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 firstname.lastname@example.org.