Tuesday, February 28, 2012


The Wine Scout: If Anyone Orders Merlot…

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.)

106 Comments / Post A Comment


I love Merlot. It can be the wine-equivalent of a hug.

Roxanne Rholes

@FromTheFuture Thumbs-upping this is not enough. I want to hug YOU, and then drink merlot, and then hug my cat.




@FromTheFuture THIS IS SO TRUE.


fantastic piece of work@k

out of order

I now feel so embarassed that I was one of the ones that gave up Merlot because of that movie.
I'll go buy Merlot today!

Gracefully and Grandly

@out of order don't be that embarrassed! I always thought I didn't like merlot either and then two things happened. I went to a blind wine tasting party and my favorite was merlot (mind was blown) and then I started noticing that a lot of blends that I really enjoyed had merlot in the mix too. Yay merlot!

Carol Sterritt@twitter

@out of order Well, I wish I could say that I have had your good experience with merlot. I have had it three or four times, and it was beyond putrid. And it seems like there are plenty of other really nice things to drink, so I can't say I would be adventurous enough to try merlot again.


The descriptions of all of those wines are making me thirsty. I love berries, and I also like merlot! I can't do the really heavy, make-you-all-cotton-mouthed red wines, so it's nice to find reds I can drink. These descriptions are making me hark back to my Redwall Abbey reading days though, when all the characters were drinking things like "cordials" and "damson-wine." I think I thought wine was a sort of liquid jam that got you drunk until an embarrassingly late age.


@pterodactgirl REDWALL ABBEY! Anyone else act out that book when they were a weird little kid with the reading abilities of a college student? Just me? Hello?


@TheRisottoRacket I never acted that one out, but I did like to read Shakespeare's comedies out loud in a stage whisper and act out all the parts? The Redwall books I just read over and over, usually in the middle of the night, which led to a lot of raids on the pantry.


@pterodactgirl Now I want some deeper'n'ever pie.


@TheRisottoRacket Um. That might have happened a few times. It also might have happened with anything by Lloyd Alexander, Tamora Pierce, or Anne McCaffrey.


@TheRisottoRacket REDWAAALL. My sister and I learned to cook JUST so we could throw elaborate Redwall-style feasts, and a camp friend and I cowrote Redwall fanfic until we were mumblesomething years old.

@Pterodactgirl: I grew up next door to a concord vineyard (the sort of grapes that's mostly used for Welch's), so I was convinced until I was about seventeen that all wine SHOULD taste like syrupy grape juice. Because, y'know, wine is made of grapes, sooo...

I was also super pissed when I discovered a Redwall recipe for October ale that was just grape juice and ginger ale or something. I knew it was booze, and it sounded nutty and delicious and nothing like that nonsense.


@VolcanoMouse I always thought the best kind of party would be a big Redwall type feast, with lots o' flowing delicious beer.


@camanda @VolcanoMouse @TheRisottoRocket Deeper'n'ever pie! October ale! I love you people, let's be friends. My mouth always got watery over the descriptions of the cheeses studded with nuts and dried fruit--and all the marchpane stuff once I figured out that was Redwall-ese for marzipan. Mmmm.


@pterodactgirl I kind of want to read it right now. I haven't finished the series yet, either, and always mean to do that when I am not 40 books behind in my extant collection.

Also, the Redwall cartoon is on Netflix Instant. Am I alone in my fondness for it? I used to be delighted when I would randomly catch it on the local PBS after school.


@pterodactgirl There is a Redwall cookbook an Amazon. And this website:
I have not tried any of the recipes because I'm sure they would fail to live up to my expectations. Like that time Hairpin ladies made Turkish Delight and it was not anything like my young mind imagined it.


@aitch I don't think I would ever be able to cook Redwall things correctly. They are way too delicious in my mind.


@camanda That cartoon was adooooooorable. And had bonus Brian Jacques segments at the end! Let us all pour out some damson cordial for our fallen author.


@pterodactgirl Yes! I mean I can appreciate a complex fancy wine varietal and I love dark, flavorful heavy beers, but sometimes you just want a simple easy-drinking pilsner or merlot. Aint no shame in that.

I wonder if malbec sales went up while merlot was unfashionable. When I was serving if someone liked merlot but felt ashamed to order it a malbec was always the go-to suggestion. And also very yummy.


@TheRisottoRacket I literally, LITERALLY walked around with a "gullwhacker" for months. In maybe like 4th grade.

Oh, squiggles

Mmm. Wine. I do like Pinot noir quite a bit, despite not liking the movie Sideways. These Merlots sound wonderful however!


I really hated the movie Sideways - I just thought all the characters were self-absorbed and it annoyed me when good things happened to them.

and it drives me nuts that that movie has driven merlot to be a somewhat fringey wine and made everyone all crazy about pinot noir. Not that I dislike Pinot Noir, but I feel like compared to any other red varietal, you're paying 2-3x as much for the same quality.


@arrr starr But isn't pinot grape like, the fussy, bershon teenager of grapes? I always assumed that's why it costs more, not necessarily that it's better.


@chrysopoeia from what I know, it is a fussier grape - I think both difficulty of growing and consumer tastes play into the higher prices.

Porn Peddler

@arrr starr This post made me so sad-- I don't like pinot noir...but mmmmmm merlot.


@arrr starr I agree with your assesment of the characters in the movie, except Virginia Madsen. She deserved an Oscar nomination (in my opinion) for her wine monologue. Pinot and merlot taste different as well. Pinot tends to be drier and peppery. Merlot's a little fruitier, goes down easier.
Oh lord. I'm one of THOSE people.

Atheist Watermelon

@arrr starr YES. the rest of my family is obsessed with that movie, and bought me a copy of it, and i settled in to watch it, only to seriously consider turning it off in the middle because the characters were so relentlessly unlikeable. Well done, well acted, etc., but I HATED IT. I was really sad to read here that that annoying movie affected merlot sales when there are lots of perfectly awesome merlots out there.


A sad text story

1:30 am

YOU: Lotlot!

MERLOT: Who's this?

YOU: ME! What do you mean who isit?

MERLOT: Oh. I had erased your number.

YOU: :/

MERLOT: You gave me up because of a line in a movie. Why are you texting me? What do you want?

YOU: Lotlot :)

MERLOT: You made your choice. You will never have my dark berry filing again. NO. And don't call me that. You are not allowed to call me that anymore.

YOU: :( LotlotPieeee.

MERLOT: Are you back in town? I guess we could meet for a drink if you want.

YOU: Just cmoe over.

MERLOT: Okay. Maybe. I guess.

MERLOT: I'm here. I buzzed. Where are you?




@melmuu Merlot, I promise to treat you right, as long as you are fine with me also being close with Gruner Veltleiner a well. I am too much wine lover for just one grape.

But we'll talk about our expectations and it will be all respectful and stuff.

Katie Walsh

It took a long time for me to get back to merlot after Sideways, and I still shy away from it for the most part, but I really, really like Estancia merlot. Bartender/owner at the resto where I was workibg last summer sold it for like 12 bucks a glass, but I can get a bottle at Ralph's for like 13. Highly recommend.


@Katie Walsh Estancia anything. Love.

Hot Doom

@Ophelia ESTANCIIIIAAAAAA! Yes, all of the above.
By the way, I LOVE this column, and it breaks my heart that it started after I moved from California to England, where many of these are unavailable or on the pricey side. I'm still waiting to find a cheapy bottle of grutliner here.
P.S. English wines. Can we talk about these? I've only tried one kind from Norfolk (it was white) and it tastes like Welch's.

oh well never mind

@LolaLaBalc The Three Choirs stuff is worth trying - I bought a bottle to try and convince my Austrian friend that English wine wasn't terrible! The Bacchus is particularly nice.

Hot Doom

@moosette Thanks for the recommendation! I will go wine-trolling soon.


Yay Washington wines, especially Columbia Crest! <3 you cheapie.


Used to sell Sterling Merlot at this restaurant I worked at, and people would laugh at my hyperbolic descriptions of that wine. But I'll be damned if it wasn't the lushest, jammiest, big fruitiest wine ever.

It's so sad I can't find it anywhere. Sterling, you brought me back to merlot, and I will always love you for it.


@Rosielou I visited the Sterling vineyard on a really gorgeous day and after our "tasting" (plus another glass) I felt so lovely and relaxed I thought something was wrong with me.


@punkahontas Me too! And now whenever I see Sterling wines at the store I have a little flashback to what a good day that was. :)


This has nothing to do with merlot (poor merlot), but I ordered my first Gruner Veltiner last weekend on your recommendation - loved it. Thanks!


My father in law started collecting wine over the past several years and his favorite anecdote, upon seeing Sideways, was that Paul Giamatti's prized wine actually contains Merlot grapes.


@DorothyMantooth That description of the "controversy" was hilarious! Jacques Hebrard actually let his dog attack Robert M. Parker Jr?? Oh, the French!


@AniaGosia It is hilarious!
And as an aside, I'm pretty sure Parker's never written an impartial review in his life, so I'm totally with the dog on this one.

Alter Kocker

Parker: Does your dog bite?
Hebrard: Non.
Parker: AAAAH!!! My leg, it is bleeding! You said your dog doesn't bite!
Hebrard: Eet ees not my dog.


I got really pissy pants when sideways came out, because I already disliked merlot and I already really liked pinot noir, and then I just looked like I let a movie I really disliked make my drinking choices. Syrah for all! Montepulciano too! Zinfandel (not white)! But not Cabernet!


@hotdog Ooooh, Montepulciano! Also, try Nero D'Avola. Mmmmm.


@Ophelia Montepulciano is the best.


Why do you have to make wine sound so delicious when I can't have any? I'm trying to pretend it's gross.

Those do sound juicy and tasty and wonderful, though, and I'm looking forward to the day when my medical condition (no, MOM, it's not pregnancy) is resolved and I can drink again.


I think I should probably have another cause like fighting poverty or saving whales, because restoring merlot's reputation one Californian at a time sometimes seems a little petty. Only sometimes.


@okaycrochet What you need to do is make a movie called "Frontways"


@punkahontas Damn-Straightways.


probably have another cause like fighting poverty or saving whales, because restoring merlot's reputation one Californian....underground racing


Novice wine-drinker here with a question! (I think my days of Old Milwaukee are pretty much over...) How long does a bottle of red wine last after it's been opened? Does it depend on what kind it is?


@lora.bee A few days or so? Shorter/longer depending on the temperature, and whether you can vacuum-seal it. In my own life, vacuum-sealed and left on the counter for a few days = totally drinkable, unless it's very hot summer weather.


@lora.bee - I'm not sure, but I did learn from the teevee that Vodka goes bad once it's opened, so you have to finish it right away.


@lora.bee if my wine is over a week old (i'm not a big drinker, so it takes me a while to get through a bottle) I use it for cooking and it takes on a new life in delicious beef stew.


@lora.bee They say three days but I've definitely kept it for close to a week. Also: You are supposed to refrigerate both red and white when/if you don't finish the bottle.


@all If it was opened on Sunday, would you still drink it on Friday...?


@lora.bee I'm pretty sure that situation is why wine spritzers were invented.


@lora.bee I've usually heard 3-5 days (though in our house wine rarely makes it past day 2) so it's probably not going to be good, but if it's in a cool place you could try a sip. unless you are one of those people who hates vinegar... then it might not be worth it.

I've also heard that both red and white go in the fridge but generally if we're only storing red for 1 day we'll leave it on the counter.

Lenora Jane

@lora.bee If it's a little too vinegarry drink it mixed with Coke and pretend you're a cool Spanish exchange student like the ones who taught my old roommate how to do that.


@leon.saintjean this is true, and also, if you drink wine really quickly, it's non-alcoholic! It's only when you let it sit around that the alcohol develops. Thanks teevee!


@leon.saintjean I'm pretty sure that's another one of mom's little fibs, like, "I'll sacrifice anything for my children."

However, we all know that wine only turns into alcohol if you let it sit.

Alter Kocker

@leon.saintjean If you're keeping your vodka outside of the freezer for any length of time, you're doing it wrong. Also gin. Nazdorovye!
But, if there are enough pickles, is not problem!

This is my new username

@heyits True story. Wine spritzers have made many glasses of old wine far more drinkable.


I just made myself a little bit of nachos as a snack, and now I wish I saved those calories for a glass of wine instead. Curses.


@punkahontas fact: wine contains no calories, just delicious, life-giving nutrients.


@heyits I knew it!

This is my new username

@punkahontas Why did I start reading this column immediately after I decided I was going to stop drinking wine during the week because my wine habit seems to be making the scale numbers get bigger. I really want a glass of wine now!!


hell yes on the Western Washington wines! I lived in Walla Walla for a few years when the wine scene was starting to hit it big there, and it taught me two things: syrah is nasty and merlot is fucking delicious. It was around the time "Sideways" came out, and customers coming into the wine bar I worked at were always mentioning it, as if it were this little indie flick that no one had ever heard of except for them. Them, and every other wino on the West Coast.

Judith Slutler

@heyits Walla Walla is in Eastern Washington yo


@Emmanuelle Cunt oh fuck it is! my brain must be addled from too many Oscar fashion slideshows.

Judith Slutler

@heyits I just have to defend Eastern Washington a bit here, because god knows nobody else will!


@heyits I also lived in Walla Walla! And the Bordeaux (Bordeauxs? Bordeauxes?) from there are similarly amazing. Did we go to college together?


@HillsideHoyden I suspect we did not go to college together, for the simple fact that I didn't attend school there. But if you came into the wine bar I worked at c. 2004-2005 then I probably served you! I miss Walla Walla. It's a fun town.

Anne Helen Petersen

@heyits Y'ALL, I AM MOVING TO WALLA WALLA IN JUNE. Or, rather, returning to my beloved Walla Walla, which is where I went to school (HillsideHodyen, I imagine we did go to school together, if not the same years).

Anne Helen Petersen

@Anne Helen Petersen Also full disclosure: Ms Merritt Olson and I went to school together in Walla and she was drinking sophisticated Merlots when I was still drinking Franzia from the plastic wine bladder.


@Anne Helen Petersen See, I already liked you, AHP. But a former soon to be current w2er? so great! but...how will you do hot yoga with Tim Riggins?

Anne Helen Petersen

@heyits THIS IS A HUGE PROBLEM. Did you work at Grapefields?


@Anne Helen Petersen I did. DID YOU???????? ahhh, worlds colliding!

Anne Helen Petersen

@heyits I wonder if you knew Merritt, then -- she worked at Grapefields 2002-2004ish


Man, Costco just sells shittons of everything. Even for books, if you can get your book bought by Costco, they will sell like hotcakes.
Also I am not much of a drinker but these posts really make me want to drink wine again (although I have been lazy and haven't been to the LCBO, BUT my spring break is coming up, so maybe it will be wine tasting spring break of alcoholism/awesomeness)


When you guys say merlot, you don't mean this do you? http://www.wildvines.com/wines/blackberry.htm

(I totally love this shit and have no shame).


I don't know wine so when I moved out to Seattle I scoffed at the idea of wine being grown in Washington as we're so far north. But it turns out the wines are really good, the grocery stores stock a huge selection, and they're cheap (in a good way). The Woodinville wine country is great and a very short drive away.

Lenora Jane

@vanick@twitter When I was in university we toured a vineyard in the Eastern Townships of Quebec for a geography class thing and I now have absolutely no mental limits about what "wine country" is anymore. Canada. CANADA! Canada. Granted, the Eastern Townships are about as far south in Canada as you get, but...

Cat named Virtute

@Lenora Jane WHERE IN THE EASTERN TOWNSHIPS? I live in Montreal and have a friend with a car. I MUST KNOW.

For the record, wine is grown in the Niagara Valley of Ontario too, which is also pretty damn south for Canada. The ice wine is especially good. Tasty tasty ice wine...


@vanick@twitter Okanogan wines! A few months ago I decided to only drink BC wines (I live there) and I have not regretted it. Plus, one of the VQAs has this awesome salesguy who is totally happy when you come in and say "We have $13 between the two of us, what's the best white wine we can get?".

This is my new username

@MilesofMountains Mmmmm Okanogan wines are awesome!


Carménère 4 lyfe.

Judith Slutler

I am feeling so much Washington wine love / nostalgia due to this post. COLUMBIA CREST!!! And good call on Hogue and Chateau St. Michelle. I also have to recommend Latah Creek's merlots not only because they are delicious but because they are from my hometown.

Porn Peddler

As a dedicated merlot drinker, this makes me so happy. Now, if only there were more little bitsy bottles of wine out there so I could buy tiny bottles of merlot for me and tiny bottles of Malbec for Mister.


I love this column! More wine expertise, please!


i mean, we all know the worst wine is really chardonnay.

*takes long sip of chardonnay*


I gotta be honest... I don't like merlot! But not because of Sideways. I swear. In fact, I'm shocked that that actually impacted how many people drank merlot! It wasn't even the cool guy saying it!

Anyway, I will still try these. Because I love wine. And you do such a nice job convincing me to. I hope you post more about wine in the future!


Merritt Olson is an anagram of 'it's on, Merlot'! Almost.

Chadwick Crawford

If you can get your hands on the Medlock Ames Merlot, please do. It's inspired by the great merlot-heavy Bordeaux, with the immense power that only California fruit can bring to the table.


Is it true that you can buy wine at Costco without a membership? I kind of hate Costco, but there is a huge one being built very near my house in Chicago and I would love to go there for wine.


@josiah Only for certain states - and Illinois is not one of them.


@josiah I know if you have a friend with one, they can bring as a guest, I'm pretty sure.

Hot Doom

@Megan Patterson@facebook This is true, but I think the person purchasing must have a member card, so just go with a friend and pay him or her back

Carol Sterritt@twitter

@LolaLaBalc If it is liquor you are buying, you don't have to have a card, and you don't have to go with someone who does. it has something to do with how the laws are regarding liquor licenses.

Zeki Yol@facebook

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