This edition of Coke circumlocution, a somewhat harmless act of narcissism, addresses a grape variety deeply integrated into the northwest of the USA and the southwest of Canada; the much maligned, often criticized, however staple-for-us-up-this-way, Merlot. Merlot has gone from being an obscure blending variety to a significant economic factor in Rogue Valley AVA of Oregon and the Idaho wine business. It’s the second most planted red variety in Washington and by far the most planted red in British Columbia.
Old guys love to tell old guy stories, sometimes as a thinly disguised attempt to compel respect: we love respect, however acquired. Sometimes old guy rhetoric is intend to have someone benefit from the fun we had or the scar tissue upon which we sit. In either regard, I lack the willpower to refrain from a necessary digression about my old pal, Sparling W. “Bill” Preston. By rural legend, Bill was the Johnny Grapeseed of Merlot, being widely recognized as the first one to go beyond beta-testing.
In 1972, Bill was one of the initial mavericks that transformed a perfectly profitable alfalfa field into a vineyard, and Merlot, the unproven, unknown variety, was a formidable component. Bill, like others in the early 1970s, had the row-crop farmer mental state: Formula for good hay/corn/spuds was gluttonous nutrition + heavy hydration = vigor = tonnage and quality, Baby! With winegrapes, not so much. But that vineyard, farmed in the wrong way and in the absolute wrong location according to viticultural gurus, was a game-changer with the ghost blending variety, Merlot. And Merlot took off like a Saturn 5.
Northwest Merlot soon became the darling of the industry. New-world-style winemakers found a dance partner with Merlot, having tons of Bing cherry and currant fruit. And winemakers craving the charm of old-world minerality and terroir could make wines resembling those of France. Merlot ripens earlier than most other reds, so there is some real winemaking flexibility in ripeness terms….sometimes.
Merlot is no piece of cake in the vineyard. Along with normal pestilence, Merlot isn’t as winter hardy as Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. Consequently it has some greater variance on the “good year” thing; understanding the “good year” thing is a matter of taste. I have found tendencies that the wines made from years with cold temperature spikes disappoint those of us in the mood for a conversation-time Merlot, expecting a mouthful of opulence. But down years overjoy those of us in the mood for the “gimme another glass” drinkable. Gotta tell you, my new favorite thing….cuddle binge-watching Netflix with Merlot…way cool! Gentlemen: This can lead to rewards.
According to that knucklehead Miles in the movie Sideways, it Merlot wasn’t worth drinking. Excuse me if you know this, but Miles’ fave was Chateau Cheval Blanc 1961; a wine from the “Right Bank” of the Gironde River in Bordeaux, France, made from a blend of Merlot. Yet, Merlot sales plummeted after this moron convinced the public Merlot was inferior. This movie showed exactly why no one should listen to anyone other than themselves. Certainly don’t take my advice.
In the odd chance you do want to believe something I say: According to my personally-developed-from-a-selective-memory, fabricated without a speck of authenticity, totally bogus research conclusions; before the big-screen disparagement, Merlot was the favorite of a few credible groups….men, women and chefs. In the 1980s, Merlot became as popular as the guy showing up with a 6-pack after the store closed.
While it can be structured to bite back, Merlot was back-shelved for years as a wine only used to soften Cabernet. But grown with muscle in mind, it can be a foot-to-the-floor wine for times intended without food. Move over, Cab Sauv!
When that neighbor with $200,000 worth of fishing boat/motor/fishfinder-gizmo/gear gives you a big hunk of freshly caught salmon to grill (about $6,000 per lb. if you do the investment to lb. calc.), tell me you don’t like the Merlot now, Miles! Merlot was chef-preferred as a wine for pink fish and pink beast, like pork and veal. One of my all-time favorite wines, with or without foods, was Kiona Merlot Rose’; scuttled when their red version got so good nothing was left to go pink. Blast you, John and Scott Williams!
Now I am not so naive to think that the Merlot anyone drinks is 100% Merlot. All wines need a little help from their friends. Those who know me will tell you that I am a fan of augmentation, in or out of the winery, as long as the resulting product can be enjoyed. The publisher tells me this is not the forum to engage other somewhat obvious, extremely tempting analogies to illustrate the foregoing stipulation; suffice to say I think if another variety adds breadth to a Merlot, it’s OK. If you ask your favorite winemaker, you will learn the original blender is still a popular ingredient in your favorite Cab, where Merlot becomes the complementary seasoning.
I have this problem of being counter-clairvoyant…predicting what someone else likes is a comparative long-shot to a roulette wheel for me. Accordingly, I have been pretty frugal with suggestions for my readers (going out on a limb making that plural)… So, I will continue to refrain from wholesale name dropping. I will tell you that beefing up your Merlot consumption is advisable, with or without beef. Distance yourself from Miles, turn up the fun with Merlot, friends and food, drinking always in moderation, frequently.
This story was originally published March 16, 2015 12:00 AM.