I didn’t get the Merlot memo
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.