Wine drinkers are notoriously fickle, but I don’t think anyone could have forecast Merlot’s fall from grace after wine snob Miles played by Paul Giametti dismissed it in the 2004 movie, Sideways, when he wanted to drink Pinot Noir instead. What had soared to America’s second favorite red wine suddenly fell from favor even faster. Even before that, it was dismissed as “red Chardonnay” by snobs.
The popularity itself turned off those who have to be exclusive; but many growers and wineries had also planted the variety in unsuitable places, notably California’s hot central valley. Merlot is less tolerant of heat than Cabernet Sauvignon, and it makes an insipid wine when grown in hot places.
The movie was full of irony, like Miles sadly drinking Cheval Blanc—a very expensive wine made from substantial Merlot—alone with a burger. One of the most expensive wines made, Château Pétrus, is almost all Merlot, too.
In fact, Merlot is the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux; though it is never identified on the label, so Bordeaux wines were immune to the “Sideways effect.”
In more irony, California growers and wineries are planting Pinot Noir, an even more particular grape, in the same hot locations. As a result, much cheap Pinot Noir is deep red, alcoholic and totally lacking the charms of the delicate Pinot Noir from Burgundy that made it famous.
As it turns out, good producers kept producing Merlot. Overall sales dropped but the wines remained excellent, a less-tannic, rich, fruity and more accessible wine than many Cabernet Sauvignons.
Happily, the pendulum has at least returned to the center, and most Merlots you can buy are pretty good wines, some superb. And few boast the stratospheric prices of top Cabernets.
Many excellent Merlots come from less-prestigious areas that still have excellent climates for the grape, including Lodi and Paso Robles, but Sonoma County is almost always a winner with Merlot.
Among the reliable reasonably priced widely available Sonoma Merlots are St. Francis, Kenwood, Kendall-Jackson, Matanzas Creek, Duckhorn Sonoma County Decoy, Gallo Sonoma, Frei Brothers, Chateau St. Jean, Ferrari-Carano, Rodney Strong, Benziger and Gundlach-Bundschu.
Hop over the Mayacama Mountains into Napa Valley, and prices tend to also rise; but among the reliable Merlot producers are Beringer, Burgess Cellars, Cakebread, Duckhorn Vineyards, Markham Vineyardsand Swanson.
We shouldn’t overlook Merlots from other states, Chile, Northern Italy and, naturally France. In addition to the east (right) bank of Bordeaux, wines from other parts of France like Languedoc are worth considering.
I’ve also had better luck with three-liter $20 boxes of Merlot than most reds (especially Pinot and Cabernet).
Paul Franson lives in Napa Valley, CA.