Merlot is alive and kicking, thank you!

Resurrected after being slapped down in the awardwinning film, “Sideways”, Merlot has made a comeback, writes Mira Advani Honeycutt

Merlot is not lying low anymore. If the #MerlotMe movement has anything to do with it, the much-maligned wine is past its identity crisis and back in full force. The month-long ode to Merlot kicks off in October, culminating on November 7 as National Merlot Day. Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Vineyards, known for high-end luxury Merlot, deserves kudos for ingeniously resurrecting Merlot’s image when it launched #MerlotMe in 2013. Supported by several Napa Merlot producers, the movement has evolved into a global phenomenon. Although this year Duckhorn Vineyards are not actively funding the #MerlotMe project, they are nonetheless very much behind it and the movement continues its global outreach. The #MerlotMe stats, according to Keyhole tracking data, show a total of 268,729,298 social impressions from 2014 to 2022.

Merlot grapes at Castoro Cellars, Paso Robles. Castoro is ranked as the largest organicgrower midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco

The Merlot downfall saga goes back to a single line delivered by actor Paul Giamatti, playing the character of Miles in the 2004 multi-award-winning roadie film, “Sideways,” that altered the landscape for this varietal wine: “I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Thus, a fictional character inadvertently began an era of Merlot bashing, elevating the pleasures of Pinot Noir while relegating Merlot to “No, thanks” in wine bars nearly everywhere. The silky, sexy Pinot became the darling of wine fashionistas while Merlot became the ugly stepsister.

For some vintners looking back at the situation, the Merlot dip was a blessing. Its runaway popularity as the go-to red wine in the 1990s resulted in overproduction and overcropping of Merlot grapes, which led to a lowering of quality. As Adam Lazarre, Paso Robles-based winemaker noted the “Sideways” backlash helped to take poor quality Merlot out of the market.

Merlot has endured its roller coaster ride and is regaining respect. It’s the fourth leading wine purchased by Americans after Cabernet Sauvignon, red blends and Pinot Noir according to Nielsen data. The Wine Institute’s California grape acreage report in 2022 shows 33,000 acres of Merlot. This popularity could prove P J Alviso of Duckhorn Vineyards’s personal survey which he calls the ‘airport bar test’, right. His reveals that the three most popular wines among transit consumers are Merlot, Pinot Noir and a red blend, in that order.

Kimberlee Nicholls, winemaker at Markham Vineyards, has a deep love for Merlot.

Over the past five years, I’ve been following the Merlot trail and the #MerlotMe movement to get a grip on the varietal’s evolving status. I’ve reached out to industry professionals in California’s Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles and Mendocino County as well as Washington State. I continue to conduct annual Merlot tastings and explore the varietal’s range of flavour expressions from red and black fruits nuanced with savoury notes to hints of cedar and mint.

I discovered many Merlot fans and also the power of the brand concept which stretches beyond the Merlot debacle. Brands that are ‘hand-sold’ by sommeliers and retailers as their personal selections and don’t fall victim to trends. These are benchmark Merlots such as Napa’s Pahlmeyer, Grgich Hills, Markham, Trefethen and Duckhorn’s iconic, Three Palms Vineyard, to name a few.

As Napa’s winemaker Chris Carpenter remarked about Duckhorn Merlots, “They weathered the “Sideways” debacle well; they’ve done a great job. The Three Palms Merlot is a fabulous wine.” In fact, during our phone conversation, Carpenter recalled the time when he first savoured a Duckhorn back in Chicago. “That’s what turned me on to wine, and it was a Merlot,” he said.

“It’s unique,” said Duckhorn winemaker, Reneé Ary. “I have yet to see [any vineyard] that mimics Three Palms soil.” She was commenting on the 30-year-old vineyard planted on rocky volcanic soil in the warmer Calistoga appellation. Textural and full bodied, the wine luxuriates on the palate, celebrating Merlot’s lush red and black fruits and dusty tannins.

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Of their 450,000 annual-case production, Duckhorn’s Merlot makes up one-third. It includes a selection of vineyard-designate Merlots as well as collections representing Napa’s various appellations, from the acid driven Carneros expression to the layered, deeper Merlots from Howell Mountain. There has been a slow evolution and subtle changes in winemaking at Duckhorn in the past 45 years, noted Ary, such as introducing the colds oak practice. “It builds mid-palate and gives a fleshy texture. Merlot seems to benefit from [a cold soak] more than other varieties.”

Renée Ary, winemaker at
Duckhorn Vineyards, which managed the “Sideways” debacle well pictured in the cellar

Markham Vineyards is a popular Merlot house, ranked as Napa Valley’s fourth winery to produce this varietal wine with its 1980 vintage. Markham’s winemaker, Kimberlee Nicholls exclaimed, “Let’s bring the sexy back! The magic back into Merlot. Nicholls has a deep love for Merlot. “If you are a brand like ourselves, you pride yourself on great Merlot, knowing how to grow it and how to craft it.”

However, she agreed that there has been overplanting, mostly in wrong locations, which resulted in bad experiences for consumers. “So as a Merlot house, we have to work harder to make consumers fans of Merlot.” She’s aware of the pitfalls and viticulture challenges. Granted it’s finicky, but you have to know the fruit. “As a trusted Merlot producer, I wear that on my shoulder,” she said. Her mantra: Allow the cluster to fully ripen. “Otherwise, you get the pyrazines that turn people off.”

Trefethen Family Vineyards’ Merlot was planted in the early 1960s in Napa’s Oak Knoll appellation, but wasn’t produced as a varietal wine until 1993, explained second-generation vigneron, Hailey Trefethen. “It took us a while to dial that in for it to stand on its own,” she noted of the 24-acre Merlot planting that has been finetuned over the years. “Our Merlot tastes like Merlot, with a wonderful lush mid-palate and soft velvety tannins.” In recent years, she added, the winery has seen a dramatic rise in sales.

Violet Grgich, President of Napa’s Grgich Hills Estate and daughter of founder and centenarian Mike Grgich, said, “The trade said ours was the best Merlot but the customer wasn’t buying it because of the outcry.” Sure, the tasting room sales fluctuated. “But people who try it like it. Ours is a big complex wine, not wimpy, it’s more like a Cab.”

Their Merlot vineyards are planted in both the warmer Yountville appellation and the cooler Carneros, noted for Pinot Noir and Merlot.

In Paso Robles, Tom Myers, veteran winemaker at Castoro Cellars, weighed in. Merlot was not known as a varietal wine. “Cab was king,” he said. “Then it took off, as it was softer, marketable and had a broader appeal.” At Castoro, Merlot planting didn’t begin till the late 1990s. “Then we were hit by “Sideways” and had to take a back seat for a decade, but we didn’t pull it out; we found a home for it.”

A touch of Petit Sirah and Tannat was added to create Castoro’s caressingly lush Merlot. Castoro has a total of 1,500 acres under vine. With 92 planted to Merlot, Castoro is ranked as the largest organic grower in the San Luis Obispo County wine region, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Ary has noticed a general upward trend in the past ten years. However, “More people are doing Merlot-dominant wines and calling it a blend,” she commented. Perhaps to appease Merlot-shy consumers?

Still, Merlot at large has regained respect and is on the upswing with impressive selections in the US marketplace. So, now’s the time to re-introduce yourself to the joys of this Comeback Kid. One thing though — a Merlot begs for air. So, remember to decant the bottle a few hours before sipping and let your palate take a journey into the wine’s evolution of nuanced flavours and textures.