“The Unjust Exile of Merlot”
I have heard this a hundred times, and It always ends in a battle of wills. I suggest a Merlot that exemplifies the requested characteristics and the customer subtly urges me to say Cabernet Sauvignon, while telling me every excuse as to why Merlot is not what they want—a list that almost always includes “Merlot gives me a headache”. Both of us tired and slightly annoyed but still showing our best Sunday morning, first service, ear-to-ear smile, we settle for the always safe California Red Blend. Little do they know the blend is 85% Merlot and could be sold under California wine law as Merlot. But, because of a strange social status formed around a knee-jerk reaction to an American comedy-drama film, Merlot has fallen far from grace and subsequently masks herself behind the “red blend” label, hoping to once again impress those who used to think she was cool.
In 2004 the movie “Sideways”, starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, hit the big screen and the sales of Merlot hit the wall. An infamous quote from Giamatti in the film,
“If anyone orders Merlot I’m leaving, I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot!”
left many once-lovers of Merlot looking for a new favorite grape. The phenomenon was dubbed “The Sideways Effect” by the American Association of Wine Economists and a study showed that the sale and price of Merlot decreased while the sale of Pinot Noir increased shortly following the release of the film.
That was in 2008, and the trend still continues in 2015. That’s eleven years of exile for a crime Merlot did not commit; if you read the book “Sideways”, the character’s only beef with the varietal is that it is his ex wife’s favorite wine. The filmmakers tried to show that by incorporating a famous French wine, Chateau Cheval Blanc, in the film, but most moviegoers did not pick up on the regional description of the wine. In France, wine is sold by region and not by varietal so if you are not familiar with the region you will not know the grapes in the wine. In the case of “Sideways”, the main character’s most prized bottle wine is a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, produced in Saint-Emilion in the Bordeaux region of France, the wine is a blend of Cabernet Franc and…. Yep you guessed it MERLOT !
We are at a point in our society where almost anything can push us into a mob-like mentality, ready to boycott and riot against a tyrant overseer or point of authority, but what about Merlot? Like so many other scapegoats, the evidence shows that Merlot is completely innocent. Just because it looks bad at first glance, we tolerate no grey areas and immediately demand, “Off with its head!” Even in the category that Americans value most—bang-for-your-buck, price-to-quality ratio—Merlot distinguishes itself among many others. With characteristics of dark berries, cocoa, tobacco, and plum, it can have velvety tannins with hints of vanilla and cooking spice, or it can deliver a more savory experience with bright acidity and mineral flavors. Merlot can pair with simple favorites like hamburgers and chicken wings, or with delicacies like brazed duck and venison. It is the leading grape varietal in the world famous, highly rated, and most sought-after Bordeaux wines. In sheer number of acres planted, it dominates other red wine grape varietals in plantings around the world.
So what will it take to get Merlot back in the game? It’s simple. Go to your local wine shop and ask your wine associate to pick out a bottle of Merlot that fits your taste profile or mood. Forget the grape’s disgraced social status and just try it with an open mind and heart. There is a reason why it was once a favorite and such a heavy hitter in the wine market. There is a reason why it still prevails, although in secrecy, under the guise of a “red blend”. It is directly related to Cabernet Sauvignon (sharing the same father grape of Cabernet Franc) and is a half-sibling of Malbec and Carménère—two grape varietals that today’s wine drinkers often get excited to explore. There is no reason why Merlot should not be at the top of your list, so it is time to squash the stigma.
-Eric Tansey, CSW