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Making sense of the Merlot anomaly

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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?

  1. Andrzej Daszkiewicz says:

    If two households purchase weekly one bottle of Merlot and one household purchases weekly three bottles of Cabernet, then both statements are true.

  2. Or, if two households purchase one bottle each of $15 Merlot (total $30) and one household purchases one bottle of $45 Cab, the Cab will “lead” the Merlot in total dollars spent.

    Factoids such as “leading varietal” mean nothing unless you know how it’s being measured. (“…lies, damn lies, and statistics…”)

  3. You answered you own question: QPR. The consumer who is watching her checkbook more carefully is seeking a wine of quality that she can have with her meals, as the Europeans enjoy vin du table and vin ordinaire. In other words, wine that is good enough.

    My quaffer is an easy drinking food friendly Merlot from Fox Brook sold in the Lucky’s chain. When introduced several years ago, it sold for $1.99 then went up to 2.49 where there was considerable consumer pushback so the price returned to $1.99. Oh, and it is produced by Bronco, though not the winemaker who crafts two buck chuck.

  4. Rob Griffin says:

    Great perspective Steve, we’re looking forward to more at the WAWGG on Thursday!

  5. Great perspective. In my market though, we rarely hear customers ask for merlot. Pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon are kings here. I keep trying to grow my merlot selection but every time I shrink something else, I get push back. Merlot has had a sting of wonderful vintages so it’s a shame more people aren’t catching on.

  6. Chuck Hayward says:

    From the blogpost above:

    “The Wine Institute, in a study that asked the question “What is the reason for Merlot’s popularity?”

    It’s easy. You can pronounce it.

    Imagine trying to say cabernet sauvignon in front of your date or the boss the first time you ask for a red wine. Hence, the broad appeal of merlot as evidenced by the data you quote.

  7. Is there a disparity between merlot yield per acre in the appellations that produced it 10 years ago compared to the appellations that produce it today? Has merlot yield per acre in the Sacramento area increased in the past 10 years? If so, it also helps explain your statistics.

  8. Marlene Rossman says:

    People talk Cabernet Sauvignon but drink Merlot.

  9. >>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<<

    Quite. The year after Sideways, we did a survey of core wine drinkers wherein they were asked if they had increased, decreased or kept the same their purchases of a number of varieties. Elsewhere, we asked if they had seen any of a list of movies. There was a significant correlation between having seen Sideways and increasing purchases of Pinot Noir, but none between seeing Sideways and decreasing or stopping purchases of Merlot. We publicized the results in the wine trade press, but to no avail. Why let boring facts get in the way of a good story? Not coincidentally, research around the same time showed the trade much more negative on Merlot than consumers.

  10. Steve
    I make Merlot, and use it in blends. Some customers love it, but not enough to make me put all my eggs in the Merlot basket. It sells fine, but at a lower price than CS or PN. As a winemaker, in California, it is a lesser wine than Cab or Pinot. It can be good, but it never in my hands makes wines like I can make with CS, PN, and even Syrah. To me it’s bush league. The joke about Merlot is: How do you make great Merlot? Use as little as possible. In my opinion, it is a lesser wine in California than CS or PN or SY (the few good ones) or even PV or CF. No doubt there are exceptions namely Dominus, but I bet that’s got all the Cab in it that’s legal. With the cooler summers and early rains we’ve seen the last two years, perhaps Merlot’s day has yet to come. Bunt

  11. Steve,
    Social Media stats also support your case that merlot is far from dead (in fact the #2 talked about variety: http://www.vintank.com/2012/01/big-data-most-popular-varieties-of-the-2011-holidays/

    Best,
    P

  12. John Seitzinger says:

    Do you have a short list of Merlots or Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeux wines that have a nice heat finish to them? While many folks seem to not appreciate the heat finish, to me it is a sign of quality in the wine tasting experience. Love to hear your thoughts. I am hoping these are wines I can easily fine at places like The Wine Buyer, or even the local ABC stores. Thank you so much. John

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