The “Sideways” effect on Merlot is officially dead
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.