Too much Merlot is mediocre these days

We wouldn't normally have Merlot for our anniversary, but this is special. Our column is 10 years old this week, and since the very first wine we wrote about was American Merlot, it seemed like a good idea to revisit it. Or at least it seemed like a good idea at the time.

In 1998, Merlot was hot. Americans were increasingly turning to red wine, often because of its widely reported health benefits, and they found they liked the smooth, supple and easy tastes of Merlot. Sales of California Merlot increased 12-fold between 1990 and 1998. By 2000, Merlot surpassed Cabernet Sauvignon as America's favorite California red.

But bad things were happening to Merlot. It was getting sweet, simple and alcoholic. We rarely found Merlot under $20 that we really liked and while we found a big quality difference above $20, with far more wines to enjoy above that line, we still cautioned that the Merlot aisle could be a dangerous place at any price point. It was clear to us that vintners were killing the golden goose and, indeed, in 2006 Merlot fell back behind Cabernet in the hearts and sales of America, according to figures from Impact Databank.

The last broad blind tasting we conducted of midrange American Merlot -- wines that cost from $20 to $50 -- was three years ago. It was clearly time to revisit them. We bought more than 50 from store shelves. We focused on the 2004 and 2005 vintages, because those are the ones you are most likely to see. Most of the wines, which came from California and Washington, are well-known names, but we also included some small-production wines that we happened to run across. As always, we were not looking for "America's best midrange Merlot," but were trying to get a sense of the current state of the wine.

We couldn't help but notice that the Merlot price gulf is growing. With competition in this part of the market quite keen -- everyone makes Merlot these days, but fewer people are drinking it -- there are loads of Merlots available for less than $20. Many of the best Merlots, meantime, have risen above $50. Our long-time favorite, Paloma, for instance, is around $65 and our best-of-tasting last time, Duckhorn, has crept up beyond $50. Still, we had no problem getting plenty of wines for a blind tasting.

We were not pleased. The wines were generally leaden, clumsy, hard to drink, charmless, alcoholic and uninteresting. After our first flight, we wrote of one common characteristic: "Oak for oak's sake, an overlay of it, not integrated. Like someone put a drop of oak into the wine and it's floating on top." Yech. After the second flight, in which the wines had a remarkably consistent blahness, we wrote: "It's like they've made mediocre Merlot into an art form."

We were well into our tasting before we finally had a wine that rated Very Good. "Tight blueberry, blackberry fruit. Dark, minerally and dry. Tight and classy. Young. Lots of mouth-coating chocolate." This was a wine that reminded us that Merlot is noble, one of the world's great grapes, the grape of world-class wines like Chateau Petrus, a key ingredient in many of the world's most-famous reds. When we unbagged the wines, we were surprised to discover that this was Kendall-Jackson "Grand Reserve" 2004, which cost $21.99. K-J helped stoke America's thirst for wine with its approachable and reasonably priced varietals and for that we and all wine-lovers should be grateful. But we wouldn't have guessed this giant winery would have done so well against so many wineries with far smaller production and more highly regarded reputations, including so many names that make us smile.

Deep into the tasting, we finally had a second wine that rated Very Good. "Fresh, clean and crisp, with good balance, good acidity, ample fruit and earth," we wrote. This turned out to be ...

Kendall-Jackson "Grand Reserve" 2005. It also cost $21.99. We bought another bottle each of the 2004 and 2005 K-J and included them in later flights and our notes were consistent.

Kendall-Jackson says it made 8,700 cases of the 2004 (which was 4 percent Cabernet Sauvignon) and 24,198 cases of the 2005 (which was 10 percent Cabernet). It was distributed nationwide. How can it make such a good Merlot in such quantities and at such a low price when so many others fail? We called George Rose, a spokesman for Kendall-Jackson, and he told us that the fruit came from mountain vineyards where Merlot does extremely well, while many other wineries plant in valleys and produce so-so fruit.

"We own some pretty spectacular mountain ridges," he said. As for the threefold increase in production from 2004 to 2005, he said that years ago when consumer demand for their Merlot was strong, they planted more and those vineyards just came online with the 2005 vintage. "We could see what was happening. When everyone was proclaiming the death of Merlot, it simply wasn't the case for our company," he said.

Others that rated well include Markham Vineyards 2004 (Napa Valley; $20), Cuvaison Estate Wines 2004 (Carneros, Napa Valley; $27). Franciscan 2004 (Napa Valley; $20) and Provenance Vineyards 2004 (Napa Valley; $26.95).

Certainly, there is no reason why America can't produce good Merlot, and it has. We were so bummed about this tasting that we went back into our cellar and pulled out some old Merlots. The 1992 Pine Ridge was beautiful -- intense, structured and still young -- and the 1994 Havens was earthy, classy and fully ready to drink. But in terms of wines on shelves right now, personally, with so many outstanding red wines arriving from all over the world with interesting, food-friendly tastes offered by thoughtful vintners, we would simply avoid the Merlot aisle. Maybe things will improve for our 15th anniversary. We'll let you know.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.