For all the bashing that Merlot supposedly got in Sideways—and the conventional wisdom following that 2004 movie is that Merlot sales fell off the cliff, because Americans supposedly believed that, if Miles wouldn’t drink any “fucking Merlot,” then they wouldn’t either—Merlot sales actually remained pretty strong.
Yes, California has lost a little acreage of Merlot over the years—not much—but the message to producers, that consumers still like this wine, has not been lost. And, if you needed further proof that Merlot is still a very, very popular wine, then check out the Sonoma State University/Wine Institute’s latest consumer survey, as summarized in winebusiness.com.
You can see that, in terms of “favorite wine varietals,” consumers reported Chardonnay a strong #1, by a 50% margin. But guess what wine was #2? Hints: It was red. It was not Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.
Answer: It was Merlot.
Now, granted, this survey covered relatively inexpensive wine: As the article states, “the most common [bottle] price was $10 to $15.” This explains why the #3 favorite wine was White Zinfandel while #4 was Pinot Grigio. Cabernet Sauvignon, which is by far the most widely-planted red wine grape in California (second only in acreage to Chardonnay) was ranked only the #5 favorite wine. But I suspect that, had the survey targeted a higher price point—say, $20 and above—Cabernet would have scored higher.
What was most surprising to me in the results was how poorly Syrah performed: It was #12, dead last, the choice of only 10% of respondents. That put it behin even Malbec and Muscat (whose glory days are fast disappearing). This is very odd, given a few heartening factoids gleamed from recent Crush and Acreage reports in California, among them that planted acreage of Syrah is decreasing in the Central Valley (where it peaked around ten years ago), but is increasing in prime coastal areas especially the Central Coast, and that even though the average price per ton paid by buyers for Syrah grapes has risen only a disappointingly low 5% over the last decade, that was a statewide average: If you look at prime growing areas (Napa Valley, Santa Barbara County, Sonoma County), Syrah grape prices are up a healthy average of 13.6% over the last ten years. That’s not bad, for a variety that, anecdotally at least, has been pronounced dead in the water. (The joke has been going around for years: “What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of venereal disease? You can get rid of the V.D.”)
So as usual when it comes to statistics, there’s a little bit of everything. Syrah lovers can take hope that the grape and wine are poised for a comeback. Syrah bashers will find evidence that they’re right and have been all along.
Still, there’s plenty of Syrah in the ground in California, at least 21,000 acres, more even than Sauvignon Blanc. Those grapes aren’t going away anytime soon, so what should producers do with them? Well, some wineries have established cult reputations for their Syrahs (Sine Qua Non, Colgin, Alban, Saxum and so on), but they are so far off the chart in terms of price and rarity that we can effectively discount them from our calculations as outliers. Other Syrah producers do indeed face a dilemma: not a huge one, but a pesky one: They have enough of a loyal fan base for their Syrahs, but it’s not growing, and may be shrinking (this is where consumer research really helps, but not all wineries have the resources to do it), so they have to figure out what they’re going to be selling—which means what consumers will be buying—five, ten and more years out. You can always bud your Syrah over to another, more popular variety, but it does take a little time for the transition; a vintage may be lost in the process. And what would you bud it over to anyway that makes more sense?
My own hunch is that Syrah will always have a solid foundation, a “floor” if you will. Problem is that the floor level is likely to remain pretty constant, so producers are going to have to fight it out among themselves to attract loyal customers, and these sorts of fights, necessary as they are in the business, are not things that Chief Financial Officers look forward to. There is one other option: GSMs. I think Rhone-style red blends from California have a good future. You don’t have to call them GSM on the label; they don’t have to strictly be blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre; there’s no reason you couldn’t blend Syrah, Grenache and, say, Tempranillo, or Merlot, or Petite Sirah, give it a proprietary name, and make a pretty damned good wine. (Paso Robles has been doing a good job in this.) The advantage of such blends is that they don’t suffer from the “Syrah” word (if, in fact, you believe that consumers shy away from that word out of confusion with Shiraz, or Petite Sirah, or for other reasons they’ve adapted to). If you believe that consumers have a bias, conscious or not, towards Syrah, then sales-wise you’re always starting from behind the starting line, which is a huge disadvantage: you first have to overcome that consumer gap in trust. If, on the other hand, you’re selling a proprietary blend or a GSM, you’re right on the starting line: no harm, no foul, may the best wine win. Can a winery come out of nowhere and establish a reputation for cult Syrah? Yes, in theory. Several from Washington State have done it. Here in California? Probably not.
Wonderful trip yesterday to Verité, the Jackson Family-owned property that quite frankly is killing it in Bordeaux blends. I’ve been on that opinion at least since I gave the 2006 La Muse a perfect 100 points, their first ever; but not their last, for Robert Parker recently gave no fewer than seven 100-point scores to Verité, an unprecedented fact that causes me to joke that he copied me. The winery was begun by Jess Jackson, who met winemaker Pierre Seillan, in 1996; Jackson wanted to know if Seillan, who was then working in Bordeaux, could “make a wine of equal quality to Chateau Petrus.”
Seillan has told this story over the years, always with an insructable grin on his face, but the fact is that, Petrus or no Petrus, he has succeeded at Verité in a huge way. So it was with eagerness (to say the least) that I drove up to Healdsburg in a heavy late August mist, the day after the big Napa earthquake.
The winery itself is fairly humble, on Chalk Hill Road, near where the appellations of Chalk Hill, Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley come together. The grapes come from various estate vineyards in Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Bennett Valley and Chalk Hill; the wines thus are blends. There are three in each year: La Muse (mainly Merlot), La Joie (based on Cabernet Sauvignon) and Le Desir (primarily Cabernet Franc); the precise cepage of course varies from vintage to vintage.
Here are six notes on the wines we tasted. All are easily twenty year wines, maybe thirty.
2010 La Muse. Despite a difficult, cool vintage, the wine is flashy and explosive in cherries, blackberries, cassis, red licorice and toast. But it is very young and fairly tannic, a little soft, yet elegant. While bone dry, the finish is sweet in fruity essence and sweet spice. I would lay this down until 2018 and see how it develops through the 2020s.
2010 La Joie. The inky black color surely is from all the Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) in the blend. Huge cabernet nose, with intense black currant and cassis flavors, and a bracing minerality. Good overlay of smoky oak. Tight, dry, tannic, but extraordinarily powerful and impressive. Another wine that needs plenty of time. 2018-2030.
2010 Le Desir. The most expressive and feminine of the 2010s. Is that from the Cab Franc (50%)? Graceful, yet quite tannic. Sour cherry candy, red currant, cherry liqueur. Fabulous stuffing. A potential masterpiece, with time. Drink 2020 and beyond. This was indisputably the wine of the flight.
2004 Le Desir. Smells a bit hot, with grilled currant and cherry, toast, and spice notes. Such heady perfume. Grace, power, elegance, finesse. A bit spirituous, porty, but not too much. An interesting wine, still fresh. Bone dry, sticky tannins, aging well. Could improve, but for me, the alcohol (14.7%) is beginning to show through.
2004 La Muse. At ten years of age, turning the corner, developing bottle bouquet. Primary fruits turning dry: dried cherry, tobacco, raspberry, sous bois (could this be the Merlot, which comprises 85% of the blend?), orange zest, lots of sweet spice and smoke. Huge extract, sweet in fruit, yet dry in the finish. So expressive now, pure, generous, fat. Very complex and spicy. Will last for many more years.
2004 La Joie. A huge wine. At ten years, changing, with the fresh fruit drying out and developing secondary bottle notes. Power and elegance combined. Extraordinary complexity. Dried fruits, minerals, dried herbs, sweet licorice, sweet spice, espresso, orange zest. For me, the top wine of the flight, balanced and pure; but then, the alcohol is the lowest (14.2%). Elegant, great finesse and structure. Very great now, and will take another ten years, at the very least.
We were fortunate also to taste through three vintages of Cenyth, a sort of “junior” Verite ($60 to the latter’s triple-digit release price). Like Verite it is a Sonoma County blend; in three vintages the blend has varied, from Cabernet Sauvignon-based in 2009 to Merlot-based in 2010 and Cabernet Franc-based in 2011. Pierre’s daughter, Hélene Seillan, is gradually inheriting the winemaking role.
2009 Cenyth. Rich, opulent, a “Californian” wine. Oodles of blackberries and cherries. Good grip, soft acidity, spicy finish. Lots of admirable qualities. Drink now-2017.
2010 Cenyth. Softly tannic, fleshy (that has got to be the Merlot). Some floral notes, blackberries, cherries, currants. Lots of sweetness, an opulent, generous wine. Drink now-2018.
2011 Cenyth. The most elegant of the flight, drier and better structured than the others. Good acidity highlighting chewy fruit. Very dry, great charm and finesse, not as apparently sweet as the ’09 and ’10, which for me was a plus. Hélene explained how challenging the chilly vintage was; I told her Nature had given her a lemon from which she made lemonade.
We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.
Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.
I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.
Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.
Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.
Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.
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.
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?