Classics

What Ever Happened to Merlot?

The movie Sideways is said to have sunk the variety — but history suggests otherwise

Jeff Siegel By September 8, 2021
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

The headlines jump off the search page like a newspaper montage in an old black and white movie: “Is Merlot in its death throes?” “Is Merlot making a comeback?” “Will it ever be taken as seriously as Cabernet Sauvignon?”

Poor, poor pitiful Merlot, the grape everyone loves to hate, including a certain character in a certain movie that even people who don’t know much about wine know about. The truth, though, is more complicated and, possibly, more interesting. Merlot was never quite as popular as everyone remembers, and it never fell quite as far as the legend has it. 

“I’ve been watching the interplay of Merlot with the rest of wine for almost all of my career,” says Constance Savage, the general manager and chief operating officer at Washington state’s L’Ecole No. 44, one of the best Merlot producers in the country; she was an importer and wholesaler for almost two decades before that. “And it’s been super fascinating to see the whole shift.”

Merlot is not as popular as it was during its late 20th century heyday, when plantings increased 15-fold by the early 2000s. But even at its height, it was never more popular than Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, and USDA crop statistics show it wasn’t any more common than Zinfandel. And when’s the last time you read anything about the demise of Zinfandel?

Although Merlot is only seventh of the 10 best selling wine types in the U.S., according to Nielsen, it’s an integral part of many red blends, sweet and traditional. And it still commands respect in both parts of California and, especially, Washington state, where producers like L’Ecole and Northstar took it more seriously than the many bulk producers in California.

The difference today is that no one expects it to be the grape that will remake the U.S. wine business.

“Everyone always thought Merlot could be sold to the masses, that it was the ultimate consumer beverage, which it isn’t,” says New Orleans wine critic, radio host, and wine judge Tim McNally. “Truth of the matter, we were never that knowledgeable of vine location decisions and treating fruit in the best way when it arrived at the winery. And Merlot was literally the best example of that planted in the wrong places, both too hot and too cold, and then left unfocused during the winemaking.”

History lesson

Merlot’s history in the U.S. is laced with irony. It was one of the “fighting varietals,” or single varietal wines that were priced like generic wine, that jump-started the U.S. wine boom in the mid-1980s. Before that, U.S. wines had names like Chablis and Mountain Red, and who knew what they were? Toward the end of the ‘80s, Fetzer and Glen Ellen started making Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and so forth, and calling them by the grape name. Sales boomed; Fetzer’s volume increased 400% between 1982 and 1988.

Merlot was even part of Coca-Cola’s unhappy time as a big wine company, when it planted the grape up and down the California wine country in an attempt to do for wine what it had done for soft drinks. It sold its wine business to the Seagram liquor empire in 1983, and Seagram continued Merlot’s expansion. Even more vines went into the wrong places, and even more poorly considered wine making decisions were made; even the nicest critics called Seagram and its Sterling subsidiary inconsistent.

And Merlot was in trouble even before the movie Sideways finished it off in 2004. In 2000, the New York Times reported that a sweet pink wine called white Merlot was becoming popular, mostly to “give California winemakers something to do with a glut of merlot grapes.” There were so many grapes, in fact, that the price of Merlot had dropped in half between 1995 and 2000. 

In other words, the grape was already ripe for a fall, movie or no. First, no one quite knew what to do with Merlot as a varietal wine. Should it be big and bold, like a Cabernet Sauvignon knockoff? Or should it be softer and rounder? Or should it be something no one had considered?

“If it’s grown in the right place and cared for correctly, it’s one of the most expressive grapes in the world,” says long-time California winemaker Adam LaZarre, who today runs his self-named winery in Paso Robles and remains as enthusiastic about Merlot as he was in the early 2000s. “But it was way over-planted, and in the wrong places, so that too much of it tasted like cheap Chianti with sugar.”

Much confusion

Merlot had rarely been made as a single varietal wine outside of California. Merlot was famous as one of the grapes in a red Bordeaux, but even then, it only played a supporting role to Cabernet in most of the region’s more prestigious wines. So no one really knew what to do with it when it was the only grape in the wine.

Second, its popularity was masked by being sold in restaurants, usually by the glass. Talk to anyone who made Merlot in the 1990s, and everyone remembers the same joke: Why do diners order so much Merlot? Because it’s easier to pronounce than Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Given all of that, how has varietal Merlot remained viable? Yes, it’s still on supermarket shelves for $8 or so, soft and boring and sometimes sweet. And it’s still held in esteem at high-end producers like Northstar and L’Ecole, Duckhorn in Napa, and Pride Mountain in Sonoma.

“There are several aspects about why we’re still successful with Merlot,” says David Merfeld, Northstar’s long-time winemaker. “You have to go with the region and what it does well, and that’s what we’ve been able to do. Merlot is a superior variety then, and I still think there are places in Washington state where it can grow where it isn’t now.”

What’s missing is widely available, quality Merlot for $15 to $25, the price range that has powered a decade-long wine trend called premiumization, says Savage. There’s just very little interest among retailers or consumers for Merlot at that price.

Julie Pedroncelli St. John, whose family winery in Sonoma has been making varietal Merlot for more than three decades, says its $20 Bench Vineyard version still sells but not nearly as well as it did 20 years ago.

“I think it’s more a matter of consumer preference and how we talk about Merlot than anything else,” says Pedroncelli St. John, whose winery has increased its use of Merlot in red blends, traditional and otherwise, and cut production of the single varietal wine. “Our style is more a Cabernet lover’s style with lots of structure and a core of tannin and acidity that sets it apart from the softer side of the grape, while still holding on to the fruit aspects.”

Ah, blends. That’s where much of today’s Merlot grapes go. Into the red blends, many sweet, that are the third most popular wine in the U.S. In fact, says Savage, she can envision a far-thinking producer, tired of the glutted red blend market, taking a chance on a $15 to $18 Merlot. The goal? Do for varietal Merlot what has been done for $15 to $18 Chardonnay and Cabernet make a quality product that tastes like Merlot, that isn’t sweet, and that can attract consumers who want something more than a simple red blend.

Until then, Merlot remains, well, Merlot.

“One of the problems that Merlot has always had in Napa is that when people visit, they’re expected to go home with Cabernet,” says Dan Petroski, former winemaker at Napa’s 136-year-old Larkmead Vineyards, who recently left to focus on his own Massican label full time.  “So we have to find ways to get them to taste Merlot, even if that means letting them taste Merlot without telling them what it is. When they do, they like it. So, that in a sense, is Merlot’s comeback.”

Dan Petroski, winemaker, Massican Winery. Photo courtesy of Juliana Petroski.

5 Merlot to try:

Note: Prices may vary depending on location.

bottle of McManis Lodi Merlot 2019

McManis Lodi Merlot 2019 ($10)

This California producer turns out some of the best wine in the country at this price, and the Merlot is no exception. It’s not sweet, but has lots of blackberry fruit, as well as enough tannins and acidity so the wine is more than a fruit bomb. 

bottle of Columbia Crest Grand Estates Washington Merlot 2018

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Washington Merlot 2018 ($12)

This wine from Columbia Crest in Washington state is a supermarket brand for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and that’s the style here lots of what’s called chocolate cherry fruit, plus a little oak and very easy to drink.

bottle of L'Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Merlot 2018

L'Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Merlot 2018 ($25)

Classic Washington state Merlot from one of the best Merlot wineries in the country. The fruit is almost plummy and much darker than California. There are baking spice aromas, with some minerality and smoke on the finish.

Januik Merlot Columbia Valley 2018 ($30)

More Washington state style: black fruits, spice, coffee, and even a little vanilla. The finish is long and lush, but also persistent, thanks to the tiny bits of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in the blend.

bottle of Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot 2018

Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot 2018 ($42)

Duckhorn remains committed to the cause, and its flagship Merlot is a fine example of what the wine can do in California as a varietal. It’s big and rich, befitting Napa, with more fresh red fruit than black, some spice, more acidity than you’d expect, and silky tannins.