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A Vibe Check on Merlot

A Vibe Check on Merlot

Twenty years after the release of Sideways, has the movie-maligned Merlot recovered?

Actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden-Church in the movie “Sideways” | Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

“If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot.

Paul Giamatti’s words in Sideways did a number on Napa. Since the release of the film in 2005, sales of Pinot Noir (a grape he waxed poetic on for much of the buddy-comedy — “Thin skinned. Temperamental. In need of constant care and attention.”) — have increased by 170%.

Merlot hasn’t fared as well — sales dropped by 2% over the same time. The film depressed the market for varietal versions of the wine, plummeting prices of both bottles and grapes. An entire study called The Sideways Effect was commissioned to investigate the slump.

Many find the malign unwarranted. “Merlot is one of my favorite grapes — I’m a chocolate fiend and it tastes like cocoa,” says Danya Degen, Beverage Director at meli in Washington, DC. “But it’s still a hard push for guests! I find it’s only a favorite if they don’t know what they’re drinking.”

“Nine years after the movie came out, I tried to sell a bottle of Duckhorn Merlot to a customer,” adds Matthew Brodbine, Beverage Director of pasjoli in LA. “He refused because of the movie.”

Recently, winemakers are dragging Merlot’s reputation out from the dirt, planting more vines and making more varietal Merlot instead of something blended and more Bordeaux in style. 

“We’ve seen a resurgence of interest in Merlot from all wine drinkers, from novice to collectors,” says Joseph Lapi, Wine Director at RPM Restaurants in Chicago, Illinois.

So has Sarah Trubnick at The Barrel Room in San Francisco. “I’m seeing Merlot sales increasing in my restaurant. Although, it may be because I stand by the grape fully.”

“No, I am not leaving if we order Merlot, Paul Giamatti!” says Alex Cuper, the beverage director at El Che. “Merlot is gosh darn delicious! It’s a beautiful, luscious wine that plays well with others. When asked to step up and be the star, it does so with flying colors. Ask any Right Bank Bordeaux!”

Bordeaux Versus Merlot

Chris Carpenter, Winemaker, Mt. Brave Wines | Photo Credit: Mt. Brave Wines

While Merlot was maligned after Sideways, Cuper has a point — some of the world’s most lauded wines are Merlot, including Cheval Blanc, Petrus, and Masseto. Did the Sideways-induced shunning only kill California Merlot?

“I’ve seen Merlot sales go up, especially most recently,” says Mariana Lutz, general manager of Tabard Inn in Washington. “But it’s not the warm and bouncy California Merlots. Earthy, rustic, yet fruity Bordeaux styles are the most requested.”

Jay James, President of Benchmark Wine Group, reminds us of a moment at the end of the flick, when Paul Giamatti’s character sipped a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc from a disposable cup. “Here’s the film’s big miss: they failed to highlight this very old and expensive bottle of Merlot!” he says. “This completely reversed the surface message of Merlot’s inferiority that was so obvious earlier in the film.”

But sales of Bordeaux have also slowed over the last little while (global consumption of Bordeaux wines decreased 4% between 2016 and 2021) though climate change, Covid-19, shifts in market preference, and in-region struggles are largely to blame. 

And other regions are continuing to plant the grape. “Greece and Italy are the perfect places for Merlot’s well-deserved resurgence because people are picking it based on location, not grape,” says Degen. “If you lead with area (like Ticino or Bordeaux) or use terms like Bordeaux-variety blend, guests usually take a sip and they’re in.”

Modern-Day Merlot

Views From Mount Veeder | Photo Credit: Napa Valley Vintners

There are benefits to rooting for the underdog grape. If you’re a Napa fan, Merlot is significantly cheaper than Cabernet. “The average price per ton of Cabernet Sauvignon is far more expensive than Napa Merlot,” says James.

But while that’s beneficial to your bank account, the cost differentials sway California’s winemakers and growers. Cabernet is a money maker, while Merlot is not. “There’s such economic incentives for wineries and growers to plant Cabernet Sauvignon,” he continues. “A very large amount of Merlot acreage has been converted to Cabernet Sauvignon over the last 10, 15 years.”

And while many drinkers are ready for Merlot’s resurgence, is the grape?

“I live in Napa Valley and we’ve seen climate change have a negative effect on Merlot,” says James. “The warmer it gets, the less suitable Napa is for growing Merlot.” 

French studies predict Merlot will be one of wine’s greatest losses as climate change continues to impact the industry. The grape isn’t great at withstanding droughts, heat waves, heavy rains, and other erratic weather patterns. In Napa, producers like Larkmead have pulled up acres of Merlot not because of popularity, but because the grape cannot tolerate the hotter weather. It ripens too quickly, leading to unfavorable wine with high sugar and higher alcohol.

Even before Sideways premiered, there were acres and acres of Merlot planted in places the grape wasn’t suited to, or with methods not conducive to great wine. This created a wave of mediocre, marginal quality Merlot.

“One good thing that came out of the Sideways backlash was that the majority of Merlot vineyards that were ill-suited to the variety were replanted to other varieties, in particular Pinot Noir,” says Chris Carpenter, Winemaker at Mt. Brave Wines. Though, it’s now easy to find sub-par Pinot Noir around California. “Most of that marginal Merlot was replanted with now-marginal Pinot Noir,” says James.”

Perhaps Sideways just cleared the bench; shut out shitty Merlot and left only elegant, exacting, inspired expressions of the grape. “What has remained are these sweet spots where Merlot thrives, like Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder, or other light-filled appellations in the Napa Valley,” Carpenter continues. “These sites are better-suited for producing high-quality Merlot, and the market is now rich with high-quality Merlots made from fruit grown on ideal vineyard sites.”

So while Merlot was maligned, perhaps it was for the best. Sideways cut the clutter from the California Merlot category, leaving behind only suave, silky, and worth seeking out. 

“I think we’ve surpassed the point in pop culture where Merlot is looked down on,” says Cuper. “It’s a true workhorse wine— it adds rich, deep flavors, textures and tannins. It’s great to see it circle back to its former glory.”

5 California Merlots You Need to Try

McGrail Vineyards Merlot, Picazo Vineyard

Style: Dry red wine

Vintage: 2019

Appellation: Livermore Valley

More Bordelais in style – think lavender and herbs – with a little new-school Cali kick. Red and black fruits and baking spices for days. This one will stay with you long after that last pour.

Markham Vineyards District Series Merlot

Style: Dry red wine

Vintage: 2019

Appellation: Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley

Merlot is Markham’s signature variety – and with good reason! Cooled by the bay, Merlot grapes ripen slowly in the Oak Knoll AVA, providing complex, layered and distinctive cherry fruit character.

Benziger Estate Sunny Slope Merlot

Style: Dry red wine

Vintage: 2020

Appellation: Sonoma Valley

This certified Biodynamic wine walks a perfect balance between strength and elegance. It’s softly textured with flavors that are at once decadent and bright – like a chocolate-dipped strawberry.

Mt. Brave Merlot

Style: Dry red wine

Vintage: 2019

Appellation: Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley

Worth every penny, this wine is a study in the terroir of Mt. Veeder. It’s rich yet surprisingly delicate, and it’s got a lift of freshness that will keep you coming back for more.

Leoness Cellars VS Merlot, Los Caballos Vineyard

Style: Dry red wine

Vintage: 2020

Appellation: Temecula Valley

A brooding, juicy, single-vineyard Merlot that shows what Southern California is capable of producing when it comes to this noble variety.