Merlot Makes a Comeback
by jen jones donatelli
2008 Robert Mondavi Winery Merlot Napa Valley ($23); 2008 Pahlmeyer Merlot Napa Valley ($75). Rocking whiskey glasses, sagaform.com ($24.95 for six).
Alexander Payne might be the film world's darling du jour thanks to his Oscar-winning The Descendants, but it's his movie Sideways that's been on the tip of wine-drinking tongues ever since it made Merlot passé and Pinot Noir the fashionable pick back in 2004. Blame it on the movie's lead character, Miles Raymond, whose disdain for the popular red wine led to a nationwide decline in real-life sales while Pinot Noir's skyrocketed.
"Some people make the mistake of describing Merlot as this sort of insipid, flaccid, uninteresting wine, which is how the character of Miles [in Sideways] references it," says Gary Sitton, director of winemaking for Clos du Bois. "When it's made well, that is not the case at all."
And therein lies the root of Merlot's dip from second-highest-selling varietal in the US to third place behind Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon: Its popularity was ultimately its own downfall. In the '90s and early '00s, consumers had fallen in love with Merlot's pleasant, palatable taste, driving up demand and causing some growers to get greedy. Production then moved beyond the mild, temperate regions where Merlot thrives best (such as California's Napa Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and many areas of Washington).
"To meet the demand, [grapes] got planted in the wrong places, so there ended up being a lot of uninspiring Merlots produced," says Bill Nancarrow of Duckhorn Vineyards, hailed as "the original Merlot powerhouse" by the Los Angeles Times.
Yet the story may have a happy ending after all for Merlot enthusiasts. In a "survival of the fittest" twist, the "Sideways effect" ushered in a return to the well-produced wines that made Merlot so popular in the past. "The result is that [the movie] restored value to Merlot," says Sitton. "It self-selected or removed Merlots being grown in poor regions or not being produced in good quality."
Wine aficionados are noticing, gravitating toward high-end, highly rated Merlots. Popular selections at Patina include three $228 vintages from Pahlmeyer. "We're seeing interesting growth with Merlots coming back at the luxury end of the business," says Dale Stratton of Constellation Wines U.S., whose brands include Robert Mondavi Winery—known for its Napa Valley Merlot. "Core wine consumers with a certain level of sophistication are really the ones driving the resurgence."
The tide is also turning at LA restaurants. Patina sommelier Silvestre Fernandes says Merlot has been a tough sell for the restaurant in recent years, a development he found especially surprising since the varietal pairs well with French food. Yet recently Fernandes has noted more patrons requesting Merlot, which he attributes not only to it coming back into vogue, but also to its persistent appeal.
Merlot's rise and fall has been captured in a documentary called Merlove, originally released on DVD in 2009 and slated for rerelease (with additional content) in May. For his part, director/producer Rudolf N. McClain is thrilled to see the varietal regaining the spotlight: "It's so American to have someone—or something—fall out of grace," he says. "Merlot being the underdog has acted as a setup for it to come back and do amazing things."
photography by william brinson; drink styling by mariana velasquez for big leo