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Merlot in the Vineyard

October 8, 2013

It only took seven words, spoken in 2004, to cause many to turn their backs on an old friend. Those words “I am NOT drinking any ****ing Merlot!” spoken by the character Miles in the movie Sideways.

Yes, we are talking about the grape variety Merlot, since October is Merlot month. Oops, I just used the M word twice in the same sentence. I hope I don’t get in trouble for that. Let’s start by taking a look back at what the wine world looked B.S. (Before Sideways).
The first recorded bottling of the Merlot variety took place in France in 1784, and its name is a derivative of the French word “merle,” meaning blackbird. It is thought to be named such as a reference to the many blackbirds that would eat the fruit of the vines before it was picked. The variety is one of the traditional Bordeaux varieties keeping company with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Because of its characteristics of earlier ripening and ability to adapt to slightly cooler climates, it became the primary or base variety in the cooler regions of Bordeaux such as Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. Within these regions are some of Bordeaux’s most coveted wines like Château Pétrus, Château le Pin and Château Cheval Blanc.

Now, let’s jump ahead to Merlot’s heyday. It was 1991 and the United States was primarily a country of beer drinkers at that point. Then, the TV show 60 minutes broadcasted a piece called the “French Paradox,” alluding to the fact that the French drink lots of red wine and are living longer because of it. Americans instantly took the streets wanting to embrace the French lifestyle. But they had one problem; they could not speak the language. In walked Merlot, a soft and easily approachable red that is reminiscent of its other Bordeaux cousins but is almost in English with a French twist on the end.

Merlot was embraced and sales grew by 92% in 1991, and by 1993, it made up 6% of all varietal wine sold. The world was happy. The wines were good and ranged from reasonably priced to outrageous. People were flocking to new gathering places called “wine bars,” enjoying their favorite beverage, Merlot.

Then in 2004, a movie about wine called Sideways became all the rage and people were quoting the above-mentioned quote more than “I’ll be back” or “Hasta la vista, baby.” With that, the negative association was set and many of those who appreciated wine or were just getting into wine didn’t want to be seen drinking something as plain and ordinary as Merlot. It was like something that tasted wonderful yesterday suddenly had rotted in the bottle overnight and everyone knew. People had by now learned the French language and were ordering Pinot Noir, or were becoming more sophisticated and began drinking blends.

Sense of taste is one character that is truly unique to you, and only you know what you like and don’t like. As a winemaker, my preferences change cyclically, going from Cabernet Sauvignon to Syrah, then off to Sangiovese, over to Mourvèdre and then back around. But when I am in the cellar tasting through barrels and putting blends together, I more often than not find myself saying, “I need to start drinking more Merlot.” If there is one thing that I could have you take away after reading this is just that. During the month of October, go on and try a couple of Paso Robles Merlots and render your own verdict.

Michael Barreto
Le Vigne Winery