Merlot's Bad Press

By Michael Franz
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Live by the fad, die by the fad. That could conceivably go down as the postmortem assessment of the Merlot Boom, which began in the 1990s for largely fortuitous reasons and is now threatened by a stroke of bad fortune: a profane slur leveled against merlot by the lead character in the movie "Sideways."

Fads can be tricky to explain, but the Merlot Boom can be dated precisely to Nov. 17, 1991. On that date, CBS's "60 Minutes" aired a segment entitled "The French Paradox" suggesting that wine -- particularly red wine -- might help ward off heart disease. During the ensuing four weeks, red wine sales in U.S. supermarkets surged 44 percent (or 2.6 million bottles) compared with the same period the previous year.

We'll never know exactly how many of those who turned red in this period were really turning for health reasons. But we do know that, once turned, they went looking for something "smooth."

Several grape varieties could have fit that bill, and several (especially pinot noir) could actually have filled it better than merlot. Nevertheless, merlot is the grape that boomed. It was easy for newcomers to pronounce and easier to drink as a cocktail than the leading red alternative, cabernet sauvignon, as it tends to be a little less acidic and astringent.

The wine industry got behind the grape in a big way, and in California alone, acreage planted with merlot increased from 8,000 acres in 1992 to 33,000 by the end of 1996.

The consequences of wine fads are easy to predict. When vintners could sell any bottle with merlot on the label -- almost regardless of quality -- many proved ready to do almost anything to fill more bottles. Some producers used too much fruit from immature vineyards. Others increased yields by aggressively fertilizing and irrigating their vines. The consequence of such measures was that the finished wines lacked concentration, grip and guts, but a backlash remained unlikely since many of those buying the bottles wanted smoothness.

The upshot is that mass-market merlot became a commercial phenomenon even as it became a generally innocuous wine. I say "generally" because merlot is in fact a potentially great grape, as has been proved countless times over many decades by conscientious vintners, especially those in the Bordeaux communes of Pomerol and St. Emilion. Nevertheless, merlot's profile set it up as a bubble prone to pricking when "Sideways" began showing in theaters last year. The bubble is lanced in a scene outside a restaurant when the character Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, delivers an incensed warning to his friend that "if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any [expletive] merlot."

That line got the biggest laugh of the night when I saw the film, but vintners heavily invested in merlot are not laughing. As Washington Post business writer Margaret Webb Pressler reported on April 10, sales of merlot declined 2 percent in the 12 weeks after "Sideways" was released, whereas pinot noir (Miles's favorite) increased by 14 percent.

Merlot producers are worried, and some are working hard to counteract the notion that the grape is some sort of joke. For example, Stu Harrison, general manager of Napa's Swanson Vineyards (which makes an excellent merlot) is working on damage control. He and his associates are conducting seminars around the country to help consumers differentiate "the ocean of ordinary stuff from the handful of serious producers who grow merlot in the right conditions and take merlot seriously as a variety," he says.

Interestingly, Swanson's seminars were launched a year before "Sideways" debuted, suggesting that producers are challenged less by the movie itself than by all the lousy merlot that lent credence to Miles's diatribe.

Merlot's boom was not grounded on a solid foundation, but it doesn't deserve the bust now threatened by an anti-merlot fad. The grape retains all of its strong potential, and though I've tasted plenty of unremarkable bottlings during the past few weeks while checking the current crop, I've also tasted some standouts in the key price range, between $9 and $18.

Here are my top 10 in order of preference, with parenthetical information on regions of origin, approximate prices, and importers for wines made overseas:

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