For centuries, Merlot did not have an image problem. It looked good. It was well liked. It made friends with palates across the land. It was Cabernet Sauvignon’s less stodgy but still morally upright cousin.
Then, in 2004, director Alexander Payne made the movie “Sideways.” Suddenly Merlot had issues. Suddenly Merlot needed image consultants.
In the movie, sad sack Miles, played by actor Paul Giamatti, rages briefly against the grape. “If anybody orders any Merlot I’m leaving!” he threatens, more because he is a hot-headed pathetic loser than because Merlot is offensive. I mean, I don’t leave the table when a companion orders a mango margarita, and that’s an actual crime.
And still Merlot sales dropped. Drinkers sneered. Everybody became an expert on Pinot Noir.
But things are finally looking up for Merlot. Bloomberg reports the varietal is making a comeback: “Sales of ‘luxury’ versions of the red increased 5 percent over the past year, according to Nielsen, while a 2016 Wine Intelligence report found it was the No. 1 varietal of choice for American drinkers of all ages,” a recent story reports. “Restaurants sold 8 percent more Merlots costing $100 and up, according to Winemetrics’ 2016 Fine Dining Report.”
So now, on the eve of International Merlot Day — Nov. 7, and I do respond to evites — we are here to tell you that the story has a happy ending. At least for me. I got to drink a bunch of good Merlot. Only one was close to luxury Merlot, but we liked everything we tried. So the next time someone wineshames you and threatens to leave the table if you order Merlot, let him go. That way there’s more for you.
Here’s what we tried.
2013 Charles Krug Merlot ($24): Love the nose on this well-priced Merlot. It’s got that famous whiff of cherry, medium tannins, a touch of spice. What the hell was Miles thinking?
2014 Pahlmeyer Merlot ($85): You want to know why you’re paying that hefty price? You’re paying it for pure velvet gorgeousness. Robert Parker got all swoony over the Pahlmeyer Merlot in The Wine Advocate last year and dreamily awarded it 94 points: “The aromatics are killer and then the wine hits the palate with a medium to full-bodied lushness and an expression that says, ‘Kiss me!’ ” While we fully support making out with this wine, we’d say drinking it is even better.
2014 Pepper Bridge Merlot ($50): This aptly named Merlot has a peppery finish. The tasting notes claim hints of “dusty gravel” and “pencil shavings.” We couldn’t quite discern either of those notes but would be happy to drink more and keep trying to find them.
2015 Rutherford Ranch Merlot ($26): The first sip is a bit tart and gives way to cherry and chocolate notes. Some clove, too, and we love clove, though we are not very Goth. We’d call it wonderfully drinkable, and that’s an understatement.
2014 Purple Heart Merlot ($20): This collaboration between C. Mondavi & Family and the Purple Heart Foundation has donated $40,000 to the Purple Heart Foundation, which serves the needs of military men, women, and families. Need another reason to drink it? It’s more berry-forward than your typical Merlot, silky and soft and delicious. The label says “Red Blend,” but at 80 percent Merlot, it qualifies for our list. We like the price, too.
2015 The Velvet Devil Merlot ($12.99): The price is right for this Washington State wine, which lacks the complexity of the more expensive Merlots but still works just fine as a house wine (meaning: I’d keep it at my house). Another bonus: You can often find it at a lower price. Sometimes you don’t need an intense romantic relationship. You just want a friend to drink with your pizza.