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What's the Matter with Merlot?
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed April 18, 2005. For more information go to

Merlot, a classic French wine grape and a key player in the Bordeaux varietal blend, a grape of noble lineage and even gravitas, suddenly a laughingstock? Who knew?

Indeed, one of the biggest laugh lines in the movie Sideways, at least for the cognoscenti, comes when the twitchy, neurotic character Miles, looking for an excuse to avoid a sociable dinner with his buddy Jack and a pair of wine-country hotties, announces, "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any #%*$ing Merlot!"

Although the wine industry hasn't reported a dip in Merlot sales to correspond with the trendy status that the recent wine-geek movie inspired for Pinot Noir, there's little question that Pinot is in while Merlot is out these days.

What's up with that? As one reader wrote recently, "May be a dumb question, but why did the wine geek hate Merlot so much?"

The short answer, I told him, is that Miles probably doesn't really hate Merlot as much as he thinks. In fact, the most prized bottle in his collection is not a Pinot Noir at all but 1961 Cheval Blanc, the wine that he hoarded, then finally opened and consumed from a paper cup in a diner, signaling perhaps that his life is finally moving on. This great wine, in fact, is one-third Merlot and two-thirds Cabernet Franc, another grape that Miles spoke of with disdain.

What we really see in Miles's anti-Merlot rant is a bit of wine snobbery. Merlot has become one of the most popular cheap, mass-market wine varieties - some wits nickname it "the Red Chardonnay" because so many casual wine drinkers call for it by name. And in its least-common-denominator form, a lot of Merlot is indeed sourced from greedily over-produced vineyards and vinified in a soft, sweetish and blowzy crowd-pleasing style that does not please "connoisseurs" like Miles.

But you don't have to pay Cheval Blanc prices to get decent Merlot. Check published tasting reports or compare notes with wine-loving friends, in person or online, and you can find plenty of Merlot that shouldn't make any wine lover run away.


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