While many of us have had enough of Miles’ hatred for merlot in “Sideways,” the 10th anniversary of the film has brought new reflections in the press on just what economic impact the movie has had on the grape variety.

For those of us who enjoy a good story over financials, however, much-delayed rumors from the movie set have it that Miles did not hate the taste of merlot per se. It was the fact, cut from the movie, that his ex-wife loved merlot, making that particular variety a painful reminder of the relationship’s demise.

Were the dip in sales, reduced plantings, and gut-punch to merlot’s reputation that followed the movie release all due to a handful of movie cuts?

The truth is merlot was already in trouble. The movie was released in 2004 and plantings of merlot had already reached the saturation point by 2001. To meet market demand for merlot in the 1990s, merlot had been over-planted, and not always in the best sites for the grape.

Not only were less than ideal sites used, but as Kristen Belair of Honig explained, “Merlot got too popular too fast; good [plant] material was not always used.” This led to a large amount of soulless wine made around the country with none of the qualities that made people fall in love with merlot to begin with. The movie just added the final nail in the coffin.

Are the best days of merlot behind it? The Napa County numbers don’t look promising. There were 7,045 acres in 2003, and just over 5,878 last year. The grape value per ton has remained flat with the price per ton at $2,714 in 2003 and $2,771 in 2013.

The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel met this past month to taste through five flights of merlot from the 2011 and 2012 vintages. In the discussion following the blind tasting, panelists provided their insights on the grape variety.

Merlot, panelists agreed, has not had its final say. We just need to listen to the well-made merlot wines; they’ve been here all along. Napa Valley producers continue to specialize in it, bottle it as a varietal, or use it as an important blending grape. The juicy fruits, velvety rich body and soft tannins that wine enthusiasts love about merlot are here for the taking.

Michael Conversano, part of the winemaking team at Pine Ridge, attributed merlot’s reduced plantings not to consumers’ indifference to the grape, but to several causes, including vines being ripped out due to virus, and the continuing high demand for cabernet sauvignon. “The future of merlot is exciting,” said Conversano. With replants after phylloxera coming of age, he added, there could be some very nice merlot wines.

Kyrsta Scully, with Indian Springs Resort, said merlot is still popular with consumers. Not only is it “an easy introduction to red wine,” she noted, but “when you give a glass of merlot to a guest it makes them happy.”

Bob Skupny of Lang & Reed agreed, saying that from a consumer standpoint, the merlots presented at the tasting were very well-made (we assume making him very happy).

Chris Phelps, winemaker at Swanson, explained that he enjoys merlot because it is less tannic quantitatively than cabernet sauvignon; the tannins are rounder, and the wines easier to drink.

It’s time to give merlot another serious look.

The following favorites of the tasting panel are some of the well-crafted Napa Valley merlots worth seeking out:

{!—BC Bold—}Franciscan Estate 2011 Merlot ($21). Franciscan has pioneering roots in the Oakville appellation, and this wine blends their Oakville estate merlot with fruit from southerly vineyards that stretch into Carneros. The winery calls this a “cab-lover’s merlot” due to its body and richness. The wine has matching acidity which provides a nice lift to the cherry fruit, herbs and baking spice flavors.

{!—BC Bold—}Castello di Amorosa 2011 Merlot ($34). If you have not seen it, Mary Davidek has a fun posting on castellodiamorosa.com/blog about merlot. Sip along to the video with this merlot’s blend of red and black fruits, toasty oak and baking spice-infused flavors. This is yet another tasting panel winner from winemaker Brooks Painter and Castello di Amorosa.

{!—BC Bold—}Behrens Family Winery 2011 Front Man Merlot ($80). This is a mountain merlot; Spring Mountain to be exact. The owners Les Behrens and Lisa Drinkward made wine under the Behrens & Hitchcock label, and started the Family Winery brand after their co-owners retired. Speaking of retirement, this merlot was reintroduced after a five-year hiatus. The wine has bold red fruit flavors of plum, raspberry and currants entwined with sweet baking spices.

{!—BC Bold—}Ballentine Vineyards 2012 Merlot ($28). The history attached to the Ballentine winery is fascinating. Emil Leuenberger, married to John Sutter’s daughter, built the stone building on the property back in 1891 creating the original Sutter Home winery. It was sold in 1909 to three Italian families for $25 in gold pieces. The Italian brand, L. Pocai & Sons, did not survive, but its Pocai vineyard (between the Napa River and Silverado Trail) forms the backbone of the Ballentine merlot. There’s so much more to read (ballentinevineyards.com/about) while sipping on this rich, toasty, spicy wine — a bigger, but beautifully made merlot.

{!—BC Bold—}Peju 2012 Merlot ($35). The Peju family purchased their Rutherford property in 1983, and went through the very tough process of attaining the California Certified Organic award for the estate vineyard. The fruit for this merlot blends the estate fruit with two other vineyards to produce this rich and intense dark cherry and spice-influenced wine.

Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintners member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.

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