Merlot month helps restore respect to a legend

Not all problems with merlot were caused by the “Sideways Effect.”

The Seavey Vineyard in Napa Valley (Courtesy photo)

The Seavey Vineyard in Napa Valley (Courtesy photo)

‘If anyone orders a merlot I am leaving. I am not drinking f—–g merlot!” A funny line delivered by actor Paul Giamatti in the 2004 film “Sideways,” intended to add depth to his Miles Raymond character, did irreparable damage in U.S. markets to the iconic wine varietal.

Prior to the film, merlot held 14 percent of our wine market, more at the time than cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. After Hollywood’s so-called “Sideways Effect,” growers started pulling out thousands of acres of merlot, replacing it, in may cases, with popular and higher priced cabernet sauvignon. At the height of its demand, merlot vines reached nearly 60,000 acres in California. Today, they account for almost 45,000 acres.

Not all problems with merlot were caused by the “Sideways Effect.” High demands in the late 20th century prompted growers to plant more, sometimes without regard to terroir and there were times when California produced merlot was simple, boring and out of balance.

Today, thanks in part to the “MerlotMe” campaign, started in 2013, merlot is making a well-deserved comeback. What began as a social media event, #MerlotMe has developed a following among consumers, wineries and restaurants that has resulted in the designation of October as International Merlot Month.

From the perspective of many, the quality of recent merlot releases have been extraordinary, not just from top producer like Duckhorn, Pahlmeyer and La Jota, but in many mid-price level wines. Many of them are hosting events and special tastings and, to pay homage and assist in the campaign to increase awareness, several top winemakers have shared their six-word love stories about merlot.

“Merlot is the perfect wine, anytime”

— PJ Alviso, Duckhorn

Duckhorn has produced much of California’s finest merlot for 40 years. The release of their 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard ($110), which was named Wine Spectator’s top wine designation in 2017, gave the varietal a huge boost in its re-resurgence. They have planned a special celebration, on Saturday, Oct. 12, that features a “harvest- inspired four-course dinner” paired with their merlot releases from five appellations of the Napa Valley.

The 2016 vintage of Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot “Three Palms Vineyard.” (Courtesy photo)

The 2016 vintage of Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot “Three Palms Vineyard.” (Courtesy photo)

From what has been described as near perfect growing conditions, the 2013 Manterra Cunat Family Vineyards “Right Bank” ($50), a 99.4 percent merlot tribute to the great wines from St. Emilion and Pomerol in the Bordeaux region, is wonderfully structured with rich black cherry and currant flavors with soft tannins.

During the month of October, Manterra is hosting a “Meow for Merlot” special and has pledged to donate one dollar from each bottle of merlot sold to the Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch. The tasting fee is $25 per person, but the cause is a good way to support merlot and our four-legged friends at the same time.

“Marvelous, ethereal, rich, lovely, opulent, pleasure”

— Sara Fowler, Peju

From their estate vineyards in Walla Walla and from other regions, L’Ecole No. 41 has long been recognized as one of Washington State’s top merlot producers. In October, for those who are traveling through the Walla Walla area, they are offering, at the tasting room, special prices on their vintage 2016 releases.

For those who will not be traveling through the Walla Walla area, L’Ecole No. 41 wines are available in wine shops throughout the Bay Area and online including the 2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Estate Grown Merlot Walla Walla Valley ($36) that expresses perfumed aromas and concentrated earthy fruit flavors with cooking spice and coffee hints on the finish.

With a 93-point rating, critic Antonio Galloni, Vinous described the 2016 Seavey Merlot Napa Valley ($65) as “powerful, dense and savory.” I found it to be one of the best Napa Valley merlot release that I tasted this year with overwhelming complexity and excellent mouthfeel.

For a $75 fee, Seavey Vineyard is offering a vertical tasting of five hand-selected vintages from their estate merlot and conducting a tour of their winemaking facilities including the historic circa-1881 barn.

Another long-standing producer of fine Napa Valley merlot, Markham Vineyards is also presenting, for a $35 fee, a vertical tasting of their 2013 through 2016 vintage estate merlot vines and a preview tasting of the yet to be releases 2019 vintage. There is little question that participants will enjoy some top- notch merlot at Markham Vineyards.

“Making merlot for you to love.”

— Don LaBorde,

Paraduux Vineyards

Do yourselves a favor, make an effort to enjoy a bottle of merlot in October. We must all do what we can to make amends to this rich and luscious global legend.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at sfewine@gmail.com. He is a guest columnist.

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