Category Archives: Wine grapes

Feeling low on Merlot

Let’s talk about Merlot. And let’s talk about it with only mentioning the movie Sideways once. There. We’ve got that perfunctory obligation out of the way.

Yes, Merlot has been down for a while though Forbes contributor Thomas Pellechia will tell you that it has had a little bump in popularity lately. However, it is still a far cry from the powerhouse it once was.

As a Washington wine lover, Merlot’s downfall has been disheartening. The grape holds a special place in this state because it help put Washington on the national wine map (far from the Potomac) when wineries such as Leonetti, Andrew Will and L’Ecole earned numerous accolades in the late 1980s and early 1990s for their Merlots.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.


Washington Merlots are also very distinctive–richly textured with medium plus to high tannins and moderate acidity that sew together dark fruit flavors with floral and spice notes that can not help but capture the attention of both “big red drinkers” and those who adore elegance and subtle complexity in their reds. If Goldilocks was a Napa Cab fan and Bordeaux lover, she would find Washington Merlots to be “Just right”. There are many reasons why wine writer Lettie Teague calls Washington State a missionary for Merlot.

This distinctiveness and incredibly high quality of Washington Merlots help catapult it to the top of the state’s production, leading the way from the mid-1990s till 2006. But then it dropped.

And dropped.

It wasn’t just Washington State that fell out of love with Merlot. It was nationwide with winemakers sensing the changing tide a couple years before you-know-what premiered in 2004. The movement was already afoot with Merlot vines being uprooted in favor of new Rhone varietals like Syrah and Grenache as well as some of its old Bordeaux buddies like Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Why? It’s easy to blame a movie but I think that overlooks something important.

Merlot is boring.

You weren’t expecting that after the first few paragraphs were you?

By Chilli Tuna - Cropped from El bosque, CC BY 2.0

Plot twist!


Now don’t get me wrong. Merlot wines can be absolutely delicious but be honest with me for a moment. When was the last time you were at a restaurant and your heart soared with intrigue when someone at the table asks for “a bottle of Merlot”? Not a particular producer or a region like Pomerol, just a Merlot. Now think about that same situation if someone asked for a Syrah, a rosé, a Grüner Veltliner, a sparkling wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot noir. I’m willing to bet there would be a bit more arching of the brow and sense of anticipation in wondering what was in store as one of those bottles was brought to the table.

It’s just not the same with Merlot. And to be fair, I think a lot of people have the same reaction with Chardonnay as the ABC Movement (Anything But Chardonnay) is still alive and kicking with nary a film to blame for its strength. Part of it is the ubiquitous nature of both grapes. You see them everywhere. But, as a millennial, I often hear another refrain among my cohorts.

Our parents (and grandparents) drink Merlot.

They drink Cab too and maybe this trickle down apathy will eventually topple that red wine king, but for millennials it’s hard to get excited about something that you strongly associate with older generations. In the tech world, there is similar discussions about why younger users are leaving Facebook for other social media platforms. More and more, Facebook is being associated with mom and dad, aunts and uncles and that weird dude you shared one study group with back in high school. Facebook is becoming boring and that is the realm that Merlot has been in for some time.

What do millennials find exciting?

That’s the million dollar question for wineries and marketers the world over. Many virtual trees have been slaughtered as article, after article, after article, ad infinitum is written about millennials’ influence on the wine industry and how wineries are (or aren’t) adapting. We can nitpick about correlation and causation but its hard not to notice that the growth in the millennial wine market has coincided with the decline in Merlot. It’s also hard not to notice that this has also overlapped with the rise of red blends.

The irony, in a semi-Alanis sort of way, is that many of the most popular red blends in the market today feature Merlot very heavily.

By Marcello Casal Jr./ABr; cropped, and resized by Hajor. - Agência Brasil [1], CC BY 3.0 br,

It’s like Cheval Blaaaaaaaaaaanc
in a fast food cup


Apothic Red – Merlot with Zinfandel, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Menage a Trois – 35% Merlot with Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon
Cupcake Red Velvet – Merlot with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah
14 Hands Hot to Trot Red Blend – Merlot and Syrah
Radius Red Blend – 57% Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Tempranillo.

On the higher end we have restaurant wine list staples like Duckhorn Decoy Red Blend (52% Merlot), DeLille D2 (57% Merlot) and Chappellet Mountain Cuvee (43% Merlot) leaving Merlot’s mark on consumers’ palates.

This doesn’t even count the huge influence of Merlot in Bordeaux where it is the most widely planted grape in the region. Even in the “Cab-dominated” Left Bank, many top estates of the Medoc feature Merlot quite heavily in their blends. Check out some of the recent blends of Chateau Palmer, such as the 2013 which was 49% Merlot and the incredible 2009 that was majority Merlot!

This all makes perfect sense because Merlot is delicious. The grape’s rich plum and cherry flavors, subtle chocolaty notes, lush tannins, moderate acidity and ability to marry well with the flavors of new oak barrels hit many of the cues that make wine consumers sing with pleasure. People love Merlot. People drink Merlot. It’s just in the form of red blends.

But SSSSHHHHH ….. don’t tell anyone. Especially not Mom and Dad.

Making a Bet on Washington Chenin blanc

Earlier this week the big news in the Washington wine industry was the announcement of a collaboration project between the highly acclaimed Betz Family Winery and the Stellenbosch estate of DeMorgenzon Winery called Quinta Essentia. Sourced from four vineyards of old, head-trained bush vines, this South African Chenin will be produced in a dry style and retail for $40 a bottle.

Like many Washington wine lovers, I was intrigued. This was certainly an interesting spin for the fabled Washington winery which has long been known for its outstanding reds. It also made sense giving the South African heritage of the winery’s new owners, Steve & Bridgit Griessel. However, it also left me a little dishearten in that it looks like Washington Chenin blanc is being left in the dark once more.

There is just not enough sunbreaks (and good Chenin blanc like this example from Convergence Zone Cellars in North Bend) in the Pacifc Northwest.

There is just not enough sunbreaks (and good Chenin blanc like this example from Convergence Zone Cellars in North Bend) in the Pacifc Northwest.

Back in 2011, Sean Sullivan of the Washington Wine Report (and now Washington editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine) wrote a terrific article about why Chenin blanc deserves saving . At the end of the article he makes a recommendation for several Washington Chenin blancs, all of them on the off-dry or sweet side, with the driest being Marty Clubb’s L’Ecole 41 Chenin blanc sourced from 30+ year old vines planted in 1979. At around 4000 cases a year, L’Ecole remains practically the lone champion of the grape in Washington State with a bottling that is likely to be available at retail and restaurants. There are other producers with a passion for Chenin in the state, like Scott Greenberg of Convergence Zone Cellers, but these are usually made in very small quantities that are sold through the wineries tasting rooms and wine clubs. Even still, very few of these Chenin blancs are truly dry.

This is disappointing because in other markets (particularly the East Coast), wine consumers are getting hip to what sommeliers and wine geeks have been crowing about for some time–that Chenin blanc makes some mouth-watering and outrageously delicious dry wines with layers of complexity that can match a vast array of cuisine. In a foodie culture like the Pacific Northwest which embraces the flavors, charms and fusion of Asian, Latin and African dishes with ease, you would think that a grape that embraces the balance of acidity, texture, aromatics and fruit so seamlessly as Chenin blanc would be right on the table.

But its not and I think a big reason for this is that no one, outside of L’Ecole 41, has really made a big bet on Washington Chenin blanc and no one has taken the chance to produce and market some of the electricfyingly dry styles that are capturing people’s attention across the globe. This is why it was so disappointing to see that Betz’s new project was going to focus solely on South African Chenin blanc. It’s clear that the Griessels and Master of Wine Bob Betz know good Chenin. So when they took the bold step of introducing the first white wine to their portfolio, and chose to look beyond Betz Family Winery’s home state, it felt like a damning write-off of the potential of Washington Chenin blanc.

“Quinta Essentia emphatically confirms why Chenin Blanc is one of the world’s great white grape varieties… This is not the overcropped, insipid quaffer that Chenin has most often become in the U.S. This is old vine Chenin Blanc, conscientiously grown in a unique site, crafted by a skilled artisan.” — Betz news release

Betz is both right and wrong here. Yes, for a long time US Chenin blanc has sucked. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just think of how exciting it would have been if Betz announced their collaboration with DeMorgenzon and took a page out of Allen Shoup’s book with Long Shadows or Chateau Ste. Michelle with Eroica and Col Solare. What if, instead of just doing a single South African bottling, they set out to change wine lover’s impression of American (and by extension, Washington State) Chenin blanc as being an “overcropped, insipid quaffer”. Working hand in hand with their South African partner, Betz could have done something truly unique in creating two companion bottles, one from Washington State and one from Stellenbosch, made with the same skill and care, that demonstrates the terroir and incredible potential of Chenin blanc. A project that would have combined the credibility and renown of Betz with the passion and respect for Chenin blanc of South Africans would have been just the jolt that this little underdog grape needs here in the Pacific Northwest.

If only Betz was willing to take a bet on Washington Chenin blanc.