Are Washington Merlots Sideways?
Merlot’s lagging sales are more a reflection of the lack of marketing than of wine quality.
Harold Thoreen of Antoine Creek Vineyard near Chelan, Washington, son Colin, and Harold’s wife Suzanne Haggard taste Northwest Merlot wines during an educational session spotlighting Merlot at statewide grape talks.
Merlot wine grapes are among the most planted in the world and recognized as an important blending variety, yet Merlot wines suffer from lackluster sales. Has Merlot really gone “sideways,” like the title of the comedy-drama 2004 movie about wine?
Sideways, the surprisingly successful movie adapted from Rex Pickett’s novel, followed two middle-aged men spending a week in California’s Central Coast wine country. The movie created a marketing buzz for Pinot Noir wines, but it may have inadvertently relegated Merlot to mediocrity from actor Paul Giamatti’s “anything but Merlot” disparaging comments throughout the movie.
Based on worldwide acreage—Merlot ranks third worldwide, number one in France, and third in Washington State—Merlot wines should be in high demand globally and among the top varietal sellers. But not so. Recent market data collected by the Nielsen Group show that Merlot sales are down from the same time a year ago by about four percent in volume and five percent in value, while sales of most other varietals are up. Additionally, Merlot wine inventories in California are excessive.
“Merlot is a mixed picture,” said Doug Frost, Master of Wine, Master Sommelier, and wine consultant from Kansas City, Missouri. With such contradictions, Merlot no longer looks like the “Golden Boy.”
Frost was among a diverse panel of winemakers, grape growers, and wine critics who took an in-depth look at Merlot and its place in Washington’s wine industry during the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers which was held in Kennewick. The prolific variety grows well in many places, especially in Washington, has been a consistent producer, and blends well with numerous other varieties.
At one time, Merlot was thought of as Washington’s flagship variety. But with lagging sales, the panel considered its future and whether growers should continue planting it. Does it have a place on American tables?
“Merlot’s versatility may be part of its problem,” commented Frost, adding that red blend wines are now popular with younger wine drinkers, many who have untrained and unsophisticated palates. “Blends work for the young drinkers because of their price, clever proprietary names, exclusivity, and balance of flavors.”
Steve Heimoff, wine book author, critic, blogger, and California editor for the Wine Enthusiast, believes that Merlot is misunderstood and maligned, and was negatively influenced by the Sideways movie.
After the movie’s release, sales of Pinot Noir reportedly increased by 16 percent, and Merlot sales were down by 2 percent. According to Heimoff, planted acreage of Merlot in California dropped by 5,000 acres from 2004 to 2009, though plantings increased of other red varieties during the same time. “Growers either couldn’t sell the grape or thought they couldn’t sell it,” he said, adding that Merlot is full of contradictions.
Heimoff thinks that Merlot is an afterthought in restaurants. “I can’t think of the last time a sommelier recommended a Merlot.” But several Merlot surveys, including one from Nielsen, found that 80 percent of respondents believe Merlot is a good everyday wine with good value.
Consumers are more willing to shell out big bucks for Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir wines than they are for Merlot, he said. “How come more people don’t trust it? It has to do with marketing.”
Peter Bos, with 25 years of involvement in the wine industry spanning vineyard development and winemaking, wholesale and retail sales, and most recently as wine instructor at South Seattle Community College, said that Merlot was first commercially planted in Washington in 1972 by Sagemoor Farms and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. In terms of tonnage produced in the state, Merlot is about equal with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. “People talk Cabernet but drink Merlot without even knowing it,” Bos said in stressing its importance as a blending variety for Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
“Are we the Merlot murderers? We all have a mental block with Merlot. When was the last time you (wine marketer, grower, winemaker, critic) ordered Merlot for dinner? We always make Merlot take a second seat behind Cabernet, yet Merlot makes Cabernet better,” he said, noting that Merlot can stand by itself, but Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc need Merlot.
“We’re a greater wine region with Merlot than without it,” Bos said.
Right for Washington
Andy Perdue, founder of Wine Press, a consumer magazine about Northwest wines, said that although Merlot grows well in many places, the reasons that Merlot and Washington are so right for each other include the volcanic and glacial soils, abundant sunshine for ripening, and controlled irrigation of eastern Washington vineyards.
“We really force Merlot to show us its greatness as it struggles for its very life,” he said, comparing the bold Merlot Washington wines to the smooth, supple, and boring Merlot wines of central California.
“California might be ashamed of its Merlot,” he said. “Bordeaux might go out of its way to hide it in blending; Chile might get it mixed up with Carmenere; and Argentina might misname it as Malbec. But in Washington, we should continue to grow and embrace it.”
Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Farms, Pasco, agrees with Perdue’s assessment of Washington Merlot. Waliser said, “If we can stress it and control the water, we can make Merlot shine.”
Merlot’s back-seat problem is more of a marketing issue than a grape quality one, agreed the panelists. Wine Enthusiast’s Heimoff said that what Merlot needs is a good “arm twisting,” a selling by sommeliers and critics.
Casey McClellan, founder of Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, Washington, believes that in spite of the wine market, Merlot is a great variety for Washington. He encouraged the state’s winemakers to not give up on Merlot and to continue to produce great Merlot wines. Optimistic about its future, McClellan noted that Merlot wine prices have firmed up the last few years. “We do ourselves a disservice by being lukewarm and wishy-washy when it comes to Merlot.”
South Seattle College’s Bos echoes McClellan’s sentiments, urging Washington’s wine industry to embrace the variety.