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.