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Berger: Good merlot doing just fine


It has been 10 years since Miles Raymond, the absurdist antihero in Alexander Payne’s 2004 feature film “Sideways,” trashed merlot.

The line, in a film that was essentially an homage to pinot noir, disparaged merlot — and every winemaker who made merlot at the time probably had heartburn for a month.

As despicable as some viewers saw Raymond (he steals money from his mother, after all), his message was the near-orgasmic qualities of pinot noir, and the fact that it was the main raison d’etre in the lives of some people. Think what you will about Miles, but about pinot he was right.

At one point in the film, long after Miles’ passion for pinot has been proclaimed, and before going into a restaurant, Miles blurts out, “ . . . If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any %$#&@ merlot!”

It is true that the movie jump-started U.S. sales of pinot noir, which continue to soar. And anecdotally, we heard that sales of merlot immediately declined.

But in a certain way, it was a fitting blow to a grape variety that, when not made from exceptional fruit, can indeed make a rather lackluster wine.

Merlot long has been seen as a lower-tannin alternative to cabernet sauvignon.

The lower-tannin image of merlot was discovered by Americans in a major way in early 1992, soon after the November 1991 report on “60 Minutes” about the so-called “French paradox,” which spoke of the lowered risk of heart disease in red-wine drinkers.

Immediately after the French Paradox report appeared, cabernet sales rose.

But by early 1992, it was evident to many consumers (who were not really red-wine lovers to begin with) that cabernet was too astringent for them.

As a result, merlot became the “call” wine varietal for many new consumers. The result, between 1993 and 2000, was that plantings of merlot statewide rose three-fold, at one point to nearly 60,000 acres statewide.

But a lot of that new acreage was in areas too warm to make a great merlot. And the merlots that Miles was railing against were part of that vast sea of mediocrity that Payne saw in the years he was writing and filming the movie.

To be sure, the film’s comment had a negative impact on all mediocre merlot sales. But sales of iconic wines from producers like Duckhorn, Shafer, Pahlmyer, Frog’s Leap, Freemark Abbey, Mondavi, and others really were not hurt. It was the truly mediocre merlot that witnessed the wrath of consumers.

Merlot remains an excellent and widely used grape variety, often blended into cabernet sauvignon to soften its “savage” nature.

It is best in slightly cooler regions than cabernet sauvignon prefers, and I have tasted a wide array of 2011 merlots that grew in a cooler vintage that I liked.

Some people may find the tea leaf/olive/bay leaf aroma of such wines to be a bit of a challenge, but the flavors really work nicely with savory foods such as beef stew.

And such wines often respond nicely to decanting, allowing the wine to open up and display some additional notes of complexity.

Wine of the Week: 2011 Kendall-Jackson Merlot, Sonoma County, Vintners’ Reserve ($24) — The aroma is spot-on cherries and dried herbs, and the savory nature of the wine is designed to go with food.

There may well be richer, and more voluminous red wines, but the structure of this elegant wine is easy to sip with lighter meat dishes.

Often seen for less than $20.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.