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The “Sideways” effect on Merlot is officially dead

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Somebody has to be the first to say it, so I will: Merlot’s back.

Did it ever leave? Everyone said so, after Sideways appeared to destroy the wine’s viability among consumers. I was never so sure; the facts never supported it, only anecdotes. For example, ACNeilsen reported, in 2006 (two years after the movie came out), that “the next most popular wine [in America, after Chardonnay] is Merlot,” a fact they said would deal “a blow to all those who relished in the dissing of the varietal in the film Sideways.” Then, two years ago, Neilsen again reported “that Merlot has the single largest consumer base of any varietal wine in the U.S.” Not only that: “More American households purchase Merlot than any other wine variety, red or white.” So, in retrospect, we can see that all those reports of the demise of Merlot were exaggerrated.

Still, I didn’t pay much attention to Merlot in the years 2005-2011. I mean, I certainly reviewed the wines as they came in, and some of them got some pretty good scores. But I can’t remember writing an article about Merlot, or having a serious discussion about it with a winemaker, as opposed to, say, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. I did plenty of writing about those.

But over the last 6 months, I’ve been thinking about Merlot a lot. This was occasioned by the simple fact of so many great ones I happened to review. I did a tasting earlier this year that planted the thought in my head that maybe there actually is a reason to drink a fine California Merlot at a fancy meal, instead of a Bordeaux blend. Then, last week, I did my big tasting at the Napa Valley Vintners, where the stars of the show included a clutch of Merlots [Seavey, Darioush, Coho]. Since this was a blind tasting, I didn’t know that these spectacular wines were Merlot until they were unbagged. When I found out, I was surprised–but not overly surprised, as the groundwork already had been lain for my new-found appreciation. I also was pleased. Merlot has been the “Rocky” of red wines for decades (despite its consumer popularity), the underdog, always losing to Cabernet. Nothing against Cabernet, but I usually root for the underdog.

Since last Nov. 1, I’ve tasted some really marvelous Merlots, but I have to say that of my 10 top ranked, 8 came from Napa Valley or its various subappellations. They included Merlots from Mt. Brave, La Jota, Turnbull, Jarvis, Hunnicutt, Frazier, Rutherford Grove and Keenan. (The other two were a Matanzas Creek, from Bennett Valley, and a Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve, with a Sonoma County appellation.) Napa Valley remains the quality standard in Merlot, as it does in Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends. We can argue about why: is it Nature, or Nurture? Nature has blessed Napa Valley with preternaturally warm, rainless summers and the cool evenings that give California’s coastal valleys their diurnal drama. Napa’s warmer than most of Sonoma, being an additional mountain range (the Mayacamas) inland. It’s also drier; the mountains wring moisture from the coastal clouds. On the nuturing side, Napa growers can lavish viticultural care on their vines, while winemakers can afford to keep yields low and buy new oak barrels–at least, they can at the level of a Jarvis (where the 2008 Estate Merlot will set you back $75) or a Mt. Brave (the 2008 Mount Veeder retails for $60).

If there’s any single thing that marks these Merlots, it’s sheer lusciousness, which has always been Merlot’s obligation and strong suit. Here’s how I described the Turnbull 2007 Fortuna Vineyard Merlot (from Oakville, 94 points, $55): “Does what Merlot’s supposed to do, flatter the palate with soft, voluptuous richness. Blackberry pie, red cherry, currant, licorice, mocha, bacon and pepper flavors flood the mouth, leading to a long, spicy finish. Defines the opulent, cult style of California Merlot.” Most of my top Merlot reviews run along similar lines.

So, if there ever was a Sideways effect on Merlot, it’s as dead as a doorknob, and it’s time for wine writers to alert the public: Merlot’s back. Go out, find yourself a great bottle, and see.

  1. Did the Matanzas Creek Merlot carry the Bennett Valley appellation on it? That region is extraordinarily cold (not sure about wet). It’s nice to see Matanzas maintaining its grip on Merlot. It has always been a leader on that varietal.

  2. My experience with the “Sideways” effect was manifest in the two barrels of Merlot I made in my garage in 2007, one from Carneros and one from Alexander Valley. Both were exceptional fruit from vineyards that could just not sell all of their grapes that year. As you know, it was a great vintage and I was lucky to be able to work out a really good deal in which I received the grapes for free in exchange for a sizable percentage of the finished wine once it was bottled.

    Others’ loss, my gain. I’m still enjoying these wines from time to time today. Thanks, Sideways!

  3. You know the “Sideways” effect on Merlot is also officially dead when producers are paying growers upwards of $5k per ton for Merlot this year.

    Please, wineries, just don’t ruin it (like you did Pinot Noir) and try to make your Merlot into a Cab. Thanks Steve for the heads up on producers or are doing it well.

  4. @Tim, yes the Matanzas has a Bennett Valley AVA.

  5. Peter Rosback says:

    I sure hope Paul Gregutt weighs in on this. Steve didn’t mention anything about Washington Merlot, of which there are abundant good examples at a range of price points!

    Peter Rosback Sineann

  6. Shhh….don’t tell anyone. Let them all drink PN and leave all the great Merlot of us.

  7. Agreed. Bob Ecker recently did a great piece in Napa Valley Register as did Joe Roberts. If you haven’t seen the hilarious piece by Gun Bun, it is worth the view. I wrote a piece back in January about my love for Merlot. As much as I love the great prices the trend has created, I am glad it is getting its due. Hope you enjoy it.
    Trends, Schmends-I Never gave up on you. Merlot http://wp.me/p1MvvL-4o

  8. As the wine buyer for an upscale independent supermarket in the Sonoma Valley, I can still say that merlot has been – and still is – our slowest selling varietal, and has been even before the movie “Sideways”. Our top selling varietal remains chardonnay, by a wide margin!

  9. Steve, for some reason I have the hardest time finding “spectacular” Merlot in New Hampshire stores; I’ve found Darioush Cabs, but not Merlot; I have tasted White Hall Lane and Shafer, both very good, and I do find many great value Merlot wines, just not that many in the rarefied zone.
    Just maybe you and other writers maybe able to get through to the PTB.

  10. Steve Hare says:

    There are two markets for Merlot.

    The first (and main one) is what the retailers sell to the general public from their outlets. In this world, Merlot is still huge (it never stopped) but the wines rarely retail for greater than $12.00 per bottle. Small wineries that make great Merlot cannot compete in this market; it is owned by the corporate wineries.

    The second market is what wineries sell DTC only. This is where the small lot, killer quality Merlots reside. Many wineries dramatically cut production of Merlot after Sideways because the main retail world (outside the winery) could not sell Merlot anymore at $25.00 per bottle or greater. When guests visit the wineries now, they can taste the Merlots and hear the stories of limited production and that this Merlot is sold exclusively to club members or at the winery (usually at prices north of $40.00 per bottle). In this enviornment, small wineries can make great wine and sell it at a profit.

  11. Steve Hare, thanks. You make some great points.

  12. Keith Johnsen says:

    Steve, nice debunking of this particular Sideways effect…I agree that the lift that it gave to PN was not counterbalanced by a great fall for Merlot, in all of my experiences since. And good mention of Keenan, an old fav from my days of representing the brand in Seattle in the 80′s (ouch…) – had a bottle of the ’08 at Norman Rose when in Napa last month, what a great value for such a scrumptious wine. It blew the table away. Missing wines like this for wanting to be too cool is, well, just soooo Miles.

  13. David Traynor says:

    We seem to be forgetting that truly, the best Merlots…..come out of Yakima Valley, and Walla Walla Valley. Sheridan, Leonetti, Pepper Bridge, North Star….no one can compete. These are balanced, complete, stunning wines…not cocktail wines that blow out your palate.

  14. Donn Rutkoff says:

    I just tasted the Keenan, I believe it was 2007 Napa, last week at Calif. Family Winmkr and it was KILLER. More tannin than the smoothie nothings, great flavor. No, I don’t work them.

  15. Hi Steve,

    I have never given up on this wonderfully expressive varietal, the press be damned. I only feel bad for you that professionally, your Merlot scope is relatively small (limited to CA which is very good, but . . .). When you have a great vintage of Tua Rita Redigaffi, which is 100% Merlot, your jaded world will be truly rocked. I hope you are well.

    David Boyer
    classof1855.com

  16. Thanks for this article Steve.
    Merlot was never dead in my house. I’ve reviewed a few bottles of Merlot recently and got some snarky comments, but I let them slide. I figured ..”well, more for me!”.

    Cheers!
    Eileen

  17. As a wine buyer/Wine Steward for a S.E. grocery store chain with recently opened higher end models I am happy to report that our Merlot sales are high. I believe this is especially due to our large Hispanic population in South Florida. They love their Merlot.
    Thanks again for the great post and for the ping-back!

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