magnify Click image to view more.

Who'll Save Merlot?

Jeffery Lindenmuth / June 2012

Having survived the slings and arrows of overexposure and bad press, is Merlot now ready for a comeback? Winemakers and sommeliers ponder the hopeful future of this stalwart varietal.

In 2006, Jeff Smith, winemaker and owner of Hourglass Vineyards, purchased Blueline, a hillside vineyard tucked away just north of St. Helena, California, planting it to Bordeaux varie­ties, including three acres of Merlot. Planted near the height of the grape’s unpopularity, these Merlot vines covered three of only 157 acres of Merlot added in California in 2007, a fraction of the 3,243 new acres of Pinot Noir that took root. “I went in search of a site that works for Merlot. We believe it’s one of the greatest grapes in the world. When we plant it on alluvial soils, we find Merlot gives us this sour cherry flavor, with brightness and lift along with a spicy element,” beams Smith.

Unfortunately, California Merlot proponents like Smith find themselves on the wrong end of the economic equation at a time when it seems easier to sell mediocre Pinot Noir than quality Merlot. Many are quick to blame the 2004 film Sideways for ruining Merlot. Smith, however, doesn’t fault Miles for Merlot’s downfall, but the California wineries who drove the character to such fury. “When Merlot got hot in the ’80s, California Merlot was planted on a lot of marginal clay soils. Everyone recites that Merlot does well on clay soil, but that’s not universal. Sideways was just an exclamation point at the end of the sentence,” says Smith.

Brick Loomis, sommelier of Culina, a modern Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, recalls the change in the restaurant wine landscape. “What an impact that little movie had. Every sommelier in every restaurant in the country had to hear about it from every table every night for two years,” he says.

Smith currently produces both Napa Cabernet and Napa Merlot from Blueline. Typical for the region, Merlot commands less money—even from Hourglass’ fortunate mailing list. “There’s a glass ceiling for Napa Merlot that is about half the price of Cabernet. Yet, we are dedicating some of our best Cabernet soils to Merlot, so the investment and passion are real,” says Smith, noting that such prime viticultural real estate can be valued at $350,000 per acre.

So, why bother? “Merlot probably has the greatest range of any red wine with food,” says Smith, an avid cook. “Pinot Noir often gets that reputation, but Pinot stalls out with game meats and rich foods. I’ll pair Merlot with everything from red meat to sea bass with rosewater and miso butter.”

According to Luke Hricik, a trade liaison for Duckhorn Wine Company, whose Napa Valley Merlot is the number-one selling restau­rant Merlot, “We have always wanted it to be a wine that you enjoy with a meal. So we were not immune to the misconceptions about Merlot, but we were more resistant.” Duckhorn pioneered premium Napa Valley Merlot in the 1980s, particularly with its vineyard designate Three Palms Vineyard, first introduced in 1978 and produced in every vintage since 1983 from a coveted 15 acre parcel of the vineyard. In May, Duckhorn reaffirmed its commitment to Merlot, announcing it will utilize all 75 acres of Three Palms beginning with the 2011 harvest. “There will still be challenges with Merlot in the marketplace,” says Hricik. “But I think we’re reaching a point where those who are not wholly committed left it to those of us who are serious about Merlot.”

Cleo Pahlmeyer, direct sales manager of Pahlmeyer Winery, which produces both a red Bordeaux-style blend and a varietal Merlot, says they’ve taken a similarly long-term approach to building the brand. “We’re not going to be a slave to trends, but continue to make phenomenal wines, and that means Merlot. ” Still, even the elite producers are not unaffected by the whims of wine drinkers. In 2009, Pahlmeyer’s New York distributor made the unusual move of turning down their allocation of Pahlmeyer Merlot, only to request it again for 2010.

Like many wine lists, the thoughtful one-page list abounding with organic and biodynamic selections at Foreign Cinema in San Francisco gives to Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir billboard-sized headers, while Merlot is relegated to “New World Classic Varietals.” “People enjoy Merlot, but they don’t feel cool asking for it,” says Shannon Tucker, wine director. “We walk a fine line, because I think Merlot can be wonderful, but I’m not here to push an agenda. Honestly, it’s difficult to recommend to someone who’s a little younger that they go from a Cab to Merlot,” she says.

One of Tucker’s strategies to introduce the allure of Merlot is placing Merlot-intensive blends, like “Illustration” from Blackbird Vineyards, in the “Cabernet Sauvignon and Blends” section: “It’s not an attempt to be deceptive. I just knew it would move better.” At the same time, it sets her up for the big reveal, one that usually delights diners.

Shaun Adams, resort sommelier for the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, including Talavera restaurant, says that diners in Arizona are just starting to show renewed interest in Merlot, and he is building his selections from California and Washington in response. “We’ve been relying on the big names that built the category because they are trusted,” explains Adams, referring to his selections of Shafer, Duckhorn, Frog’s Leap, and B.R. Cohn. “These are great wines to start with, because they remind consumers that Merlot is often what they are looking for in a wine.”

Merlot may be what many sommeliers are looking for as well—wines that are more affordable and ready to drink at a younger age than Cabernet Sauvignon. While consumer price tolerance for Cabernet may be higher, wholesale price increases that echoed through 2009, 2010, and 2011 have many wine directors, like Adams, looking at alternatives. “When building a list, you want ready-to-drink wines. Merlot has richness, but with its softer tannins it’s more accessible and enjoyable out of the gate,” she says.

While California Merlot pales in popularity at The Breakers Palm Beach (It is less popular than Pinot Noir, and three out of four guests will drink Cabernet Sauvignon over Merlot, according to Virginia Philip, Master Sommelier), top producers still rank well as popular wines by the glass. “Whether Duckhorn, Pahlmeyer, or Cakebread, the big names will always garner the true attention and desirability they deserve,” says Philip.

While Philip maintains that California Merlot certainly belongs in the sommelier’s “toolbox,” she has reservations about the wine’s potential with food: “I would have to say that from a pairing perspective, there are too many other blends or varietals that normally pair better or are perhaps better adapted to the variety of ingredients in many dishes. I believe our guests are expecting a bit more than what is considered ‘the norm’ and Merlot, unfortunately, is the norm. Without food, Merlot is a no-brainer.”

While Merlot may have been considered the norm, eliciting yawns or even smirks, in the recent past, Loomis says he is confident that through the work of conscientious vintners, Merlot is poised for a big comeback. Beyond Napa, he is interested in the California Merlot from Lake County and Mendocino, cooler climates that may return to Merlot some Bordeaux grandeur. Once you get it in the glass, most sommeliers agree diners relish California Merlot. “It has dark color, generous plush fruit, and soft tannins. They show well at a young age and are really food-friendly. What’s not to like?”