America’s love affair with Merlot was a brief and passionate one. In the 90s and early 2000s, Merlot was almost synonymous with red wine. It seemingly could do no wrong. Then, the story goes, Sideways came along. Throughout the movie, the main character, Miles, passionately stumps for Pinot Noir while occasionally and profanely taking shots at Merlot’s inferiority. In what was widely dubbed “the Sideways effect,” US Merlot sales tumbled and have yet to recover.
The truth, as usual, is a little more complicated, and the seeds of Merlot's downfall were planted in the rapidity of its success. Market demand for wine has always been faddish, with certain styles becoming overnight sensations. In the early 1990s, the French Paradox -- evidence that more red wine and fattier foods were associated with lower rates of obesity -- led Americans, en masse, to expand their palates. Merlot had good fortune of being pleasantly fruity and having a name that rolled off the tongue. Before long, bottles of Merlot were being sold as quickly as they were put on the shelves.
Not only does nature abhor a vacuum; capitalism does as well. There are two principal ways to increase the supply of Merlot: (1) to plant new vineyards which will not be productive for at least three years and (2) to graft Merlot onto existing vineyards, which can yield Merlot grapes in two years. Both of these options take a lot of time and money. The demand for most wine is also quite sensitive to price, meaning if the price of this new Merlot was too high, then people would make the effort to learn the pronunciation of another grape and move their business elsewhere. Thus, the only way to recoup a big investment in Merlot was to keep costs low and sell a lot of wine once production had began.
The first, and among the highest, cost is land. To keep this cost under control, new vineyards were planted in unproven areas, and underperforming vineyards were selected for grafting. Once established, vineyard management choices, such as spraying, fertilizing and industrial farming techniques maximized the chances of the investment yielding a product. Finally, to increase the amount of wine ultimately sold, the vines were encouraged to produce as much as possible. While not necessarily antagonistic to quality, Merlot is a grape that truly benefits from struggle. Only in the proper soils -- clay -- and with carefully restricted yields can it showcase its complexity.
Nonetheless, the first few years were boom times for Merlot producers. The new, hastily produced wines enjoyed the same reputation as the old and quickly sold. However, as this new Merlot gradually, and then rapidly, supplanted the more traditionally-produced Merlot, consumers started to wonder why they had enjoyed Merlot in the first place. It wasn’t long before America was drowning in this new wave of Merlot. Sales and prices started declining in 2002, and by the time Miles piled on in Sideways (2004), he only put voice to what consumers were already loudly saying with their wallets.
The real Sideways effect was not the death knell of Merlot, but the dawning of Pinot Noir as the favored replacement for a fruity and fun-to-say grape that has filled US glasses since. The result has been predictable. Many of the vineyards that had supplied Merlot in the ‘90s were changed over to Pinot Noir to meet this demand. So, if you’ve noticed that some Pinot Noir just isn’t as good as it used to be, you’re not imagining it. It is just the cycle repeating itself. Good wine requires a thoughtful partnership between the winemaker, the land and the vine. When the latter two are regarded solely as input costs, quality suffers. What’s the solution? Swim against the current and order a glass of Merlot. You will be pleasantly surprised.
Jump to Merlot
For those interested in trying high quality Merlot, both Stag’s Leap and Frog’s Leap make excellent examples. Stag’s Leap is rich and mouth filling while Frog’s Leap is leaner, but still silky and it will age very well. Each shows, in its own way, why America fell in love with Merlot in the first place.