Remember “Sideways”? In 2005, this small film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Motion Picture of 2004. Famously, the main character, Miles, said, “I am not drinking any f___ing merlot!”
This one line in a small film affected the wine world greatly. It was an astounding phenomenon, growers starting ripping out merlot vines and replanting with pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. Suddenly, merlot became uncool; bars and restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco (and even the Napa Valley) replaced merlots on their wine lists with pinots and other varietals.
Perhaps that was a good thing. At the time, a lot of cheap, bubble gum, sweet and soft merlots flooded the marketplace. It was the number one red wine sold in the marketplace; wineries were chasing the trend and the results were mixed at best.
According to ACNielsen, in January of 2005—when “Sideways” had just been released—merlot was the top- selling red wine in the U.S., with 11.6 percent of all table wine sold in the U.S. In 2006, merlot sales peaked at 12 percent but by 2015 it was down to 8 percent and as of 2016 down to 7 percent of wines sold in America. “Sideways” was a factor but so was mediocre quality. However, excellent, well crafted American merlots like Duckhorn’s Three Palms were the exception. Overall merlot production has gone from 423,776 tons of California Merlot grapes crushed in 2005 to 268,969 tons in 2016, according to the Wine Institute.
So how are merlot wines today? I recently conducted an extensive blind tasting of 60 merlot wines from local producers as well as a few from Oregon, Washington, Chile and Italy. I was trying to ascertain how merlots have progressed since the pre- and post-Sideways days. Napa Valley wines were heavily represented in the sampling. Most of the wines were from 2013 and 2014 with a few newer and a few older vintages. Prices ranged from $12-$90 with the average about $50. Happily, the overall quality of the merlots was quite good.
Aaron Miller, winemaker for Plumpjack Estate said, “People have forgotten about merlot, they get caught off guard. They don’t expect a great wine. They like to be brought back to a great merlot. We can’t produce enough.” Restaurants, particularly those in the premium category, are seeing an uptick in merlot sales. Amanda McCrossin, Sommelier for PRESS said, “There is a greater appreciation of merlot by a younger demographic, and younger generations of somms are also appreciating merlots much more today.” And the prices are a factor. “It’s a much better price point for consumers than Cabernet,” said McCrossin.
The “winners” of my tasting were tough to select. I was seeking true merlot fruity/berry characteristics; smooth mouthfeel with ample to robust tannins. Many delivered. My favorite wine in the tasting was the Pride 2012 Vintner Select Merlot Sonoma County ($85). Simply superb — this is what the best merlots in the world should strive to emulate. Pride’s merlot is velvet on the tongue showing off deep berrylicious flavors, with balanced yet firm tannins and a lovely long finish. Pride produces a great wine and a shining example of merlot.
Sales of higher quality “luxury” merlot wines are up. According to Winemetrics’ Luxury Wine On-Premise report of February, 2017, Luxury Merlot retail sales ($20-plus SRP) have grown 5 percent in the last year while restaurant sales of ($100-plus By the bottle listings) have increased 19 percent.
Consumers are paying more for better merlot in restaurants, spending 3 percent more by the glass and spending 4 percent more by the bottle in the past year.
“I see an amazing future ahead for merlot, with the increase in quality and more premium choices on the market, consumers will be able to try many styles and pick their favorite,” said Jenny Wagner, winemaker for Emmolo Wines.
Three other exceptional wines made the top of the list.
— Stags' Leap 2014 Napa Valley ($35). This fabulous wine displays a precious fruity cherry/black cherry flavors plus a tiny hint of chocolate. Sensuous, this feminine merlot will most certainly mature elegantly.
— Duckhorn 2014 Atlas Peak ($75). This wine from Duckhorn is exceptional; a quintessential merlot offering both power and grace. Slightly spicy, this intense Merlot from Atlas Peak is a true winner.
— Seven Hills 2014 Walla Walla, Washington ($45). Long a fan of Walla Walla cabernets and syrahs, this merlot surprised me. Exhibiting outstanding fruit, balance and structure, the Seven Hills is darker than most yet the tannins are under control. A genuinely brilliant wine.
Neil Bernardi, vice president of Winemaking at Duckhorn Vineyards said, “This is an exciting time for merlot, especially for wineries like Duckhorn Vineyards that are really dedicated to the variety.”
Merlot awareness is increasing, and October is Merlot Month. There is even a hashtag celebrating Merlot wines. (#MerlotMe is a global celebration of the varietal held in October).
Hourglass Proprietor Jeff Smith said, “Merlot would not have suffered the fate of a punch line in ‘Sideways’ had the industry respected the varietal. That said, talented winemakers with a terroir-sensitive approach, are making some incredibly distinctive merlots now. It’s a great time for the consumer to be exploring the category at about half the price of cabernet!”
Below are other standout wines from my tasting, listed in alphabetical order.
— Blue Oak 2014 Merlot Estate Reserve Coombsville ($55). This Coombsville masterpiece effortlessly combines rich fruit flavors with supple elegance.
— Gundlach Bundschu 2014 Sonoma Valley ($35). Strong, dark and a real crowdpleaser.
— Oberon 2015 Napa Valley ($23). Supple, appealing brambly fruit profile. Easy to enjoy.
— Pahlmeyer 2014 Napa Valley ($85). A big boy wine and built to please even the most reticent cab-only lover.
— Parducci 2014 Small Lot Mendocino County ($13). This first-rate merlot hits all the right notes and is a steal at this price by a long shot.
— Provenance 2013 Oak Knoll ($50). An earthy, beautifully balanced Merlot; another Oak Knoll gem.
— Robert Craig 2014 Howell Mountain ($90). This jammy knockout of a merlot came from vineyards at 2300 foot elevation on Howell Mountain. A substantial, luscious wine.
— Roche 2013 Barrel Reserve Carneros ($45). On the lighter side, this pleasing Merlot offered integrated berry flavors and smooth finish.
— Rutherford Hill 2013 Rutherford ($30). Very smooth, good mouthfeel with ample tannins.
— Trefethen 2014 FHB Oak Knoll ($75). A strong, masculine standout Merlot. Delicious to the last drop.
— Twomey 2013 Napa Valley ($65). Notes of black cherry, blueberry, plum and graphite contribute to a rewarding Merlot experience.
“There will always be demand for well-made merlot,” Bernadi said. “It is a remarkable grape that produces complex, exciting and incredibly pleasurable wines. When made right, it makes some of the world’s greatest wines.”