© by Linwood Slayton
I love to reminisce about my wine journey. There should be no question that we are inextricably bound to our past and yet, we have a right and duty to seek to move forward and progress. I have written previous commentaries on my evolution and that will continue to be a theme in future columns as my journey is ongoing.
I attended the opening of a new wine store in Atlanta recently - The Barrelman. Their concept is unique (to me) in that it is owned and operated by the owner of Eno's Restaurant (Fifth and Peachtree Streets). What distinguishes The Barrelman is the fact that it only sells the wines that Eno's offers on its wine list for dinner and at the expansive Wine Bar. The prices on the wine list in the restaurant are understandably higher than those in The Barrelman, and the customer is able to enjoy a glass of wine while dining or tasting at the Wine Bar and then proceed next door and buy the wine(s) that he just enjoyed. I like the concept. This is a good and needed change.
I enjoy commenting on the apparent transitions and changes that seem to occur with wine and the tastes of the people. Every few years it seems that a "new" wine becomes "in vogue" and replaces the "old" favorites. Witness the exodus from Chablis to White Zinfandel to Chardonnay or the decline in popularity of German wines such as Liebfraumilch and Piesporter among the mass consumers. When I began acquiring and whetting my taste for red wine, I started out with Cabernet Sauvignon (albeit the low end "cabs") until I discovered the world of Merlot.
I first tried a bottle of Merlot perhaps 8 -10 years ago. I had grown disenchanted with Cabernet Sauvignon as I found it to be not easy to drink without food. I spoke about this with a wine merchant and he recommended that I try a Merlot as it was a little lighter and a bit more fruitier to the taste. I have no independent recollection of which Merlot I tried but I vividly recall that I liked it and was thereafter "hooked".
In the ensuing five years or so, I was a Merlot man nearly to the exclusion of "cabs." I did branch out and developed a palate for Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, Rhone wines and the like but I was a "down to the bone" Merlot Man up to and through the end of the century.
It now appears that Merlot has fallen from grace in much the same manner as did Chablis and, to some extent, Chardonnay. Certainly, among wine enthusiasts, Merlot does not hold the same fascination and mystique as it did in the 90's. Why?
Let's look at the origins of Merlot first. Needless to say it is a red grape and is one of the most dominant grapes grown in France's Bordeaux region. I discovered that Merlot is often blended with other grapes to make wine and, of course, is often left alone, hence the name Merlot when referring to a particular type of wine.
The other interesting fact is that Merlot grapes are also grown worldwide- from California to Chile to Argentina to Australia What does this tell us? It suggests that it is a grape that can grow and develop in various climates and under different conditions. I suspect that given the many different Merlots that have emerged from so many different countries, the range in taste and quality has had a lot to do with the declining popularity of Merlot.
Further, given the soaring popularity of Merlot in the 90's, the price of a good Merlot also soared - to the point where it became somewhat cost prohibitive. Especially when lower priced Merlots were appearing on the shelves from exotic places like Argentina and Australia. As more people began buying the lower end Merlots, I suspect that they began to witness a personal decline in their affinity and affection for Merlot at the same time. I know this was the case for me. I discovered that for the same money, I could buy a much better bottle of Pinot Noir or Zinfandel. Most wine consumers do not have such a refined and definitive palate that they must have a particular wine - at any cost. I know I don't.
So, where does this leave us in this transition story? I still enjoy a good bottle of Merlot. I have discovered that by simply buying a bottle of French Bordeaux or finding a good blend that is predominantly Merlot, I am enjoying a good Merlot. I occasionally buy a bottle of California Merlot when I find a good price-quality combination. People still bring Merlot to my house when I host wine gatherings and typically they are at the lower end of the price-quality spectrum. I suspect that an exceptional bottle of Merlot can be "discovered" given that the prices have begun to decline as has the demand. I suggest that you ask a knowledgeable wine merchant who enjoys your trust and I believe that bargains will surface.
I read somewhere that it is indeed ironic how "grape expectations pop." So it is with Merlot and one wonders what will be the subject of this kind of column a few years down the road. That's what makes my wine journey so intriguing: I don't always know where I am going but I do know the fun is in the tripů
May 3, 2002
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