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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 08:48 pm

Where did Merlot go?

Singing the virtues of a grape that was dinged unfairly by Hollywood

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What happened to Merlot? During the 1980s and ’90s, Merlot was the most popular U.S. red wine. In 1985, there were less than 2,000 acres of Merlot vines in California; in 2003, 50,000 acres had been planted with Merlot grapes. By the mid-’90s, ordering a glass of red wine had become almost synonymous with ordering a glass of Merlot for novice or occasional wine drinkers.  Merlot became popular for good reason. It has a flavor profile close to that of Cabernet Sauvignon but is typically medium-bodied and has a somewhat lower natural acidity. Generally it’s less astringent and therefore usually has a more lush mouth feel, making it gentle, fruity, easy to drink, and food-friendly.
Merlot has advantages for grape growers and vintners as well. It ripens earlier than many other grapes do, so it’s less likely to suffer from heavy fall rains or early frosts. Merlots also generally don’t need long aging to soften aggressive tannins that can make drinkers unpleasantly pucker up. So what caused Merlot’s fall? Remarkably, it was just two lines in a 2004 movie, Sideways. My husband, Peter, and I spent a lot of time in California wine country during the 1990s and we couldn’t wait to see the film, but we were disappointed. The scenery was beautiful, but Sideways was more depressing than funny. The film garnered Academy and Golden Globe awards, but watching the movie again recently confirmed my initial impressions. The two main characters, Miles and Jack, former college roommates, set off to tour wine country before Jack’s wedding. The trip is a combination wedding present and bachelor party from Miles, a depressed, pretentious, paranoid wine snob and wannabe author who teaches middle-school English and steals cash from his mother’s dresser the day before her birthday to finance the trip, tiptoeing out at dawn so he won’t have to stick around for her party. Jack is a loutish soaps-and-commercials actor who comes on to all women, attractive or not, despite having a beautiful, loving, and wealthy fiancée. He cares nothing for wine; his goals for the trip are simply to get laid and get drunk as often as possible. Why anyone would take heed of anything these fictional losers said is beyond me, but audiences were listening when Miles exclaimed furiously in the movie, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f——— Merlot!” All of sudden, Merlot was uncool. Shortly after the movie’s release, Katie Couric said on NBC’s Today Show that she’d heard that she wasn’t supposed to drink Merlot.  Sales of varietal Merlot plummeted. Varietal wines contain all or almost all of one type of grape. They’re the most common in the U.S. and other New World wine countries; in Europe, wines are more commonly blended, though there are exceptions everywhere. In fact, Merlot is the most commonly planted grape in France’s Bordeaux region, according to Bordeaux.com, although Cabernet Sauvignon usually is considered the main player in Bordeaux wines. The same is true in California: Varietal Cab Savs almost always contain some Merlot to help tame their tannins. Poor Miles! Like most other snobs, his pretensions are hot air without substance. Ironically, his most treasured wine in Sideways is a French Château Cheval Blanc, a blend of Merlot and another grape he derides, Cabernet Franc.  Comparing wines and grape varietals can be confusing and makes me think of drop-the-needle tests in music-theory classes. The professor would “drop the needle” onto an LP and we’d have to identify the period, the composer, and, with any luck, the actual piece. It was hell. Professors never dropped needles on anything obvious: Early Beethoven sounded a lot like Mozart. Late Beethoven was very different. Certain passages of Mozart could be confused with Haydn, and so on. Grape varieties have individual characteristics, but how they’re revealed in wine depends on the conditions under which they’re grown and harvested, how the wine is aged, and a host of other influences. A light, fruity Chardonnay aged in steel tanks may seem closer to a Vouvray than to a rich, buttery, heavily oak-aged Chardonnay with notes of toast and vanilla. Probably no one is more knowledgeable about Merlot than Bob Foley. Foley, one of Napa’s most highly regarded winemakers, built his reputation on Merlot. When I met Foley in the early ’90s, shortly after he became a winemaker for Pride Mountain Vineyards, his license plates read “Mr. Merlot.”
Jim Pride was the reason we were so frequently in California and the reason we had an inside track into Napa’s rarefied wine world. Pride had a dental-practice-management firm; the winery was a sideline — or, at least, it began that way. My husband had become Pride’s client, but he and Pride were kindred spirits and their business relationship evolved into friendship. They communicated frequently by phone and mail, and when in California we’d stay in the Prides’ guesthouse. These days Foley remains the consulting winemaker for Pride and several other high-end boutique wineries and produces his own wines at the Robert Foley Vineyards. Foley creates big, powerful, highly rated, and pricey varietal and blended wines (one reviewer called him “the God of Cabernet”), but he’s continued to produce Merlot under his own, Pride’s, and other clients’ labels. He worked with the Paloma Vineyard, whose 2001 Merlot was named wine of the year by Wine Spectator magazine. I figured there was no one better to comment on what’s happened to Merlot. Foley, who remains down to earth and unassuming despite his stature as a star winemaker, thinks there’s more to Merlot’s decline in popularity than Sideways. He sees it as an American phenomenon: “The U.S. is kind of new to wine,” he says. “There’s a tendency to discover something and then overdo it. It happened with Zinfandel; it happened with Chardonnay. When I started making Merlot, almost no one [here] even knew what it was. When something becomes popular . . . everybody jumps on the bandwagon. There’s an ocean of Merlot out there, and a lot of it isn’t very good.” He feels that the same thing is starting to happen with Pinot Noir, the current “in” varietal that’s food-friendly and easy to drink. Foley believes that Merlot’s roller-coaster ride is self-correction, eliminating the worst, and, indeed, sales are beginning to rise again. Is Merlot wonderful or awful? There are definitely some grape varieties that don’t make good wine, but no wine varietal itself ensures good or bad wine. That’s true whether it’s Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or any of the others. The best way to find good wine you’ll enjoy is to find a wine shop with personnel you trust who’ll help you find wines that suit your (not their) taste and budget.

It’s All About Wine (1305 W. Wabash, 217-546-9463) offers a flight (a sampling of three different wine) of Merlots to taste and compare for $9, 5-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18.
The Corkscrew Wine Emporium (2613 Chatham Rd., 217-698-1112) carries a selection of Pride Mountain and Robert Foley wines — but neither vintner’s Merlots.
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