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Merlot’s ‘Time Out’ is Over

The Return…

Two of the most famous movie lines of all time are “I’ll be back” (Arnold Schwarzenegger The Terminator 1984) and “I’m not drinking any ******* Merlot!” (Paul Giamatti Sideways 2004). Fast forward to 2018 and we noticed a new movie coming out titled I’m Back Bitches. We’re wondering if it is about Merlot…because Merlot is indeed back.

As distributors—and likely you too as retailers/restaurateurs—we saw first-hand what happened to Merlot sales after the success of the movie Sideways: falling off a cliff is an understatement. The good news is Pinot Noir picked up much of the slack. But after 15 years as a second-class citizen, Merlot is emerging from the shadows and people are drinking the wines again—right out in the open.

To be clear, it was mostly new world Merlot that got decimated by the pop-culture take down; those wines known as Pomerol, St. Émilion, and a bunch of other Merlot-based Bordeaux wines were essentially unaffected by the cold shoulder—Perhaps most people that buy Château Petrus (around $3,300 for the 2015) don’t realize it’s 95% plus Merlot. Nor do they likely care! But any wines that billed themselves as Merlot, from the U.S., Chile, Australia or wherever, suffered greatly. Indeed, Geek was with a very famous Sicilian producer at his winery in 2014 and he was lamenting: “Merlot used to be our 2nd best-selling wine in the U.S., but now sales are half”. However, most of the baggage assigned to Merlot at the time is in the rear view mirror at this point. And we are seeing first-hand renewed interest in the grape and its wines. The reasons for this are many, but a couple that seem the most impactful to geek are the overall quality and the much better values one can find compared to Cabernet.

On the quality subject, as Merlot sales declined, the marginal producers went away. Some vineyards were ‘T-budded’ over to Cabernet since the grapes generally like the same environment, but the very best Merlot vineyards were left alone, so the so-so Merlot-based wines went away, improving the breed in general (at least at the top end).  Also, as Napa Cabernet becomes more and more expensive—approaching insanity—people are opening their minds to other options, especially on restaurant wine lists. Just as the marginal vineyards were replaced, only really good Merlots made the lists in top restaurants. So the choice in front of diners of late is for, say $100, they can get a so-so Cabernet or a really good Merlot. The smartest restaurateurs know this and are indeed expanding their offerings.

Note that Cabernet lovers are also Merlot lovers—even if they don’t realize it. It’s fair to say that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot play well together: almost all top red Bordeaux are predominantly Cabernet and Merlot. Sometimes Cabernet is dominant, sometimes Merlot is. Yes, there are (usually) minor roles played by Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot…but it’s really about the two marquee grapes. Most Bordeaux drinkers likely do not know the exact cépage of a given wine, i.e. that Ducru-Beaucaillou is approximately 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot—nor do they care; they just love the wine. Likewise, some of Napa’s most famous wines: Joseph Phelps ‘Insignia’, Opus One, Quintessa and countless others are all blends made mostly or entirely of Cabernet and Merlot…and no one cares.

Most wine producers do their best to anticipate these trends and the ebb & flow of popularity, however you can’t turn sharp corners in a vineyard or with the elevage of a wine: replanting a vineyard takes years, and once the juice is in the winery, it’s an approximately two to three-year process (or more) for top end wines. But as consumers, restaurateurs, retailers, we can turn on a dime. Impress your friends and your customers: stick a bottle of good Merlot in their hands and we think you will see they will welcome it back. The line from Sideways should have been—and should be today—“I’m not drinking any ******* BAD Merlot”, and happily those are hard to find today.

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