Pomerol; 80%), Leonetti Cellar (Washington State; 100%), Pedestal Long Shadow (Washington State; 80%)…
    BTW, do you have any idea why my comments are never approved by your blog’s “board of moderators”?

  27. Mr. O’Connor–

    There is no approval process. Please send me an email at chasolken@aol.com and let’s look further. Adam Lee from Siduri has just told me that he is having a similar problem. Needless to say, this is not good news to me.

    So far, I had very few spamming comments, and so everything that gets posted is supposed to go up immediately.

    Sorry for the confusion, but do please write.

    As for the no great Merlot comments, I do think that the WA state Merlots come close. Whether Merlot is the signifying voice in those Right Bank blends is a different question, but so many CA Merlots are so greatly improved by 20-25% CS or CF that I have some doubt.

    And the funny thing is that there were many very fine pure Merlots early on in CA until people started trying to make imitation CS out of it.

  28. Merlot is back. People are buying it in droves. I hated its decine, as I love a good merlot! I sell alot of bulk wine, and have found that wineries in the midwest never stopped selling merlot, and have an insatiable demand for it! I sell every drop I crush, and with it’s popularity have doubled it production over the last few years!

  29. Louis Calli says:

    I agree with you here Steve. When I was a wine buyer in retail, (from 06-10), the great Merlot stayed great, and the average stayed average. While I have personally discovered some lovely low production gems (like Eric’s), I have seen no significant improvement in the overarching quality of CA Merlot as a whole.

    In response to Jon Campbell, I’d be interested to know who you sell to. Oliver winery (Bloomington, Indiana) does about a million gallons a year I believe. In fact, 1 in every 5 bottles of wine sold in Indiana is an Oliver wine. That’s no small pony. They buy a serious tick from Lodi, and from what I understand it does well for them. However as a chain, we had 28 stores in Indiana and couldn’t sell Merlot to save our lives. We practically had to give it away, with the exception of the Twomey’s and Pahlmeyers. I attribute nothing to sideways however, as most of the people buying my wine in Indiana, had probably never even seen it.

  30. As a wine clerk working in Bloomington, IN, Oliver’s wine sales pay a definite percentage of my bills each month.

    Their success lies in the “Soft” and “Harvest Flavors” value lines produced from sourced fruit, as well as their premium “Creekbend” line produced from their own vineyards. This is in direct opposition to the mid-range line labelled with int’l. varieties, none of which flourish in south-central Indiana’s notoriously unpredictable climate.

    Moreover, I can vouch for a measurable rise in Merlot sales. In fact, we tasted a 2006 Burgess Merlot last night and sold quite a few. To my knowledge, we’ve never had to practically give them away. When consumers are afforded the opportunity to challenge their own biases through tasting and discussion, the wine speaks for itself.

    In closing, one of the most common customer inquiries I face is whether I’ve seen Sideways (which I have, and obviously so have they, or they wouldn’t be bringing it up) and to what degree it has affected Pinot Noir vs. Merlot sales. A close second is whether I’ve seen BottleShock.

  31. Louis Calli says:

    Gregoire,

    If you open something tasty, yes. It will sell. This isn’t exclusive to Merlot. It’s true for almost every varietal. Burgess is a quality wine. It’s all very well and good to wear rose colored glasses and say “the wine speaks for itself”, but in reality if no one’s listening it doesn’t really matter. Customer education is a key component to not just selling wine, but selling yourself as well, but it’s easy to sell something you’ve opened, and it’s fiscally impossible to open everything you sell (unless you have 10 SKUs).

    Across the board in 2009 and ’10, Merlot was well behind Malbec AND Carmenere in our sales mix. This tells me two things, that there is definitely a stigma hovering over the varietal, and that I need to decrease my Merlot selection by 20%, and give it to what is trending positively.

    While I am all for popping some quality wines and showing people how amazing and elegant Merlot can be… I’m not going to gamble on it. When sales decrease, so does its shelf space.

  32. Gregoire says:

    Mssr. Calli:

    While I appreciate the insights into the particulars of your chosen business model, I felt my unique perspective on the general topic of Merlot contributed to the overall discussion while taking into account details you’d mentioned.

    Much as you felt justified in arguing your perspective from a technical/”numbers” angle, I chose the experiential/”service” angle. Anyone who has worked for a moderately-organized corporation would recognize this as a textbook micro/macro face-off. If you’d rather trivialize what your fellow posters are adding by accusing them of wearing rose-colored glasses (unless you meant rosé – then, yes, I stand accused, especially since it’s rosé season), I feel compelled to inform you that your opinions and decisions are germane to you and your business, not me and mine.

    Since it’s pretty common knowledge that trends can only be either set or followed, it’s not surprising that you are “not going to gamble on it.” I sincerely wish you and your staff the best of luck proactively selling all that Merlot you seem stuck with.

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