Merlot: Don’t hate the grape!

By Terry Sweeney
If ever I were to write an apology to a grape; it would have to be Merlot.
In the 90’s, I happily drank gallons of the stuff. It was always my “go-to” red wine; my plummy, velvety smoothdrinkin’ best friend who always complemented my food at dinner parties and got along with even the pickiest of palates.
Unlike cabernet, which sometimes needs years and years in a dark cellar to tame its harsh tannins, merlot always seemed like it was born to party (something else merlot and I had in common!). I took merlot everywhere and was proud to be seen with it on my arm in public.
Then in 2004, tragedy struck disguised as comedy. An offbeat little independent movie called “Sideways” hit the big screen and its main character, an unsuccessful writer named Miles (who is also a very opinionated wine curmudgeon) gave merlot the diss-of-death. His shallow horny friend, Jack, suggests that he let their dates choose the wine, and a furious Miles throws a now famous hissy fit and declares “…if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving!” That “little movie” may have grossed $71 million dollars here in the U.S. and single-handedly turned the Santa Ynez Valley into a wine tour Mecca; but, oh what it did to my drinkin’ buddy, merlot. Ouch.
Overnight merlot became, well, dorky. Suddenly I felt like I was in Red Wine High School. I didn’t wanna lose my ‘red cred’ with the cool kids. So like many others, I quickly and quietly dropped merlot from my wine list and refused to return its calls. (“Merlot? Sorry, wrong number!”) It seems I wasn’t alone. According to vintners’ statistics, sales of merlot plummeted dramatically after the movie’s debut. But many wine experts feel that merlot had it coming. Apparently, a tsunami of cheap merlot had flooded the market for years before the movie ever came out. Now that I think back, I do remember picking up a cheezy wine bottle with a busty Marilyn Monroe in a come-hither pose on its label calling itself ‘Marilyn Merlot’. That easily could have been the bottle that turned the tide against it.
The good news is that merlot has made a tremendous comeback. Thanks to wineries like Duckhorn, Rutherford Hill, Gundlach-Bundschu, Markham, Shafer, B.R. Cohn and others who continue to produce quality merlots, there is a beautiful ruby red light at the end of the tunnel. As I promised, I fully intend to make it up to California merlot starting with this note of apology on behalf of all of us trend-crazed wine-istas:.
Dear Merlot,
Can you ever forgive me? Ah, but of course you knew I’d come crawling back, didn’t you? You’re so wise. How ‘bout I buy you a nice thick steak? You pick the wine!!
Missing you,
The Happy Wino
P.S. I don’t mean to nudge, but may I suggest a $400 bottle of Chateau Petrus? (97% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc.) OK, so it’s French, not California merlot, but It’s Nicole Kidman’s house wine and really hot with the stars right now!! (Uh oh, I think that may have come off a tad trend-crazed) Oh well. I’m off to bash some buttery-oaked California chardonnay!

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