Making sense of the Merlot anomaly
I don’t think there’s ever been a wine as maligned and misunderstood as Merlot. Even people who don’t have a clue what it is seem to have an opinion. Blame it on Sideways, if you will. The idea somehow got out there that Miles hated Merlot–Miles was a wine expert who knew what he was talking about–and therefore Merlot must be hateful. Never mind that by the end of the movie Miles was inhaling ‘61 Cheval Blanc, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The damage had been done.
What we know of the movie’s impact is largely anecdotal, but there are some statistics suggesting that Merlot went into a time of despair post 2004. That year, there were 55,100 bearing acres of Merlot growing in California, the most ever recorded by the state Department of Food and Agriculture. By 2009, that number had fallen to 50,000. Meanwhile, plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec all were up. Growers budded Merlot over to other varieties because they couldn’t sell it or, or thought they couldn’t sell it, or, if they could, they couldn’t get enough money for it.
And yet…there’s always been something contradictory about Merlot that brings to mind Mark Twain’s “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” The Nielsen Company reported in 2010 that
• More American households purchase Merlot than any other wine variety, red or white
• Consumer affinity for Merlot is based on the key factors of taste and value
• Merlot has the highest repeat purchase rate of any wine variety in the U.S.
• Merlot drinkers strongly agree that Merlot is a good, versatile and food-friendly everyday wine
• Merlot sales, measured in both dollars and volume, have grown steadily since “Sideways” was released in 2004
• The number of U.S. households purchasing Merlot is more than double those purchasing Pinot Noir
• Over 50 percent of current U.S. Merlot drinkers are consuming more Merlot than they did five years ago
• Despite rumors of a “Sideways effect,” 45 percent of participants in Nielsen’s custom survey of Merlot drinkers never saw the movie, and 93 percent of those that saw the movie say it had no effect on their opinion of Merlot
Furthermore, two years ago The Wine Institute, in a study that asked the question “What is the reason for Merlot’s popularity?,” reported that “Merlot is the second leading red varietal after Cabernet Sauvignon purchased by Americans today,” after having increased in sales nearly 700 percent since 1994. (Yes, I know that “second leading red varietal” stands in direct opposition to Nielsen’s “More American households purchase Merlot than any other wine variety, red or white” statement. I don’t know what to make of it.)
How are we to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable facts? I’m not the only one wondering. Tomorrow, I fly up to Washington State to be on a panel for the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. The topic: Merlot and its travails. The panel is chaired by Rob Griffin (Barnard Griffin Winery), who told me he wants me to offer my thoughts on such issues as Should growers plant it? Does Merlot have a future, or in his words has “the blush gone off the variety?” “There’s a certain loss of consumer confidence” in Merlot, Rob said. What can be done about it?
I’m not sure I have any reassuring answers. I don’t know how to reconcile the Nielsen findings with the decreasing acreage (at least, in California) or with the anecdotes. From my perspective, Merlot seems something of an afterthought in restaurants; despite its apparent consumer popularity, I seldom hear it mentioned when I dine at fine establishments, and I can’t remember the last time I heard a sommelier recommend Merlot. That’s not me bashing Merlot; it’s just a fact. Could this be another instance where the broad mass of consumers is one step ahead of the cultural elites?
But there’s one additional thing you have to take into account in order to make sense of the Merlot anomaly: price. According to the Nielsen report, “[O]ver 80 percent of respondents to the survey consider Merlot ‘a good everyday and food wine,’ while roughly 70 percent find Merlot to be ‘a good value’ (rising to ‘great’ when priced under $12 per bottle)…”. In my world–and I suspect in the world of most people who read my blog–we tend to think more about ultrapremium wines than inexpensive ones. If we play the word association game, ask me about “Merlot” and I’ll probably start talking about Chateau St. Jean, Rutherford Hill, Duckhorn, Jarvis, Turnbull, Shafer–all expensive wines to which I give high scores. Unless you asked me to, I’d probably overlook the value aspect of Merlot, as exemplified by such brands as Cameron Hughes, Pedroncelli, Black Box, Avalon, Bogle and Tin Roof. Yet those are the Merlots Americans are buying. This forcefully reminds me that it’s important for a wine writer to get out of the bubble and look at the real world, where real wine drinkers live.
Still, that can be little solace to the producers of expensive Merlot (and by the way, Barnard Griffin’s 2009 Merlot is an affordable $17, so I have to assume it’s selling okay). Consumers inclined to dig deep into their wallets are proving over and over again they’re willing to shell out big bucks for Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, not to mention certain foreign wines. Not so Merlot. I suppose that’s the real question: When there are so many really good Merlots around, how come more people don’t trust it?