Boyd on wine: Merlot’s slow climb back
In the 2004 movie, “Sideways,” when confronted with the prospect of having to settle for merlot instead of pinot noir, a contemptuous Miles (played by Paul Giametti) recoils in disgust, spitting out, “I’m not drinking any f#&*ing merlot!”
Who knew that when that now-memorable. throwaway line was uttered, sales of pinot noir would take off while appearing to torpedo merlot.
Over the intervening 14 years, the taste for red wine has changed a lot, with sales of cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir continuing to go from strength to strength, while the demand for merlot was be stuck in a rut.
Industry observers scratch their heads and wonder if merlot will ever recover from the post-2004 slump. Some are asking, though, if merlot is still suffering a sales slump.
In Sonoma County, merlot accounts for just over 4,000 acres of the 60,000 acres of the county’s wine grapes, although the acreage has dropped slightly since 2015. One of Sonoma’s best-known merlots comes from St. Francis in Sonoma Valley.
Bob Baldridge, chief financial officer with St. Francis, said that merlot sales have been up and down, but are now holding steady.
“The last two to three years, merlot sales have grown a few percent a year, after being down for a few years,” he said. St. Francis produces 35,000 cases of its Sonoma County merlot and 1,000 cases of the reserve merlot.
St. Francis merlots won two silver medals at the 2017 Sonoma Harvest Fair Wine Competition, while golds and double golds were awarded to Cline Cellars, Imagery Estate, Kunde, Muscardini Cellars, Hook & Ladder, La Storia, Praxis Cellars, Seamus Wines and Taft Street for their merlots. At the 2018 North Coast Wine Challenge, Sonoma County merlots winning gold medals include Ferrari-Carano, Frei Brothers and Imagery Estate.
At Santa Rosa’s Bottle Barn, wine specialist Jordan Wardlaw reports that merlot sales are on a slow uptick.
“Sales are slowly moving up,” he said. “But merlot still doesn’t hold the market share of pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.”
Wardlaw said the best-selling merlots in Bottle Barn are made by Kendall-Jackson, Benziger and Fifth Hill Sonoma Mountain Red Pickberry Vineyard, a Bordeaux-style blend with a high percentage of merlot. Other popular Sonoma merlots are made by Gundlach-Bundschu and Matanzas Creek.
Across the Mayacamas Mountains, Markham Vineyards has been making merlot in the Napa Valley since 1980, with winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls bottling her first Markham merlot in 2001.
Reflecting back to the early 2000s, Nicholls said that Markham didn’t see any dip in merlot sales in the wake of the “Sideways” movie. “In fact, 2005 was an enormous vintage, and we made and bottled all we had from that vintage.”
Today, Markham makes 50,000 cases of merlot and Nicholls said they sell all of it.
Markham is not the only Napa winery to enjoy success with merlot. Other Napa favorites include Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot and Duckhorn’s high-end Three Palms Vineyard Merlot, with an asking price of close to $100. Duckhorn sells all of the merlot it produces annually.
Shafer Vineyard, a marquee red winemaker in the Stags Leap District of the Napa Valley, doesn’t have a varietal merlot, but its popular TD-9 blended red contains 56 percent merlot.
Downstate, merlot has been making a comeback in the Paso Robles area. In the 1990s, merlot was over-planted and produced in Paso Robles, but now merlot acreage is about 6 percent of the area’s total wine grape acreage. Paso Robles boasts over 200 wineries, with 14 producing merlot, including Castoro Cellars, Bianchi Winery, Robert Hall and Peachy Canyon.