The questions remains: Why did we take Hollywood’s dismissal of merlot literally? Many a wannabe wine snob took “Sideways” sullen leading man Miles Raymond seriously and shunned merlot. After all, it was Miles’ waxing poetic about pinot noir that got the girl, right?
Following the release of “Sideways” in October 2004, merlot sales dropped 2 percent while pinot noir sales increased 16 percent in the United States. About the same time, a few Washington state wineries that were known for merlot removed the grape from their portfolios. Some removed merlot from their vineyards and replaced this grape of Bordeaux origins with syrah or more of the popular cabernet sauvignon. The word on the vineyard street was, “Do not plant any more merlot.”
Now these drastic changes weren’t necessarily about how the wine consumer was feeling about merlot — it was more about the winemakers’ artistic style and how dramatically the weather had changed since the first merlot vines were planted in Washington in the early 1970s.
Washington state merlot started to gain popularity when it was first introduced and became our shining- star varietal in the late 1980s. This red grape from the Evergreen State is like no other with its big, bold, cherry flavors and complex nose that often includes mint, cigar-box and spices. It is also higher in acidity than its California cousins, which contributes to its being food- friendly. In spite of glowing accolades from around the nation, somewhere we became sidetracked.
However, there is good news on the horizon for merlot lovers. In February 2010, new research by The Nielsen Company regarding U.S. wine consumers’ buying patterns came to light. Evidently, merlot has the single largest consumer base of any varietal in the U.S. and, of the major wine varietals, is the one most closely associated with high quality at an affordable price. Most importantly, the report showed that wine lovers strongly agreed that merlot is a versatile and food-friendly everyday wine.
There is no merlot like one from Washington and, better yet, a merlot produced in the Walla Walla Valley. My advice: Revisit some of the “original” merlots, such as those from Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole No 41. I recently enjoyed the L’Ecole No 41 Columbia Valley Merlot – 2006. It was an affordable classic — rich and spicy, showing off big flavors of cherry, fig, plum and chocolate. Woodward Canyon’s Nelms Road merlot offers real value at $20, and has the structure to age for about five years.
Basel Cellars, Mannina Cellars and Skylite Cellars, to name a few local wineries, are producing merlot with Walla Walla fruit and — as The Neilson Company suggests — high quality at an affordable price. These aromatic, bold reds not only show off the big, luscious fruit from Walla Walla’s terroir, but are also pocketbook- friendly with accompanying accolades from the press.
Merlot often finds its way into my recipes. I think a bottle of merlot should be included in every spice rack between the jars labeled “Masala” and “mint.” Just last week a bottle of Washington merlot bubbled in my Boeuf Bourguignon à la Child-Pépin-Catie (Very important note: Jacques Pépin replaces beef stock with more wine — yes!) The French stew was rich and concentrated in flavors and made the house smell good, too. I could even smell the savory herbs and the sweetness of the wine from my patio.
So to all of you Miles Raymonds out there: Waxing poetic about pinot noir isn’t going to win this girl, but if you remove pinot noir and insert merlot in your romantic spiel, you just might get my attention.