Norton Safeweb

Monday, January 23, 2012

Recent History of Merlot

Merlot plays second fiddle to Cabernet, then Merlot is up, then Merlot is down.
That pretty well describes U.S. sales for the last forty years.

During the rise of California as a wine-growing region in the last quarter of the 20th century Cabernet Sauvignon was king (and Chardonnay queen). Merlot held a distant second place to Cab for red wine drinkers. It was easier to drink young, but usually less interesting.

Then two events happened having huge effects on Merlot sales in the U.S.

In 1991 The French Paradox segment on 60 Minutes concluded the French may have a lower rate of heart attacks because of their high consumption of red wine. American consumers jumped on board and Merlot was ready with its easy-to-drink nature. Demand outstripped supply so Merlot got planted everywhere including some places where it probably shouldn't. The result was a lot of bland wine with no real varietal character. Merlot got a bad reputation with the more "serious" wine drinkers.
Miles and Jack contemplating the
high price of Pinot
Image from

In 2004 a somewhat minor movie Sideways made Merlot uncool as the main character declared he'd never drink any f%#$ing Merlot, but he loved Pinot Noir. The movie's inside joke was his prized bottle of French wine he was carrying around for a special occasion was Merlot-based. By the way, Merlot is the most widely planted red grape in France.

The damage was done to Merlot, but you know what, much of the Merlot on the market deserved it. Merlot had become a commodity wine, that is, you'd ask for "A glass of red wine" and would get a nondescript Merlot. It was the Toyota Camry of wines--boring, but reliable. A lot of Merlot vineyards have been recently ripped out and replanted with something else. That's also probably good.

Now Merlot seems to be making a bit of a comeback. There are folks who continue to make quality Merlot though these are going to be more than ten bucks a bottle, but are still cheaper than the higher priced Cabernets.

A "real" Merlot
Image from
From Sonoma and Napa try Clos du Bois (the Alexander Valley Reserve bottling), Duckhorn, Gundlach Bundschu, Pride, Shafer, Twomey.  The Clos du Bois sells for in the lower $20s, the Gundlach Bundschu in the upper $20s. The others, all from Napa, are 50 bucks and up. There are also a lot of good Merlots out of Washington State and, of course, France. How about a nice Chateau Petrus for about $3000? That's per bottle!

Gundlach Bundschu has been a long-time favorite. They make well-structured, tasty Merlots that will actually age well.

So what's in store for Merlot sales in the future?  I think they will actually be helped by Pinot Noir's popularity because Pinot prices are very high and still rising. Merlot sales will perhaps be hurt a bit by the softer, fruitier Cabernets being produced these days as they compete directly with Merlot, I believe. What can help Merlot? How about some blends? In the "old days" a lot of Merlot had maybe 20% Cab in it for structure and heft. Merlot needs some Cab, Malbec, heck, some Syrah, to make it more interesting.