Thomas J. Story
Annabelle Breakey (food styling: Karen Shinto)
Five years ago, a fictitious character shredded the reputation of one of the world’s great grapes.
No matter that there’s more Merlot than Cabernet planted in France’s legendary Bordeaux region.
When Miles threw a tantrum in the movie Sideways at the prospect of someone ordering Merlot, a ton of us stopped buying it.
Yet just a few years before that, the grape was golden.
There’s the rub: A wine is “discovered” by fans, gets planted in spades to chase the demand, and loses credibility because it really shouldn’t have been planted in all those places.
Even so, don’t write Merlot off. More and more West Coast winemakers are turning out versions that defy the wine’s wimpy reputation.
We asked Jeff Smith, who recently launched a beautifully structured Merlot from his new Hourglass Blueline Vineyard, in Napa Valley, just what he was thinking.
ASK THE EXPERT: Jeff Smith, Hourglass Blueline Vineyard
What do you love about good Merlot? Merlot is one of the most seductive wines in the world. It relies less on power and more on finesse, drifting toward red fruits (dark or sour cherry, raspberry) rather than the black fruits of Cabernet. Most important, its delicate balance and structure make it an incredible food wine.
Obviously, you planted Blueline long before the economy went south. Has it been hard launching a vineyard now―and with such a maligned grape? We’ve been fortunate, probably because of committing very precious land to Merlot. It’s a site with some of the best-drained soils (an ancient, gravelly, upturned riverbed) that in the hands of our winemaker, Bob Foley, produce truly magical wines.
Our big challenge ahead has less to do with the economy and more to do with getting people over the hump to taste our Merlot. We’re working for that lightbulb moment when they say, “Wow, that’s what Merlot is all about.”
So you don’t think Merlot deserved Miles’s scorn in Sideways? Of course, the true irony is that Miles’s Holy Grail wine [the bottle he chugs with a burger at the movie’s end] is Cheval Blanc, a Merlot-inspired Bordeaux! The fact that most people missed the irony highlights that we have a lot of educating to do.
5 TOP MERLOT PICKS
Firestone “Discoveries” Merlot 2007 (California; $10). With tart red cherries, a touch of mocha, and chalky tannins, there’s a lot of Merlot here for the money.
Buena Vista Merlot 2005 (Carneros; $18). Spicy dark fruit, mocha, herbs, and leather are set off by the lively acidity and good bones that cool temps create.
Franciscan Merlot 2005 (Napa Valley; $22). Aromatic forest aromas surround minty berries and black cherries, with a touch of soft cocoa.
Chateau Ste. Michelle “Ethos” Merlot 2006 (Columbia Valley; $31). This is a plush, complex wine with lovely red fruit, vanilla, spice, herbs, and firm but velvety tannins.
L’Ecole No 41 Seven Hills Vineyard estate Merlot 2006 (Walla Walla Valley; $37). Dark chocolate, dried herbs, and mint accent beautiful black fruit from this Merlot pioneer in eastern Washington.
Merlot goes best with hearty proteins–think beef, lamb, or pork–that are big on flavor. Try a glass with a pot roast, for a cozy winter night in.
More: Learn more about Merlot