John JuergensLife after Merlot

The movie Sideways has caused quite a stir in the California wine industry. I have heard reports that Pinot Noir sales have skyrocketed while Merlot is plummeting, but I haven't seen any solid sales data to support this.

It is interesting to me that all this hubbub surrounds two of the most misunderstood types of wine, and consumers who decide to switch from Merlot to Pinot Noir as their wine of choice are simply jumping from one conundrum to another. (I'm not even going to approach what I think of making such a major preferential change based on a story line in a movie.)

First, let's talk about Merlot.

As many of you know, I am not a big fan of Merlot. It's not that I don't like the grape, which can produce some very elegant wines. What bothers me is what the wine has become and how the wine-consuming public has been suckered in to paying way too much for what frequently is a mediocre product.

I remember vividly the first time I had a 100-percent Merlot back in the early 1970s. It was made by Chappellet Vineyards in St. Helena, California and cost the equivalent of about $20 today. The wine had some nice fruit and dark berry flavors, but it was as flat and lifeless as three-day old road kill. I remember thinking, why would anyone make a 100-percent Merlot?

The Merlot grape has been around in one form or another for hundreds of years, and much of its charm and utility come from its naturally low acidity and soft tannins. These characteristics make it the perfect grape to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, the noblest of all grapes, to round out and to soften its rough edges. However, in some regions of France, Pomerol in particular, the grape can produce wines of sumptuous, velvety quality all on its own. There are American versions that achieve this quality, but also a lot more that have the finesse of rusty barbed wire.

I believe the grape got catapulted into rock star popularity on the coattails of the 60 Minutes report back in the 1990s that described the now well-known potential health benefits associated with red wine. Red wine sales in the U.S. multiplied severalfold soon after that report. Lots of people ran out and bought red wine, probably things like inexpensive Bordeaux and California Cabernet based wines, which promptly curled their toes up around their ears due to the robust tannins and acidity.

Word quickly spread about the Merlot grape, which was soft, fruity, and very easy to drink. But demand soon outstripped the domestic supply. Wine makers scrambled to find alternative Merlot supplies, and many bought whatever they could, regardless of the quality. And with greatly increased demand, prices steadily increased as well.

The bottom line is that for about the last ten years the market has been flooded with medium to low quality Merlot wine that frequently commands an unjustified price. The wine made from low quality fruit imported from all over the world generally lacks most of the traditional characteristics of good quality Merlot. The wines tend to be insipid with little fruit or personality. Some very cheap versions are actually harsh and acidic, which is completely opposite of what true Merlot is all about.

And those wineries that had been producing high quality Merlot all along have jacked their prices into the twenty-dollar plus range, well out of reach of a large majority of average wine consumers. Consequently, we have a huge Merlot drinking cadre that has little idea of what true Merlot should taste like. Merlot has become a generic name for red wine, and it is an easy target at which wine snobs can take pot shots, summarized nicely by the character Miles in Sideways.

On to Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir has been called the "heartbreak grape" by some producers because it is so temperamental and difficult to work with. Even when a wine maker does everything correctly, the grape can turn on him or her at any stage of production and turn an entire harvest to crap. But when things go well, they can result in wine that can bring the most jaded palate to its knees, if palates actually had lower jointed limbs.

The search for good Pinot is often referred to in terms equivalent to the search for the Holy Grail. Once you have tasted a really good Pinot, you will invest many dollars in poor and mediocre wines just on the hope of finding that next good one. Such is the allure of the Pinot Noir grape, and that's why the great Burgundy wines of France made from Pinot can command $500 a bottle and more.

Because Pinot is so difficult to work with, even mediocre products frequently have a fairly stiff price tag. You have a much greater chance of being disappointed by Pinot at any price, but especially below about $15, than with any other grape, with the exception of the Muscadine, of course.

As I write this I am sipping on a California Pinot that cost about $20. Although it has some very nice red-cherry fruit and good balance, I don't think it is worth the price. For a few dollars more I could have gotten two bottles of an excellent Shiraz from Australia that would deliver more oomph for the buck. But still, there is something seductive about the delicacy and complexity of the Pinot I'm drinking that I could never get from other grape types.

My advice for Merlot drinkers who have been shamed by its portrayal in the movie Sideways is not to flee to Pinot Noir in the hope that you will find terminal coolness. More than likely you will be terribly disappointed and will have wasted a lot of money in the process. If you want to move on, I can assure you there is a better life after Merlot. In fact, there is a whole world of Syrah/Shiraz and Argentine Malbec out there that you really should be exploring. You definitely will get a lot more for your money in all price ranges, and you are certain to find wines that will give you were looking for in Merlot, and probably a lot more.

April 2005

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