Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Everywhere I look these days, wine publications, blogs and even the occasional Cosmopolitan article are all proudly announcing: “Merlot is back!”

But is it?

I often talk about merlot in my tasting seminars as one of the most underrated varietals in production. Not only it is the primary grape in some of the world's most-expensive wines like Chateau Petrus, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Ornellaia; it has the ability to produce wines that are complex while still being approachable. Its exceptional juiciness and integrated but not overpowering tannins are the very reasons it became so hyper-popular in the ’90s. It was just so damn delicious, velvety and easy to drink.

Fast forward to 2004 and a little indie movie that the producers probably thought no one was going to see. By now, we are all familiar with the movie Sideways and how it directly affected the wine industry—skyrocketing the popularity of pinot noir, while totally and unabashedly tanking merlot, even if that wasn’t the intent.

That now-famous line—“I’m not drinking any fucking merlot”—had absolutely nothing to do with merlot and everything to do with the fact that Miles, the train-wreck antihero of the movie, had his heart ripped out by his ex-wife. Her favorite varietal was merlot, and he couldn’t bear to be reminded of her in any context. He was so fragile and broken that something as simple as a glass of merlot could push him over the edge. The last scene in the movie shows Miles sitting in a roadside diner, by himself, with his prized bottle of wine that he proceeds to drink out of a foam cup. A contented smile washes over his face. That wine is Chateau Cheval Blanc—a merlot. The symbolism is that he is now finally over his wife. He can move on and enjoy merlot without it breaking his heart. But nobody got it. The joke was lost on the non-wine-savvy public. The only take away was a primal “merlot bad, pinot good.”

Some winemakers will say that the Sideways effect, as it’s now called, was a good thing for the industry—that it forced producers making subpar merlot to abandon the varietal, because it wasn’t selling, and that the merlot grapes planted in places they shouldn’t be, being vinified in ways that weren’t suitable, were effectively pushed out of the marketplace. But I argue that great merlot producers were pushed out, too. Wine lists everywhere went from featuring dozens of merlot selections to a mere handful, and retail wine shelves became merlot-bare. Even now, at the wine shop where I work, we house less than 10 offerings.

And if pushing all the “bad merlot” out was a realistic or desirable outcome, what about all the god-awful cabernet sauvignon out there? Why hasn’t all the proselytizing about ABC (anything but chardonnay) weaned out all the cheap, ghastly, manufactured chardonnay? And at what point is someone going to get on their wine box and openly begin slamming the horrific things now done to pinot noir? The Sideways effect not only eliminated merlot; it also created pinot noir monsters. The beautiful, elegant, silky, high-acid, food-friendly, bright red-fruit style that was quintessential to pinot noir began to devolve into overly ripe, high-alcohol, super-concentrated fruit bombs. The evolution was so predictable. After all, what were those bad merlot drinkers going to switch to now that they were convinced their wine of choice was passé? Voila! Here’s your glass of pinot noir that dangerously resembles the merlot you’re not supposed to drink anymore!

However … the Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot was the top selection in the Wine Spectator Top 100 in 2017. Countless articles are touting merlot’s comeback. I personally love the grape known as the iron fist in a velvet glove. So why am I so skeptical that it’s making a return? Because there simply isn’t a lot of good, inexpensive merlot anymore—or maybe these wines are just a lot harder to find. I can’t help but think maybe it’s been out of sight and out of mind for just too long. It doesn’t even cross the consumer’s mind anymore. And the hip, millennial wine community that would totally embrace a wine that’s gone the way of the dodo bird will only get on board with something they think they’ve discovered or somehow revitalized—yet merlot is just not obscure enough to be trendy. So all this attention to bring merlot back is only going to turn off the cool kids who will drink it if they think it will make them a rebel in some way.

Don’t get me wrong: I want merlot to make an epic comeback. It makes me sad that consumers who like and appreciate wine would write off an entire varietal based on nothing more than a fleeting reference in pop culture. And yes, the perceived quality of merlot has improved as a result of the downturn, mainly because there is less crappy merlot from which to choose.

So dear reader, here is your challenge: Go buy a bottle of merlot. Curl up on the couch, and have a glass. I’m willing to bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and a contented smile will wash across your face, too.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

“If pinot noir is the next best thing to sex, you must be having really good sex.”


Dave never buys pinot noir at home.

“No balls,” he says.

We know this wine variety can be amazing. We’ve seen the movie Sideways. We’ve tasted good pinot noirs in Washington and Oregon. But we’ve encountered insipid pinot noir far too many times. Cuz insipid pinot noir is cheap.

“I can’t afford to like pinot noir,” says our wine-aficionado friend.

Now here we are, drinking elegant pinot noir and adoring it, eyes rolling back in our head, drool escaping from corners of mouths. We whip out our credit cards for more, more.

We’re drinking on the west end of Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Locals call this the Deep End. It’s too close to the Pacific, really, to grow grapes. Yet the Deep Enders do.

At Handley Cellars, tasting-room employee Ali Nemo pours a side-by-side tasting of 2011 pinots. One’s a blend of grapes from three appellations, two inland from here. The second pinot is from grapes all grown about 10 miles from the Pacific. Both wines resonate with complex flavors, feature rich color, and offer an outstanding finish that lingers on and on. But the wines differ in texture, acidity and flavor.

In the first, you can taste the sunshine. Pinot No. 2’s flavors are brought to you by fog.

Owner and winemaker Milla Handley, great-great granddaughter of Henry Weinhard, crafts wines from her 29-acre estate vineyard and also buys grapes from Redwood and Potter valleys. The grapes grown closest to the coast develop an “oceanic acidity.” The resulting pinot noirs have more tannins than we’ve come to expect from grocery-store pinots. That's why this wine can be plopped in a cellar (or dark closet) and emerge 15 years later drinking so, so smooth.

To get here, drive north beyond Santa Rosa. Head west on Highway 128 at Cloverdale, and cruise rolling green hills toward the coast. Now you’re in Boonville, population 1,035. Robert Mailer Anderson wrote a best-selling 2003 novel set in this quirky burg where oldsters speak a local dialect called “Boontling.” That’s a real thing. The book casts wine tourists as mere extras. That’s not far from reality, either. Mendocino County anchors the Emerald Triangle, where much weed is grown. We don’t encounter any native speakers of Boontling during our weekend in Anderson Valley but, dude, the grapes are good, good. This is a tucked-away place, south of Fort Bragg and, farther north, the Lost Coast, aka the King Range National Conservation Area.

Dave and I drive through Boonville to Philo (FILE-oh), population 349, where we’ve booked a room at the Anderson Valley Inn. Our first wine stop is Navarro Vineyards, named “Winery of the Year” at the 2014 California State Fair. We could stay here all day and let wine-room worker Nick Johnson pour 15 wines for us. These tastings are complimentary tastings—but we pass on award-winning whites and hit the reds. The 2012 Méthode à l'Ancienne ($29) blends pinots from 16 vines, all in Anderson Valley. Johnson describes low yields and tormented grapes grown near the coast, then pours for us the 2012 Deep End Blend ($49). Navarro won a gold medal, best of class, for this one.

I get it.

In two days, Dave and I drink spectacular pinots at many wineries. Along the way, we encounter a few zinfandels from inland vineyards. My favorites include Edmeades 2005 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel ($40) and its 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zin ($35). Wine notes suggest “intense notes of blackberries and forest floor.” Who knew dirt paired so well with fruit?

These zins vary wildly from our beloved jammy zins of the Sierra Foothills, Amador and Lodi. Different spices. Blacker fruits. Oh yeah.

Anderson is famous for its whites and sparkling wines, so we sample a few of these. But for us, the pinots are the reds of note. At Drew Family Cellars, a smallish mom-and-pop place, we taste the 2012 Fog-Eater Pinot Noir ($45)—“pomegranate, orange and licorice with floral notes”—that was on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 wine list.

We learn that the term “fog-eater” is a Boontling pejorative for a person who lives too close to the coast, “on the margin.”

You know those bottles of wine that kill you with their luscious beauty? This is one of those. Fortunately, I have not yet hit the limit on my credit card.

Dave’s favorite Anderson Valley pinot noir comes from Harmonique and was crafted by Robert Klindt, a longtime local winemaker and owner of the acclaimed but now-defunct Claudia Springs Winery. Harmonique’s 2006 Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir comes from grapes grown about eight miles from the ocean. Smooth with age, its essence lingers in my mouth for hours, days, weeks. I can still taste it. I have damp dreams about this wine.

Dave and I decide that we’re all about the fog. Blanketed by low stratus clouds, the grapes here strive for survival with testicular fortitude. We taste their anguish in the Deep End pinot noirs. Dave puts it simply: “These have the balls.”

At a newish tasting room for Lichen Estate, we sip a 2012 Pinot Noir ($65), a newly released work of art in a bottle. In the tasting room, we chat with Dan Rivin, who revels in the craftsmanship of small family-owned estates. The foggy wines of Mendocino’s coastal region are gaining popularity. And this makes Rivin oddly glum. He fears the coming influx of large corporate wineries that arrive “with suitcases of cash” and gobble up local estates.

“The secret’s out,” he laments.

There’ll be focus groups. Homogenized pinot noir that no longer pays tribute to the terroir of here. Emasculated flavors. Pinot that tastes like root beer and cotton candy.

Could be. Or perhaps the feisty Deep Enders will prove resistant to invasion.

Rivin pours us a last splash of pinot noir, luxuriously rich, with creamy layers of fruit and spice that taste like here.

We head home in a cloud.

Published in Wine