Whenever I stand behind the tasting bar at a wine shop, I get a lot of people asking me if that’s what my job is: to stand around at tastings and drink wine all day. Fortunately for my liver, it’s a small fraction of what I do, but I have poured a lot of tastes for a lot of people over the years, and the one thing that keeps cropping up is people’s refusal to try or like merlot. Even when they do try it, and they like it (as they invariably do), they all seem embarrassed about buying it, and qualify the purchase later with things like, “It is a merlot … BUT … I was at this tasting, and, well, it’s not your usual merlot...” or, “It was on sale!”
This makes me profoundly sad, because it’s one of my favorite grapes to drink. Although merlot is one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world, it fell out of fashion a few years ago, and I think one of the biggest catalysts for this came from a line in the 2004 movie Sideways. One of the main characters grudgingly tells his buddy that he'll go on a double date with him, but “if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” It was a comment on the state of merlot in California; many merlots at the time had become overproduced and quality had gone down. The wines were pedestrian, insipid, and utterly unmemorable, and the character equated merlot drinkers with those same unsavory qualities.
As it happens, after the movie came out, sales of merlot plummeted and no one seemed to want to admit to liking merlot anymore (pinot was a whole different story, but we can save that for another time). As a winery sales rep, I couldn’t GIVE merlot away. It was a huge crisis for many domestic merlot producers, and some people even started to rip out their merlot vines and plant other things instead because sales were so tough. It’s taken years for merlot to come back to its pre-Sideways numbers, and even now, in some parts of the country, people still won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. In the wine business, we actually call that “the Sideways effect.”
In the short term, the movie effectively made merlot sales dead in the water (and did wonders in sales for pinot noir producers), but the real long-term benefit was that it forced many existing and future merlot producers to take a hard look at how they were making wine, and how they could improve it. The end result for us as consumers is that, generally speaking, the American-produced merlots you find in restaurants and wine shops have improved drastically, and some of the best-value reds coming out of the Western US are also merlots. The ones that were already good got better, and the ones that were bad improved markedly.
These days there should be no shame in buying merlot — they’re still a little under the radar, so they offer a big bang for the buck, and if you like big juicy reds, merlots (especially from Washington state) are a home run.
Here are some of my favorites that are also widely available:
Kirkland Signature ($9): I know, you’re probably thinking, “wait, isn’t that the Costco brand?” Yes it is. In the past few years, Costco has become the largest retailer of wine in the WORLD, and they’ve been able to leverage that to get some of the very best wines into their stores. They have some ridonkulous values at their stores (not just for merlot but for lots of other wines, including cult-status producers that you supposedly can’t find anywhere), and generally speaking, the wines they bottle under their own label have pleasantly surprised me. This wine is an excellent value — full of blackberry and black cherry, some coffee and mocha, and a lovely, smooth mouthful of delicious red and black fruit.
McManis Merlot ($10): For ten bucks, you cannot beat this little bottle of California Merlot. It’s got vibrant red currant and raspberry notes, and (to quote the winery’s tasting notes), has “whispers of dark berry pie filling.” Zing! Imagine a summer pie on a windowsill encapsulated into a bottle of wine. This is it, folks! As a bonus, this winery is family owned and commited to sustainable farming practices.
Columbia Crest H3 Merlot ($15): Washington state consistently puts out some of the best value merlots around, and if it were from a smaller winery, this wine would be twice the price. It’s plush, it's juicy, and it has lovely hints of mocha, chocolate, and lots of juicy red fruit.
Some other great Washington state value merlot producers are: Milbrandt Family Merlot, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Hogue, Snoqualmie, and Waterbrook. Most of these should be under $15/bottle.
Instead of reaching for cab or pinot, try merlot next time. Buy it with confidence, knowing that it’s no longer “fucking merlot.” It’s fucking delicious.
Previously: Grüner Veltliner.
Merritt Olson has been selling wine for independent wineries for almost ten years. She also makes wine (and drinks a lot of it, too). Her wine-industry blog is merrittolson.wordpress.com. (And no one's paying her to recommend any of these.)