Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Was Miles Wrong about Merlot?

A decade ago a quaint little film hit the theaters, and changed the world, or at least the wine world. It was a critical darling, garnering five Oscar nominations, and winning for Best Adapted Screenplay. At the time, we wine professionals didn’t think much of it, other than laughing with it at the ridiculousness of winespeak, and the lengths to which wine lovers go to get their favorite bottles. It was Sideways, and it sparked a wine revolution.

In the movie, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, a failed novelist who decides to take his buddy Thomas Haden Church on a weekend long bachelor party bender in Santa Barbara wine country. There they drink a little wine, have a gourmet meal or three, drink a little more wine, visit wineries, drink some more wine, meet Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, drink a bit more wine, fall in love, drink lots more wine, and crash Milo’s Saab into a tree. Throughout the course of this rollicking good time, Milo explains how wonderful Pinot Noir is, and how awful and insipid is the dreaded Merlot.

Before the Sideways Effect, as wine geeks call it, Merlot was the most popular red grape among young wine drinkers, and the sky was the limit. Growers were ripping out less profitable vines and replanting to Merlot at every opportunity, and production was at an all time high. A year later, Merlot sales had plummeted twenty percent, and growers started replacing their Merlot vines with… you guessed it, Pinot Noir. Pinot became the darling of critics and Somms across the country, and Merlot faded from popularity, a ghost of its former self.

But Miles was wrong, dead wrong.

Not about the glory of Pinot Noir, because it is, in the right hands, a magnificent grape capable of making some the world’s greatest wines. He was wrong about Merlot, as it also makes some of the world’s greatest wines. One of the all-time best wines I ever had was a 1997 Pahlmeyer Merlot, dense and lush, bursting with juicy, ripe blackberry, espresso, spices and so much more. And of course there is the legendary Petrus, one of the most expensive wines in the world, from Pomerol in Bordeaux, made from - you guessed it - 100% Merlot. 

The truth was, and still is, that too much Merlot was planted in the wrong soils, overcropped, harvested over-ripe with little to no acidity. The end result was shelves and wine lists jammed full of the dull, lifeless cheap Merlot that Miles railed against. Sadly the same can now be said about Pinot Noir - we taste lots of them that are flat and uninteresting, and even worse, too expensive. The lesson here is just because you can grow a certain grape doesn’t mean you should.

So, where should we be growing Merlot? Bordeaux of course, the grapes homeland, makes many fantastic ones, as do the hillside vineyards of Napa and Sonoma. And, in my opinion, one other locale shows the potential for greatness - Washington’s Columbia Valley, a point driven home to me last week at the Blue Lemon in Westport, where Harry’s hosted a delightful wine dinner with Walla Walla’s L’Ecole No. 41 winery. While all their wines are delicious, the star of the show for me was the Merlot 2011, bursting with fruit, but on a supple framework, polished and elegant while rich and powerful at the same time, paired wonderfully with seared yellowfin tuna with a black cherry glaze. Best of all, it’s affordable, selling for under $30, a price that is all too often the starting point to get a decent bottle of Pinot Noir. And L’Ecole is hardly alone; there are lots of tasty Washington Merlots out there - why not give one a try?

In the end of Sideways, even Miles tacitly admits his mistake, as he guzzles his coveted 1961 Cheval Blanc from a styrofoam cup in a fast food joint. Cheval Blanc is a Saint-Emilion, a blend of just a splash Cabernet Franc added to, yep, the dreaded Merlot. 

 -Scott Hill

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