Sideways brought merlot hatred into the mainstream when it was released in 2004. Even before the film came out, many in the wine world would roll their eyes and tisk-tisk the ordering of a glass of merlot. Five years later, there is still no wine that is as derided or as mocked as the wine made with the offending merlot grape.
Why has merlot been awarded the dubious honor of being the redheaded stepchild of wine? It can’t be just because it is a popular red that is easily ordered in restaurants and bars. Many places have merlot as their house red. If someone asks for “red wine,” what they get is usually a not very good Central Valley merlot.
However, the same can be said for chardonnay and house whites. Yet chardonnay does not carry the same stigma that merlot does. Caitlin suggested that part of the reason chardonnay does not insight people’s wine fury the way merlot does is that bad whites tend to be more tolerable than bad reds. There is some merit to that, but it does not wholly answer the question.
A great article defending merlot comes from a 2005 Slate piece written by Mike Steinberger entitled, “Defending Merlot”. It is telling that the subtitle is: “It’s not Always Bad.” Even merlot’s defenders, it seems, need to concede that there are many, many bad merlots out there. I don’t have enough knowledge to know if the proportion of bad to good merlot is comparable to that of other varietals or not. I can’t imagine that the number of bad merlots out there is wholly responsible for it’s pariah status.
There are still some very good merlots out there. If people dismiss an entire class of wine simply because it has an image problem, then they are missing out on some very good wines. Just last night my aunt and uncle brought over a merlot for dinner. It was a 2005 Beringer Napa Valley Vineyards merlot. It had many of the qualities that you expect from merlot: a medium body, some fruitiness, hints of cherry and little in the way of the tannins that distinguish merlot from the heavier reds. It tasted good, accompanied some of what we were eating (Chinese, which always seems to be a challenge for wine pairings) and while I braced myself for the worst knowing that we were drinking merlot, I actually enjoyed it.
I know that some vinoistas will deride me for admitting that I liked a merlot. And not just any merlot, but a merlot from a huge California winery. The biggest shock of all is that it was a good, easy drinking and enjoyable wine that won’t even set you back $20. It was light enough to drink during the summer and interesting enough to enjoy. Those who dismiss merlot outright don’t know what they’re missing. I just hope that one day, we will reserve wine judgment until after we have tried it.