Andy Hale has worked in the wine industry for over a decade, first as a server and later as a Sommelier for the 5-Star 5-Diamond rated Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island, located...
Order a glass of Merlot in a wine bar and someone will surely quote the movie Sideways, "I'm not drinking anymore fucking Merlot"!
Yes, we've all heard that one and it hasn't gotten stale at all in the past 10 years or so.
So why does everyone hate on Merlot? Is it just a terrible grape that produces foul-tasting wine? I mean, the French grow more Merlot than any other grape, dont they? Didn't they know how to make wine at one point?
It all started with 60 Minutes. They ran an episode called the "French Paradox", where they questioned why the French eat buttery, salty, fatty food and smoke cigarettes all day but still out-live us. The answer, they said, lay in the glass of red wine that they consume with their meals, which is loaded with the antioxidant Resveratrol. This, according to the episode, extends their lives and allows them to eat as much escargot as they like!
The effect was almost immediate. All across America, people were looking to take up red wine for health reasons. They were looking for a wine that was approachable, fruity, easy to drink and relatively inexpensive. They found Merlot, with it's easy to pronounce name, it's willingness to ripen quickly and it's lack of an aging requirement, and it was an instant star!
The problem was, that the demand for a glass of Merlot for health reasons meant that people cared less about the quality of the wine they were getting. As demand increased, quality slipped more and more. You see, with X amount of land to grow grapes, you can make a little bit of great wine or a lot of mediocre wine depending on how many grapes you allow a vine to produce. If you cut down, say, half of the grape clusters that are starting to develop, the vine will put more energy into the remaining grapes and they will be richer and tastier. This is one of the reasons that "premium" wines are more expensive. Winemakers in the 90's started pumping out as much Merlot as their vineyards could make, and focused solely on the amount of bottles they were filling instead of the quality of the wine inside it. Why bother making a beautiful wine when people will buy it and drink it regardless?
Sideways called them out on it.
After Sideways, winemakers ripped out their Merlot and planted the grape that the movie had championed, Pinot Noir, and started over-producing it in the same way that they had with the Merlot. Which, by the way, to grow Pinot Noir properly, you have to treat it like a baby. It needs just the right amount of sunlight and moisture, the right soil composition, and if you look at it wrong it will curl up and die, or at least make really watery, unpleasant wine. It's a bit of a diva, and a terrible grape to try to over-produce!
But thanks to Sideways, anyone who is still growing Merlot with it's horrible reputation, loves the grape and is really out to make an amazing wine. You could say that Sideways saved Merlot with its reality check. So thanks to the movie, not only is Merlot being made better than ever, it is also tremendously affordable since most people think it is a faux-pas to order it. This is good news for people who like to drink good wine, but don't want to spend a lot of money on it!
Oh, and remember that bottle of wine that Paul Giamatti's character was carrying around like a baby throughout the entire movie, waiting for the right time to open it, only to crack it open at the end of the movie and drink it with a burger and fries? That was Chateau Cheval Blanc, and it is mostly Merlot.
So don't give up on Merlot just yet. Yes, it's the wine that your grandparents drank, but there is some seriously delicious, wonderful Merlot out there to be had for under $20 a bottle!