Merlot is for mumblers. Some say “MARE-low,” others say “mur-LOW,” while many a farmer who actually grows the grape has been heard gruffly huffing something in between: “MUR-low.” Just say it low and say it fast, and none but the most insufferably fastidious will look at you sideways. Which reminds me of something . . . (See Swirl, this issue.)
If Merlot sounds French, that’s because it is French, and not, as some might suspect, a 1980s marketing invention of the California wine industry. An import from Bordeaux, where it has served usefully for hundreds of years in the wines of that region, Merlot is not always just a sidekick to Cabernet Sauvignon; in some areas, Merlot plays the leading role or shares the blend with its parent, Cabernet Franc. If you want to sound smart, you can say that a similar California blend is a “Right Bank” style—but say it low and say it fast.
Just don’t mistake Château Cheval Blanc for a white wine. The venerable Saint-Émilion producer got some pop-culture attention when clever people pointed out that Merlot-disparaging Miles, the protagonist in
Sideways, a 2004 wine country comedy that we’re still talking about, held dear a 1961 Cheval Blanc that contained a large percentage of Merlot.
But in France, it’s embarrassing for a bottle of Merlot to be called out by name—that’s for the cheap stuff. Trading on the fame of French regional wines, early California vintners simply affixed the labels to their own: Médoc for Cabernet-based wines, Burgundy for almost anything red and wet.
Though many vintners imported Merlot, like the ambitious John Drummond, who grew Merlot in the 1880s in his Glen Ellen vineyard (now part of the Kunde estate), Louis Martini’s combination 1968/’70 bottling is thought to be—as reported in the archives of the Bohemian in 1998—the first varietal Merlot in post-Prohibition California. Men landed on the moon before Merlot made its first single-vintage appearance, with Sterling Vineyards’ in 1969.
In light of the wine’s pedigree and attributes, it’s surprising it didn’t catch on earlier. As a grape, Merlot looks and acts a lot like its family members, the Cabernets, but is generally plumper, with thinner skin. If it makes a wine that is less intense than Cab, it’s arguably a more reliably food-friendly wine, having bright acidity, red berry flavors and lighter tannin.
Despite reports of a “Sideways effect,” Merlot hasn’t dropped off the map. According to the 2015 California Grape Acreage Report, a fun pamphlet of trivia for grape geeks, Merlot actually gained ground from 2007 to 2015, albeit at a slower pace than Pinot, which only lately eclipsed Merlot with 44,027 acres across the state, to Merlot’s 43,239. Among red grapes, Merlot takes fourth place overall, at half the acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Is it up, down or sideways in restaurants? Rolando Maldonado, wine director at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, acknowledges that Merlot, as subject to fashion as any consumer product, is still sideways.
“Rare is the consumer who comes into my restaurant and asks for a bottle of Merlot,” says Maldonado.
To avoid pushback from the Merlot-averse, he employs a little subterfuge. “I’ll just ‘mark’ a table—pour wine into their glass and literally walk away from the table,” says Maldonado. “People will be surprised when it’s revealed they’re drinking a Dry Creek Valley Merlot from a fourth-generation wine family.”