After Sideways , I feared America abandoned merlot forever — shunned and ostracized as shameful crap in front of millions. After the utterance of those words, merlot sales plummeted as Americans raced away from this vinous faux pas. It vanished from wine lists — with the notable exception of the unshakeable Blackstone Merlot — and the pitiable bottles lingered in discount bins, caking with dust. It was sad, really. Merlot, once the dallying darling of the dinner party set, got its butt kicked by seven words. But this ending isn't tragic. Like the underdog in a Hollywood flick, this sophisticate is making a comeback.
In the four years since the utterance, California grape growers either yanked out merlot plants or drowned in the glut of unremarkable, unsellable juice. Many grubby gold diggers planted newly loved pinot noir in myriad places it shouldn't be, hoping to profit from the wave of Sideways hype. This resulted in a deep pool of ghastly wine — I've tried more cheap, awful pinots in the past two years than all the misfortunate merlots in the years before that.
It seems we've come full circle, but with a different grape. And I assure you, bad merlot tastes much better than bad pinot. It's easier to grow amiable bulk merlot grapes, which thrive in a wider range of climates. But pinot, the finicky baby bear grape, shrivels in warmer climates and catches every virus circling the vineyards. It needs coddling to develop good character, not the uncaring touch of a mass producer.
I find it ironic that people discarded merlot like a scorned stepchild. As the soft, sexy, Cinderella cousin of cabernet, merlot has been celebrated in its French birthplace, Bordeaux, for hundreds of years. Famed and expensive bottles such as Chateau Petrus and Chateau Cheval Blanc contain primarily merlot but since it's not written on the label, most people don't associate it. And don't forget that behind most supple, charming cabernets are generous doses of merlot to improve the taste.
Former merlot admirers, you may emerge from hiding — it's a buyer's market. This grape oozing with cherry, blackberry, and raspberry flavors has improved so dramatically in the past four years, I feel like a proud parent. Since commanding a good price for the lesser quality grape juice wasn't an option, vineyard managers left prized merlot in the ground and discounted heavily. Fewer buyers equal better deals for those who wait.
It appears some have figured this out already. According to the Industrial Research Institute, in 2007, domestic merlot sales saw a 6.1 percent increase over 2006, making it official that the pendulum has swung and settled. Now if only pinot quality could catch up.
Wente 2003 Merlot Crane Ridge Livermore Valley Sweet, full-bodied and forward. Intense, jamlike black cherry, a hint of freshly grated coconut, and earthy tobacco with mild yet obvious tannins. I could still taste the wine a minute after it was gone — a delicious vanilla finish. $18.****
Castle Rock 2004 Napa Valley A perfect example of a Napa wine that would have been twice the price four years ago. Heady fruit aroma of blackberry and strawberries with a strong dose of dusty tannins. Improves in the glass, so give it some time to show its chocolate and cedar flavors. Cool and priced right. $10. *** 1/2
Meridian 2005 Merlot (California) "Sugar, ah, honey, honey," This wine is for the merlot drinker who shuns astringent, dry wines. Layered with ripe strawberry and raspberry, vanilla extract and sweet Coca-Cola. Cheap, too. $9. ***