Just ignore those sideways glances and try a merlot
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 24, 2006
By Robert Whitley
The first hard-and-fast rule of wine appreciation is that there are no hard-and-fast rules.
Nowhere is this thought more apropos than when it comes to merlot, lately the Rodney Dangerfield of red wines. The snide reference to merlot in the film “Sideways” seemed to suggest that real wine buffs wouldn’t go near the stuff, much less order it in a public place. The shame of it all is that anyone who truly appreciates good wine knows better. Merlot is one of the mainstay grape varieties of the Bordeaux region. In the Bordeaux “right bank” districts of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, merlot even holds sway over the vaunted cabernet sauvignon.
The best known wine of the region, Chateau Petrus, is made primarily from the merlot grape, and Petrus generally commands the highest price among all Bordeaux, surpassing even the wines Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Mouton.
It’s true that merlot has not enjoyed the same success in American viticulture, but that has more to do with the age and maturity of the American wine business than anything else. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that an American producer even acknowledged merlot as a varietal wine. The first to do so was the Napa Valley’s Louis M. Martini. Cabernet sauvignon is king, particularly in California, but most wineries that produce cabernet also make a merlot.
The best merlot comes from producers who respect the grape enough to work with it to achieve quality. That means finding the best soils and microclimates to achieve outstanding flavor and structure from this early-ripening grape.
The Carneros district, which straddles southern Napa and Sonoma, has been identified as an outstanding merlot region, but other areas in California’s North Coast provide a hospitable environment for the grape.
Labels to look for
Swanson Vineyards: Much like Duckhorn, Swanson is considered a merlot house, though it also produces a wonderful syrah. The Swanson merlots have always been beautifully structured and age-worthy, but they are trending lately to riper aromas and sweeter tannins, with a bit more depth. It seems to me that Swanson is on the verge of rising to the next level, alongside Duckhorn and Beringer Howell Mountain. For now, though, this is a wonderful merlot in the $35 range. You can bet that as the reputation escalates, so will the price.
Uncorked: Merlot Makers Fight For Respect
By Kurt Loft
Tampa Tribune, May 24, 2006
TAMPA – If you saw the movie “Sideways,” you know Miles hates merlot. “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving,” he exclaims. “I am not drinking any #%~X^#! merlot!” Well, Miles, a lot of people disagree, and some are working to repair the damage done to its reputation.
Today in Tampa, for instance, Swanson Vineyards of California is holding a “Merlot Fights Back” seminar, designed to help educate wine merchants and restaurant managers who might suffer from a horizontal view of the grape. “We really feel merlot is a victim of its own success,” Swanson winemaker Chris Phelps says.”There’s an ocean of it out there that isn’t special. ‘Sideways’ just added fuel to the fire.” At its best, merlot marries cabernet sauvignon to make a great bordeaux. At its worst, it can be jammy and dull, and lacking sufficient tannin to give it structure.
Swanson, the largest single producer of estate-grown merlot in Napa Valley, found that people have grown complacent about merlot because they aren’t tasting the better wines.”People would come to our tasting room and say, ‘No thanks, I’d rather not have the merlot,’ so we said, ‘How can we be proactive about this?'” Phelps says. Aside from conducting seminars across the country, Swanson launched a Web site so people can post opinions about merlot. To participate, go to www.merlotfightsback. com and click on the link “What’s Your Opinion?”
By the way, Miles should fess up. In the movie, the wine he opened on his birthday was a 1961 Cheval Blanc, a 50-50 blend of merlot and cabernet franc grapes.
It seems only fitting to uncork a merlot this week and give Swanson Vineyards a chance to put Miles in his place. The vineyard makes a persuasive argument with its 2002 Oakville Merlot, which enjoyed a growing season that produced small berries and intense fruit. The wine picks up an edge of tannin from small lots of cabernet sauvignon and syrah and fills the mouth with rich flavors of blackberry and mocha. For a merlot, it offers plenty to chew and commands a hefty price: $32 in most stores.
Going to Bat for a Much-Maligned Grape
The New York Times, May 10, 2006
By ERIC ASIMOV
ONE day you’re hitting home runs and basking in glory. The next you are scorned, a pariah. Don’t go away mad, just go away. You might call merlot the Barry Bonds of wine, a real power hitter that fell apart under close scrutiny. The downfall of merlot is thought to have begun with the corrosive derision it received in the 2004 movie “Sideways,” but “Sideways” simply illuminated a distaste that was already growing.
For the first time in years, merlot sales did not increase in 2005, but, more telling, sales of premium American merlot, which sells for $20 to $30 a bottle, dropped by 29 percent the year before “Sideways” came out, according to the M.K.F. Group, a wine business consultant in Napa Valley.
Now, this is no big deal if you are an assembly-line winemaker buying grapes from big growers and selling the wine under your own label. If demand for merlot drops, you just buy whatever else seems to have made an impression on consumers.
But suppose you are a serious winemaker that has staked its reputation on merlot. You’ve planted acres on valuable Napa Valley farmland because you believe those grapes belong on that land. You’ve nurtured those vines and painstakingly produced the best wine you could, only to be told that your merlot is about as welcome as a syringe dropping onto home plate on national television. What do you do then?
If you are Swanson Vineyards, the largest producer of estate-grown merlot in Napa Valley, you come out swinging. In a series of seminars for distributors, retailers, restaurateurs and other members of the wine trade, Swanson is trying to make the case that merlot has been unfairly maligned.
You know what? Swanson has a point. Saying all merlot is bad is like saying all romance novels are bad. It overlooks the fact that books like, say, “Anna Karenina” are romances. Some of the greatest wines in the world are merlots, but because they have names like Château Pétrus and are from Bordeaux, where region is emphasized over grape, they are thought of as Pomerols rather than merlots.
There are indeed some good American merlots. I recently had a balanced, harmonious and subtle 2000 Old Vines merlot from Lenz, on the North Fork of Long Island, and a juicy, earthy 1999 merlot from Renaissance, in the Sierra Foothills. Swanson’s merlot from 2002 was bigger and fruitier than either of these, with a plush, velvety texture.
Nonetheless, as Swanson itself points out, the overwhelming majority of North American merlot is generic at best. About 20,000 acres are industrially farmed in the hot Central Valley, the equivalent of all the merlot planted in Napa, Sonoma and Washington State combined. And that Central Valley merlot accounts for about 75 percent of the merlot wine produced in the United States. If you are ever possessed at a bar to say, “I’ll just have a merlot,” this is most likely what you will get.
Even in France, the leading merlot producer in the world, less than a third of the merlot is grown in the greater Bordeaux region, and of all that merlot in Bordeaux, only about 2 percent is grown in Pomerol, the greatest and most prestigious merlot region in the world.
If so much merlot is in fact the insipid stuff sneered at so memorably in “Sideways,” what accounts for its popularity? Twenty years ago merlot was a relatively minor grape in California. A few pioneers, like Duckhorn and Newton, had made some good wines, and merlot was gaining some popularity, but white wine was ascendant in the 1980’s. It wasn’t until 1991, and the famous “60 Minutes” broadcast of the “French paradox,” that red wine began to take off in the United States.
As Oz Clarke points out in his book “Encyclopedia of Grapes” (Harcourt, 2001), the weakness of merlot — that it most often produced a mild, inoffensive wine — suddenly became its strength as it appealed to a large new audience for red wine that wasn’t ready for more challenging examples. By 2004 more than 50,000 acres of merlot were planted in California, up from about 3,000 in 1986.
Research indicates that the people who have turned on merlot are not the casual consumers who think merlot is a brand name, but committed wine drinkers who have decided that other wines are more interesting.
A survey by Wine Opinions, a trade group, indicated that the more frequently people drink wine, the less likely they are to name merlot as one of their favorites. The people least likely to prefer merlot are those in the wine trade, namely those with the most influence over consumers. Hence, Swanson, with its seminars, is hoping to influence the people with the most potential to spread some good words.
Bad merlot will most likely always be with us. The people who care least about wine, according to the survey, are the most likely to say they like merlot. But good merlot has other obstacles, not the least of which are California laws that require wines that carry the name of a grape to be made of 75 percent of that grape at minimum.
Consumers often express shock at this, having expected wines like merlot or cabernet sauvignon to be 100 percent merlot or cabernet. But in France, Bordeaux varietals like merlot and cabernet are almost always blended, and seldom does merlot meet that 75 percent threshold. For every Pomerol like Pétrus, which is 95 percent merlot, you have great wines like Lafleur (50 percent merlot) and Vieux-Château-Certan (60 percent merlot).
Regardless of whether a wine would be better with less than 75 percent merlot, California winemakers, if they want to call their wine merlot, are handcuffed by the law. Swanson’s merlot, by the way, consists of 90 percent merlot and 10 percent syrah, a combination not legal in Bordeaux, although unscrupulous winemakers have been known to break the rules.
The Swanson people are fond of pointing to the scene in “Sideways” in which the merlot-hating character Miles opens his treasured bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc, which, they gleefully note, is 50 percent merlot and 50 percent cabernet franc. The moral, they say, is that Miles really does like merlot. Not likely. The moral, I think, is that most merlot would be better if it were blended with cabernet franc.
The Pour: A Blog
by Eric Asimov, May 11, 2006
Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news and I’m no different, especially when I’m speaking to several martial artists who are as skillful with hadaka jime as they are with a corkscrew. But it had to be done, and so I informed them that the theme of our Grand Crew dinner was going to be merlot and braced myself against possible attack. The silence was ominous, but I had one more thing to add. “That does include Pomerol, you know.’’ Smiles, and relief. At our dojo, the Pomerol gambit would easily have qualified as advanced technique.
Does merlot really deserve its bad rap? I don’t think there is any doubt. In my column this week, I wrote about Swanson Vineyards’ campaign to rejuvenate the image of merlot. Swanson freely admits that the vast majority of merlot in the world is insipid stuff. But Swanson wants the small amount of serious merlot in the world to be recognized for what it is, and not be disparaged along with the dreck.
Swanson, of course, has a vested interest. It is the largest producer of estate-grown merlot in the Napa Valley, and it argues that merlot, grown under the proper conditions by people who have control over the viticulture and the winemaking, should not be lumped in with industrially produced merlot, which accounts for most of what is consumed. Swanson itself makes a plush, velvety style of merlot that, though not to my taste, is a pretty good wine.
I thought Swanson had a good argument, and so I wanted to test it out over dinner with the now somewhat grudging crew. I have to admit, I felt the same way they did. California merlot is not a wine I dream about, and I do have an active wine fantasy life. But I have had some great merlots in the last year, like a 2001 Messorio from Le Macchiole on the Tuscan coast, one of those highly sought super-Tuscans. This is a very expensive wine, made in minute quantities, and it was extraordinary – rich, smooth, with exotic spice flavors. Then there was a 1963 merlot from the Slovenian producer Movia that I had last year in a great little seafood restaurant in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital – pure, precise, focused and graceful. And finally a 1970 Pétrus, which I didn’t taste last year, but, because of the absolute purity of the wine, I remember it as if it were yesterday.
The merlot lineup for our dinner was not as illustrious as this, obviously, but I hoped I had some good ones. We had a 1999 Niebaum-Coppola Rutherford Estate, a 1999 Renaissance Première Cuvée from the Sierra Foothills, a 2003 Nickel & Nickel Napa Valley Suscol Ranch and, as I had promised a Pomerol, a 2000 Château Certan de May de Certan CQ. Along with the wines, Dr. S had prepared on short notice an excellent steak dinner, along with sauteed asparagus, sauteed mushrooms and salad.
Let’s just say right away that Swanson was right. These California merlots were decent wines that don’t deserve to be disparaged as insipid merlots. But they nonetheless had problems in the way that many wines have problems. Each of them was flawed. The Nickel & Nickel might have been too young, but it was oaky enough to smell like a vanilla panna cotta. Will it ever come into balance? Check back in five years. At first, I liked the Niebaum-Coppola. It was thankfully not a fruit bomb, but preserved a pleasantly minty aroma, anathema to too many California winemakers these days. It had good acidity, but each swallow left a trail of burning heat in the throat. It was not an especially high alcohol wine, but it was out of balance.
I’m a big fan of the Renaissance wines. They make superb cabernets and roussannes, and this merlot had a good, earthy fruit flavor. Yet it completely disappeared when I took a bite of the steak. It was soft, with little of the necessary structure that should have been supplied by tannins and acidity. It’s not necessarily a knock on merlot. I’ve had plenty of California cabernets without structure, although not the Renaissance cabernets.
I was awfully glad to have brought the Certan de May, a wine made of 70 percent merlot, along with 25 percent cabernet franc and 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. Now this was a wine to drink with the meal. It had an intense, concentrated aroma and complex flavors, yet it was graceful in the mouth and went beautifully with the mushrooms and steak.
I will say it was not completely fair to put the Pomerol in with the California merlots. It’s a $100 bottle, for one thing, against wines that are $30 to $50 a bottle, although I’m not sure that the price difference is meaningful. But the wines illustrate this significant difference: In Pomerol, the Certan de May vineyard is planted in its proportion because that is what winemakers determined over time made the best wine from that particular piece of land. In California, many producers grow merlot, cabernet, syrah and other grapes, often from adjacent plots, and then they bottle them separately so they can have a complete line of products. They may blend in something with the merlot, but the final blend has to include at least 75 percent merlot, or they can’t legally call it merlot. The Certan de May, you see, could not be called merlot in California.
Custom, consumer expectation and marketing pressures all feed into California producers wanting to make the best merlot possible, or the best cabernet sauvignon. Imagine if all they had to worry about was making the best wine possible? Then merlot wouldn’t need a defense.
Revenge of the Merlot
http://www.courtneycochran.com/blog Hip Tastes,
www.courtneycochran.com, March 29, 2006
This blog is penned by Sommelier & Wine Consultant Courtney Cochran, who endeavors to find the latest and hippest offerings in wine – from accessories to personalities to trends to the good juice itself – for your information and enjoyment. Check it out and send your praise, gripes, ruminations or just your two cents – all are welcome!
The geeks did it in Revenge of the Nerds. Straight-legged jeans made their way back into the mainstream just this season. Heck, even carbs are making a comeback. And now California vintners are doing it with Merlot.
You see, Merlot is the new anti-Pinot, the grape that will soon have all of us scratching our heads and saying, “but, I thought I didn’t want any fucking Merlot.” Maybe you should re-think that last statement.
If Swanson Vineyards has its way, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing after they finish their current push to resurrect the struggling variety. With a game plan and website called merlotfightsback.com, Swanson is geared up for a tough fight.
And they just might win it.
Because you see, Merlot can be damn good! Just as is the case with most things that become uber-popular, Merlot suffered from over-production and reduced quality over the past two decades, a sad circumstance for those Cali producers doing it right.
“We’re trying to set the record straight on a varietal which has been so misunderstood and maligned,” explains Swanson General Manager Stuart Harrison. Along with winemaker Chris Phelps, Harrison has embarked on a nine city tour to re-educate Merlot bashers in the US.
Stops include Miami, Tampa and Orlando in wine-friendly Florida as well as Chicago, New York and New Jersey. West Coast cities on the tour are San Francisco, San Diego and newly wine-centric Las Vegas.
Although indeed much maligned of late, Merlot is one of the classic or “noble” grape varieties of the world. As the Swanson seminar reminds attendees, the bottle Miles, the ultimate Merlot snob, opened on his birthday in Sideways was a ’61 Cheval Blanc – made from 50% Merlot. Touche.
But Swanson’s not just doing it for love of the grape: Swanson is the largest single producer of estate-grown Merlot in the Napa Valley. And they’ve got the creds to do it right: Phelps has spent time at Petrus and Caymus, and Harrison’s worked at Opus One and Stag’s Leap.
Clearly, Swanson takes Merlot seriously.
I wish them the best of luck. I offer the tasting “How Merlot Got Its Groove Back” through my private events company, Your Personal Sommelier, but so far no one’s asked for it. Which is a real shame, because it’s very hip to be anti-establishment.
Merlot Fights Back
WINECENTRIC April 28, 2006
While “A Master Class in Pinot Noir” graces the cover of the latest Wine Spectator, winemaker Chris Phelps and GM Stuart Harrison of Swanson Vineyards are on the road teaching a class of their own. They are touring the country holding seminars on what may be the most misunderstood red grape in America: Merlot.
This past Wednesday, I drove to the Ryland Inn in New Jersey to get my education, to taste some intriguing Merlot, and to see first hand what all the fuss was about.
Long before Miles in the hit movie Sideways bashed Merlot and made Pinot Noir a hip, cult phenomenon, Swanson had embarked on a mission to set the record straight. They set out to illustrate that Merlot can be a distinguished, complex, flavorful wine when made well by specialized growers, in the right terroir and with the proper practices. If you are already a Merlot fan, this won’t come as a revelation to you, but if you’ve drifted away from this beloved varietal, maybe it is time to taste it again.
Although Merlot has surpassed Cabernet Sauvignon in sales in the U.S. making it the most popular red wine varietal, it has suffered from a bit of an image problem. The oversaturation of mediocre or mass-market produced Merlot has created a lot of public misconception. The tremendous consumer appeal of Merlot encouraged a lot of vineyards to get into the Merlot business, but many are growing the grape in less than optimal conditions creating ordinary, if not subpar wine. Swanson and many other specialized Merlot artisans have suffered a bit from being lumped into this category since there is no labeling system in America to help set them apart as “quality” Merlot producers.
Good Merlot, just like good Pinot Noir, is hard to grow. It is a thin skinned grape that ripens early, is prone to over-cropping and tends to need well-drained clay soil and relatively cool climates in order to produce extraordinary wine. The Swanson message is clear: seek out producers who make wine from their own grapes in appropriate appellations and specialize in Merlot. Do this and you will rediscover the depth and refinement Merlot has to offer.
The seminar was accented by three sets of tastings. The first titled “A World of Difference” was arranged to illustrate the distinct New World and Old World differences from Merlot made in Italy, Chile, Washington, Bordeaux and California.
All from the 2002 Vintage, Livio Felluga, Casa Lapostolle, Pepper Bridge, Lafleur-Gazin and Swanson went head-to-head. Each wine was impressive and Swanson had to be commended for pouring wine from its competitors proving beyond a doubt their dedication and commitment to the varietal above all else. The Livio Felluga was quite interesting with a bit of white pepper at the front of it and the Swanson was so lush and layered with creamy cherry, chocolate and caramel that it stood out head and shoulders above the rest.
The second tasting was “The Importance of Place” and featured 2002 wines Cuvaision (Carneros), Sawyer (Rutherford), Twomey (Atlas Peak), Matanzas Creek (Bennet Valley) and of course, Swanson (Oakville). Again, all were exceptional Merlots, mid-priced $20 – $40, with tremendous, crisp, acidity and traditional flavors of plum, cherry, chocolate and vanilla.
The third tasting, “The Winery Difference,” featured Swanson Merlot made in American Oak Barrels (commercial source), American Oak Barrels (air-dried in Oakville and custom-coopered from special ordered Pennsylvania oak), a 7 Day Maceration and a 21 Day Maceration. This was the most impressive part of the presentation. Chris Phelps spoke highly of his commitment to Custom-Oak, a commitment that requires him to order wood for the barrels years ahead of time in order to stay on track for upcoming vintages. Although not as expensive as new French Oak, it is a costly endeavor, but one taste and you realize it is worthwhile. The difference is monumental. The ordinary American Oak was flat with little character while the Custom-Oak blanketed the palate with a creamy richness that was so velvety and superior that there are no words in the English language to capture its essence.
The comparison between the 7 Day and 21 Day maceration was also fascinating. The 7 Day still had quite a bit of herbal, almost green, vegetable tastes, but by 21 Days all of that was gone and the fruit started to come into being. I kept my glass of Swanson 2002 aside and tasted it again at the end. It was clearly the best Merlot. Swanson outclassed some of its top competitors with a phenomenal effort that showcased artistry, elegance and relevance. Swanson Vineyards is firmly planted, not only within the world of Merlot, but in the world of exceptional wine.
SCORE & RECOMMENDATION:
It would be easy to criticize this seminar and Swanson for being self-serving or for choosing the sumptuous 2002 vintage for its California Merlot tastings, but the presentation was sound, passionate, and impressive. Although I’ve always enjoyed Merlot, I have to admit that lately I’ve been drinking a lot less of it and have been quick to generalize. But who is really to blame? Inspired by the seminar, I stopped off at my local wine stores on the drive home to pick up some bottles of my favorite Merlots from the tastings. I couldn’t find a single one on the shelves and I left the stores empty-handed. Perhaps it is time to retreat to my cellar where there is a bottle of 1999 Swanson there begging to be opened.
by Matthew Lickona
San Diego Reader, May 4, 2006
“When you walk into a café in Paris and have a wonderful Bordeaux Superior, you are drinking Merlot.” Crhris Phelps, Stu Harrison
When it comes to promoting and defending Merlot as a “serious wine,” said Swanson general manager Stu Harrison, “we have a very vested interest.” Harrison was co-presenting, with winemaker Chris Phelps, a pro-Merlot wine seminar at Donovan’s restaurant, in an effort to save Merlot from its own success at the bargain level. “We’re the largest single estate-grown Merlot producer in the Napa Valley. We are committed to Merlot because, when Clark Swanson bought the vineyard in 1985 — long before Merlot became a craze — he hired a guy named Andre Tchelistcheff.”
Tchelistcheff, of course, was the Dean of American Wine, the guy who helped drag California into its modern era through his work as winemaker at Beaulieu and as a consultant all over the place. Harrison said, “Tchelistcheff took a look at the property that Swanson had just purchased, and he said, ‘You plant Merlot. This site is perfect for it.’ And indeed, that’s what Swanson did. We have 52 acres of it.”
Swanson is situated in Cabernet country — Oakville, just a couple of blocks from Mondavi, and a stone’s throw from Rutherford. What was Tchelistcheff thinking? “Clay-ey loam,” said Phelps. Clay — a particularly iron-rich strain of it — makes up a good part of the soil undergirding Chateau Petrus, the most sought-after Merlot in the world. “You’d think clay-rich soil would get oversaturated with water,” he granted — clay doesn’t drain the way other soils do. “But it meters out water during the season and sloughs it off after it’s saturated.”
Clay doesn’t provides any guarantees, however. “Merlot is extremely site-sensitive,” continued Phelps. It may produce drinkable wine in all sorts of conditions, but once you start trying for something special, it gets finicky. It’s not unusual for a Merlot from cooler regions — such as Carneros, south of Napa — to pick up a slightly herbaceous quality. “In Bordeaux,” said Phelps, “they celebrate a little bit of green, herbaceous character. I have a bit of an aversion to it.” He prefers the fruit-friendly heat of Oakville, especially given Merlot’s natural ability to hang on to its acids as it ripens. (Heat can drive acid down during the latter stages of ripening.) “In the California wine business, we add a lot of tartaric acid, but it’s a lot better on the palate if you don’t have to — it makes the wine hard, accentuates the tannins and astringency. It was nice when I came back to Merlot” — after years of working with Cabernet — “and I remembered, ‘With Merlot, we don’t need to worry about acid. ‘”
To demonstrate the importance of place, Harrison and Phelps set up a couple of tastings as part of their pro-Merlot seminar, held a few weeks back at Donovan’s steakhouse. First, a lineup from around the world, with all five wines displaying distinct differences. Chile, softer and fatter (possibly thanks to consultant Michel Rolland); Italy, leaner and harder; Washington state, richer/deeper; France, dirtier/more herbal; California, riper/sweeter.
Harrison took the opportunity to lament the predicament of American Merlot, plagued as it is by its own success at the bargain-wine level. “France is far and away the largest producer of Merlot. When you walk into a café in Paris and sit down and have a wonderful Bordeaux Superior, you are drinking Merlot. Over 40 percent of the grapes grown in Bordeaux are Merlot — there’s almost twice as much Merlot grown as Cabernet Sauvignon. But of France’s 262,000 acres of Merlot, only the 2,000 acres of Pomerol produce a world-class, stand-alone Merlot. It shows you how specific the growing conditions must be and how fanatical the people must be.”
But nobody rags on cheap French Merlot the way they do cheap American Merlot. And everybody knows about Pomerol’s Chateau Petrus. Said Harrison, “It’s sort of a stealth varietal. The U.S. and Chile are well-known producers, because ‘Merlot’ is on the labels. In other countries, for the most part, it’s not. We call it the ‘New World handicap.’ Here, we have a varietal-based labeling system…we don’t have the ability to give the consumer information on the label that allows him to differentiate between, let’s say, Swanson and two-buck Chuck. They both say ‘Merlot.’ When was the last time that anybody in this room lumped together Petrus and Mouton-Cadet? They’re both Merlots, yet at the end of the day, you don’t confuse the two.
“The next step,” according to Harrison, “is much more specific appellations…as in the case of Bordeaux, developing specific proprietary wines steeped in very specific appellations.” And he hopes it’s a step that will be taken someday: “The Europeans have been doing this for three or four hundred years; we’re sixty years old.”
I sympathize with Harrison. He’s striving to market a serious and complicated Merlot in a time when Merlot has become associated with words like “easy” and “simple” and “drinkable.” But I think he’s overstepping a bit here. In fact, you can lump together Mouton-Cadet and Petrus, just by calling them both Bordeaux. In fact, he does have the ability to put stuff on his label to help the consumer differentiate between Swanson and two-buck Chuck. For starters, there are the words “Napa Valley” — still the biggest indicator of serious wine quality to the American mass market. Then there’s the word “Estate,” indicating that the grapes were managed by the winery and presumably, grown to the winery’s specifications. (Not everyone would know that, of course — which is why he’s running these seminars.) And labels aside, there is the matter of price tags. Presumably, when someone buys a $20-plus Merlot, they’re going to be looking for something more than “drinkable.” But that’s not to say that there’s no room for fine-tuning.
A second tasting provided a NorCal tour — Carneros, Rutherford, Atlas Peak, Bennet Valley, and Oakville. The differences were less obvious but still discernible. What was more interesting to me was the third tasting, which highlighted winery practices. It was all Swanson Merlot, treated in various ways. One sample had spent time in a high-end commercial American oak barrel, and another in one of Swanson’s custom barrels. Explained Phelps, “We buy our oak in Pennsylvania, and we have the staves cut to our specifications. I leave half of them in Pennsylvania and have the other half trucked to Oakville, where we air-dry them for up to four years in the open air.” (The Pennsylvania half gets rained on more often — “It’s important to develop special molds on the wood. And the rain helps leech out some of the green tannins.”) The custom barrel was miles ahead of the commercial. A strong note of coffee and the trademark American-oak dill, a general roundness to the mouthfeel. “It’s probably not a big factor, but we’re always looking for those little details that will make the wine even better.”
Not Bad, Just Not Thrilling
by Matthew Lickona
San Diego Reader, April 27, 2006
As of 2005, Pinot Noir is now outselling Zinfandel in California. This is nothing short of remarkable, a testament to the tremendous power of cinema. Zinfandel has a long history in this state; its reputation was made here, instead of in Europe. Producers have risen to prominence because of their success with the grape: Turley, Ridge, Ravenswood, and Rosenblum, to name only a few. It may not have been born here, but it’s “our” grape. It has, in Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, a well-organized promotional body behind it. Every year, there is an enormous ZAP gathering in San Francisco, and after that, a touring version of the festival. Pinot Noir has only Sideways.
Pinot Noir — temperamental, fragile, thin-skinned — was the favorite grape of (and analogue for) Miles, Sideways’ middle-aged loser-hero. Somehow, Miles, a failed novelist who steals from his mother and drunk-dials his ex, managed to make Pinot a winner. He also did his best to make another grape a loser, and it wasn’t Zinfandel. With one desperate (and rather blue) oath taken outside the Hitching Post restaurant, he also gave a rallying cry to a certain segment of the wine-drinking world: “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!”
Why was Miles so hostile? Because Merlot, the party line goes, isn’t “serious wine.” The most common descriptor I’ve heard associated with it is “plush.” “Plush” isn’t bad, really; it’s just not thrilling. Merlot, according to this characterization, is pleasant. What it isn’t is deep, powerful, complex, elegant, intense, or structured. It’s comfortable, simple, easy.
Perhaps in some measure because of this, it is the most popular red wine in the U.S., outselling Cabernet by a little and everything else by a lot. Sure, it’s nowhere near Chardonnay — which seems to be weathering its own backlash (the “Anything But Chardonnay” campaign) nicely, thank you. But it’s big enough to allow for that special disdain reserved for the hulking behemoth in any industry.
“Sideways actually helped to bring up a pressing issue about Merlot,” says Stu Harrison, general manager at Swanson Vineyards, which devotes some 70 percent of its production to estate-grown Merlot. “Seven months before the movie came out, the 14 people who work at Swanson got together to talk about various problems. One of our employees in the hospitality area — we call it the salon — said that people were coming in, sitting down, and saying, ‘No, I don’t drink Merlot,’ or ‘I don’t like Merlot.'”
This was distressing news. “We were saying, ‘No, that’s not right — Merlot is what we do; we’re fanatical about it. We’re getting lumped in with the vast ocean of Merlot out there. Let’s do something about it. ‘”
Part of what they did about it involved hitting the road with a tasting seminar entitled “Merlot…The Untold Story.” That seminar stopped by San Diego a few weeks back, setting up shop in the clubby confines of Donovan’s steakhouse in the UTC area. Harrison, a veteran of Mumm and Opus One (among others), was joined by winemaker Chris Phelps, himself late of Dominus and Caymus.
The “untold story,” says Harrison, is “the notion that Merlot is a pretty serious varietal. There is a special set of criteria which define what are really exceptional Merlots. We want you to walk away with the notion that it’s a pretty specialized category and worthy of careful consideration…it’s a noble variety, and in very specific growing conditions, with specific cellar treatment, it can produce a world-class wine.”
Gosh, but that’s a lot of specificity. A body might get the impression that Merlot was another Pinot Noir — a grape so temperamental that even its most famous producers, the Burgundians, have endless troubles with it. But Harrison says nay, and there’s the rub. “I’ve actually heard, ‘Oh, my gosh, Pinot Noir is getting so popular, it’s going to be the next Merlot.’ No, it will not become the next Merlot, because Pinot Noir is the worst workhorse varietal in the world. Pinot Noir grown in less-than-optimal conditions produces an insipid, light, almost rosé wine.”
Merlot, on the other hand, “has the unusual trait” of serving as both noble varietal and workhorse — and a workhorse is what you need to become really popular on a grand scale. First, “It’s a bountiful producer.” If you let it do its thing and don’t thin your crop, you can get “10 to 12 tons of fruit per acre.” Second, “In less-than-optimal growing conditions — even in the hottest region of the San Joaquin Valley, it will still produce a red wine with color.” Third, “With Merlot, you have less angular, less astringent tannins” than in many other red grapes. That means that, even without all those specialized growing conditions and cellar practices, “You can grow a wine that is soft and approachable for the entry-level drinker.” Harrison calls this confluence of easy growing and mass consumer interest “a perfect storm” that has created “a sea of interest.” Not to mention a sea of product.
“It’s this almost schizophrenic nature of Merlot” — the noble grape that doubles as a workhorse — “which has created the situation today.” Today, Merlot sales are huge, but about half of it “wholesales for less than $36 a case. You cannot make anything but a very ordinary Merlot for $36 a case.” And if the very ordinary Merlot is setting the standard, your specialty Merlot may be in trouble. (Cabernet seems to have dodged this particular bullet — perhaps because it isn’t quite as friendly at the entry level? Plush, plush, plush.) “In the wholesale $13-$20 bottle range, you saw phenomenal growth in the year 2000. Sales doubled. But it wasn’t healthy for the market — everybody was jumping into Merlot.” Sales plateaued in 2002 and dropped sharply in 2003. Bad news for Swanson and company.
“I was talking to a gentleman before the seminar,” says Harrison, “and he agreed with almost every single point I made with regard to Merlot. One of his comments was, ‘Boy, you guys are screwed.’ But I disagree. I think that at the end of the day, quality will out. The reason we’re doing this seminar is to offer people the notion, ‘You’ve got to be very selective. You’ve got to look for certain things. There are people who are very serious about this category who should be taken seriously. ‘”
What are those “certain things”? More next week.
Merlot Fights Back
The Bohemian, April 19, 2006
by Alastair Bland
Merlot Can Be That Good: But even Swanson Vineyards’ Chris Phelps must sadly admit that mostly it’s not.
Swanson Vineyards proves how wrong I was to shun Merlot after seeing that funny movie two years ago.
Untold millions of wine experts and amateurs watched the 2004 film Sideways. They absorbed Miles’ deep infatuation with Pinot Noir and they noted his fiery resistance toward Merlot. It was all lighthearted comedy, yet many as naive as I vowed as they left the theater never to touch a bottle of Merlot again–or at least not to bother with an expensive one.
But Chris Phelps and Stuart Harrison of Swanson Vineyards in Oakville feel that Merlot has suffered unjustly in the last few years. There are fantastic Merlots available, they say, but unfortunate circumstances have led to the categorization of all Merlot as inferior. As the producers of 16,500 annual cases, Phelps and Harrison firmly believe in the attributes of this misunderstood wine. They are currently on a national tour with their promotional seminar “Merlot: The Untold Story,” a combination winetasting and academic lecture.
“We want to explain why some Merlots can be radically different than the expected product,” says Harrison, “and we want to explain how Merlot got into the mess it’s in today.”
Actually, that mess is not a terribly bad one in terms of economics. Merlot still stands as the most popular red wine in America. Between 1998 and 2003 its sales increased by nearly 100 percent–from 12 million to 21 million cases–and sales have continued to climb in the wake of Sideways. It is the high-end Merlots that have taken a sharp downturn. In fact, they have largely vanished from the market, and the general public has responded by branding Merlot with an undeserved reputation as, well, crap.
“The Merlot market has been flooded with a mediocre product,” says Harrison. “Too much Merlot was planted in the wrong areas in the 1990s, and in about the last five years people have begun to say, ‘Boy, there’s a lot of that stuff. Can it really be that good?'”
Captain Merlot: The terroir of Stu Harrison’s Swanson Vineyards happens to result in Merlot perfection.
Phelps and Harrison insist that yes, Merlot can be that good, but unfortunately most of it is not. Simply put, the climatic and geographic conditions required to produce a palatable middling Merlot are very easy to find, while the conditions required to grow an excellent high-end Merlot are extremely rare. “Nobody,” says Phelps, “can produce serious Merlot cheaply.”
But almost anyone can produce a quaffable product, and in 2003 the U.S. market ran awash in the cheap stuff. Growers produced 10 million cases of $1.50 wholesale bottles while producing only 20,000 cases of $15 wholesale bottles. The Merlot’s plight has been further compounded by the American wine labeling system, say Harrison and Phelps. Small patches of earth in California, Oregon and Washington produce some excellent Merlots–the Swanson vineyard among them–but marketers in America label and sell wines by varietal alone.
“And that is why Swanson wines get lumped together with Two-Buck Chuck,” Harrison laments.
I cannot tell foie gras from cat food, yet was still mysteriously invited to attend this year’s kickoff seminar in San Francisco’s Le Colonial restaurant. I arrived by bicycle, assuredly underdressed, a bit too early and ready to drink. Phelps and Harrison welcomed me with a glass of white wine, as they and several attendants finished arranging four long rows of tables for the guests, each covered in a fine white cloth and set with cheese, crackers, fruit and five wine glasses per seat.
Our two Swanson reps lectured for about 90 minutes on the history, virtues and general appeal of Merlot. In a nutshell, this is what we learned: Merlot is a very inoffensive wine with comparatively mild tannins and acids. Most Merlot is perfectly decent, and as such it is an ideal wine for beginners. For these reasons, Merlot has always been hugely popular.
The world’s leader in Merlot production is France. Forty percent–or 84 million cases annually–of the world’s supply originates there, with 26 million cases coming from the Bordeaux region alone. Italy, the United States, Chile and Bulgaria stand in line as the next most voluminous producers. The best Merlot growing regions in the world reside between 38 and 46 degrees of latitude, usually near a large body of water and generally in a Mediterranean climate, although Long Island is known for some quality wine.
Cool temperatures and well-drained clay soils further encourage quality grapes, but the Merlot vine has a tendency to overcrop and produce watery fruit if not properly culled. While Merlot growers can produce a superior wine, they often utilize Merlot as nothing more than a “security wine”; it ripens early, and if a premature winter destroys the other more noble berries on the property, at least the grower has his Merlot fermenting away safely in the vats, preparing for life on the shelf at $4 per bottle. My standard of living has accustomed me to drinking hugely substandard wines, and so the Merlots featured at the seminar were very exciting for me. Of thousands available worldwide, Phelps and Harrison selected 13, and as I sipped through them I made simple notes accordingly: “Good” “Wowsers!” “Nice/tangy.” But my critiquing skills paled in comparison to those of the other tasters present.
“The Friuli is a bit chewy,” one commented.
“Mmm, the Sawyer is a very broad-shouldered wine,” said another.
“Listen,” one taster asked, “can you pick up that French oak?”
I listened closely until the hour was through. I never did taste the oak or identify the shoulders of the wine, but I went home that day a convert. How wrong I was to shun Merlot after seeing that funny movie two years ago! Merlot is a fine thing. It can taste wonderful, and it will get you drunk.
But for the very serious taster of wine, Swanson Vineyards offers a very unique wine experience at its beautiful Napa estate. A far cry from the three-deep, belly-to-the-bar tasting at more conventional wineries, the Swanson experience leans toward a sophisticated and sober appreciation of wine and the delicate art of food pairing. Reservations must be made in advance, for seating is limited to an intimate group of eight.
Inside the tasting room, guests find a fabulous dining hall decorated with charming paintings, exquisite flowers, burning candles and seashells on the wall. The octagonal table is set with several crystal wine glasses per place and individual servings of cheese, chocolate and sturgeon eggs. Most of the wine is Merlot, and when mixed on one’s tongue with the corresponding appetizer, the flavors melt together in utter excellence.
For 10 wonderful seconds the pretensions of a red-carpet, upper-class wine experience all vanish. The man who can distinguish French oak from American oak in a sip of wine and the man who has other things to accomplish with his time suddenly know no differences; each is in heaven, and each perceives the perfection of the food in his mouth. The cheese, the chocolate and the fish eggs–they are all immaculate.
So is the wine, even if it’s just Merlot.
For more information on restoring Merlot’s dignity, visit www.merlotfightsback.com.
Misunderstood Merlot Deserves Another Chance
Washington Post, April 12, 2006
by Ben Giliberti
If you’ve recently made up your mind that merlot is not for you, I have two recommendations: taste more merlots and check out a new Web site called Merlot Fights Back .
The site, which features detailed information on soil, climate and other factors that affect the quality of merlot, is the leading edge of an ambitious campaign undertaken by Napa Valley’s Swanson Vineyards to bolster merlot’s flagging popularity. In addition to the Web site, Swanson winemaker Chris Phelps has embarked on a nine-city tour touting what he refers to as merlot’s “complex uniqueness.” The tour features tastings of not only the merlots that Swanson produces from its 50 acres of vineyards in Napa’s Oakville district, but also those of quality producers elsewhere in California and in Italy, France and South America.”What we’re trying to show is that when merlot is planted in the right soils and climate, it’s one of the world’s great grape varieties,” Phelps said.
While conceding there are many insipid merlots, he blames not the grape but the red wine boom, which caused merlot to be planted in unsuitable places, sullying the reputation of all merlot. “I wonder if Miles [the merlot-phobic character in the 2004 movie “Sideways”] even realizes that the ’61 Cheval Blanc he opened on his birthday was almost 50 percent merlot,” Phelps said.
The lovely Swanson 2002 Merlot ($30) is a prime example of merlot’s quality potential. Phelps’s training at Chateau Petrus in Pomerol comes through in the tight focus of the fruit and the weaving in of subtle cassis and mineral notes on the finish. Swanson stands in good company.
Makers of Merlot defend their grape
Los Angeles Daily News, April 3, 2006
by Larry Lipson
The merlot backlash is accelerating in steam and ferocity. Juiced by the 2004 hit movie “Sideways,” pinot noir gained huge notoriety and, consequently, a big jump in sales.
And with its nastiness regarding merlot, the movie initiated a merlot downslide.
But merlot’s forces have been gathering strength and appear ready to flex their muscles.
In fact, there’s already a new Web site, http://www.merlotfightsback.com.
And one of merlot’s most respected California producers, Swanson Vineyards, is going on the road with visits scheduled for San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, Miami, Tampa and Orlando. “We’re coming to the rescue of a wonderful wine, both by bringing an educational seminar (to the trade) to a number of markets and also by bringing the discussion about merlot to the Web,” says Stuart Harrison, general manager of Swanson. Merlot is, of course, a very important French Bordeaux red wine grape, more important in the Pomerol and St. Emilion regions than even cabernet sauvignon. Chateau Petrus, perhaps the most expensive and most revered wine from Bordeaux, is said to be 100 percent merlot, although its vineyard does grow a small amount of cabernet franc.
Ironically, the lead character in “Sideways” lauds his bottle of Chateau Belair, a famous St. Emilion wine that happens to contain a sizable amount of merlot.
Merlot Fights Back” Merlot Fights Back
Jane Goldman, May 2006, www.chowmag.com
Swanson Vineyard, Napa’s largest producer of estate-grown Merlot, says they started their “Merlot fights back” offensive even before the movie Sideways came out. But the best part about their traveling seminar — besides tasting some great Merlots — is that they tell us that the ‘61 Cheval Blanc ordered by Miles (”I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot”) Raymond in the movie on his birthday was, in fact, a 50/50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Winemaker Chris Phelps and Director Stuart Harrison brought out some winners. Favorites: an Italian Friuili produced by Livio Felluga; Atlas Peak produced by Napa’s Twomey (pricey, though); and (happily, if only for the sake of keeping the tasting friendly) Swanson’s own Oakville merlot.
The whole propaganda campaign’s at http://www.merlotfightsback.com.
Merlot Fights Back
by Stephen Bainbridge
ProfessorBainbridge.com, spring 2006
To educate the trade about the complex uniqueness of Merlot, Swanson Vineyards is taking its elaborate Merlot seminar on the road this spring, visiting San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Miami, Tampa and Orlando. Winemaker Chris Phelps and General Manager Stuart Harrison will present two flights of Merlots from around the world, followed by a flight of Swanson barrel samples. “We’re trying to set the record straight on a varietal which has been so misunderstood and maligned,” Harrison explains. “We’re looking at Merlot from a global perspective, tasting and talking about the realities of the varietal worldwide. The seminar discusses the technical specifics of the variety and the statistical place of Merlot in world grape and wine production,” he adds.
Supporting this effort is a new website, http://www.merlotfightsback.com, which not only provides details of the seminar but also offers a forum for opinions on Merlot, whether Swanson’s or others. “We’re coming to the rescue of a wonderful wine, both by bringing this educational seminar to a number of markets and also by bringing the discussion about Merlot to the web,” Stuart Harrison says.
I applaud this effort, provided it is coupled with a commitment by California vintners to provide quality Merlot at fair prices. Back when anything with a Merlot label on it was selling like hot cakes, too much California Merlot was industrial plonk at sky high prices.
Merlot Fights Back
Luxist.com, www.luxist.com, April 3, 2006
As I’ve said before, the Sideways merlot bashing was an unfair swipe at a perfectly decent grape. Choose your wine well and merlot can be a delightful experience. Swanson Vineyards isn’t going to let people kick merlot around anymore. They are taking their merlot seminar on the road this spring to educate the trade and the media on a grape they say has been misunderstood and maligned. Their Merlot Fights Back website has information on why the wine is important including the fact that the ’61 Cheval Blanc Miles opened on his birthday in Sideways is a 50/50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The Merlot Fights Back seminar features two flights of merlot. One from 2002 merlots from around the world, and one on just merlots from Northern California. Lastly they offer a flight of Swanson barrel samples from 2004 that show off the differences between the various treatments of the grape. Swanson’s 2002 Merlot sells for $32 for those of us not in a city where the seminar is being held.
Merlot Fights Back
by Darlene Dranda
www.winescoop.com, April 26, 2006
Chris Phelps, winemaker for Swanson Winery, spoke before a group of about 40 people yesterday at the International Wine Center in New York City. Assisted by Stuart Harrison, general manager for Swanson, the charming duo presented their case on behalf of Merlot. Look for the Swanson Seminar album.