IT’S A THROWAWAY line in Alexander Payne’s 2004 film Sideways, but many claim it’s had an outsized effect on the way Americans drink wine ever since. The film follows two friends on a wine-tasting vacation through Southern California in search of women and a perfect pinot noir. The main character, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, is the classic wine snob, oozing pretension every time he raises a glass. The film’s greatest irony? That Miles’ most-prized possession, a bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, is made almost entirely of merlot.
The film, rightly or otherwise, gets blamed for decline in the sales of merlot-based wines throughout the mid-2000s. A more likely version of the truth is that in the 1990s, merlot vines were being planted up and down California to be made into inexpensive, mass-market wines that could be found on grocery-store and gas-station shelves (yes, wine in gas stations is a thing outside of Arkansas!) across the country. When the film came out and put a voice to the fact that most of these wines were, in fact, quite bad, it gave many growers cause to rip out their bad merlot vines and replace them with (often equally bad) pinot noir.
Even now, more than 12 years later, this change in consumer taste still makes merlot a hard sell for a lot of drinkers. I’ve had winery representatives tell me they often market their merlot as a “red blend,” a term that, for whatever reason, people are more comfortable with when they see it on a label. Pouring wine for guests, I often find that people will say they even prefer a merlot-based wine, so long, of course, as they don’t know it’s merlot. What they also don’t know: Even those lush California cabernet sauvignons that are always so popular typically have a healthy dose of merlot blended in. (In California, a wine only requires 75 percent of the wine to be made from the grape on the label.)
It’s a disappointing trend, as merlot, in the hands of a capable winemaker, can produce incredible wines that run the gamut from delicate and feminine to dark and brooding. I like to think of merlot as something of a chameleon, able to change its profile dramatically based both on where it’s grown and what other grapes it’s blended with. In its native France, the wine is often soft and delicate, with notes of violets, tobacco leaves and leather, while sun-drenched California produces wines that are rich and fruity, bursting with plum, raspberry and spice.
2014 Broadside Margarita Vineyard Merlot, $16
Hailing from Paso Robles in California’s Central Coast, this merlot manages to balance ripe fruit notes of plum, blueberry and black cherry with the more subtle aromas of cocoa powder and vanilla. The perfect weeknight wine, it’s light enough to pair with steak, salmon and everything in between.
2013 Robert Keenan Winery Napa Valley Merlot, $29
The Robert Keenan Winery is in the mountains above Napa Valley, so high, in fact, that the vineyards escape the valley’s notorious fog. This allows the grapes to get even more exposure to the sun and to produce complex and fascinating wine. There are heavy fruit notes, but it’s the wine’s savory hints of mint, eucalyptus and smoke that make it a winner.
2010 Chateau de Bellevue Lussac-St. Emillion, $36
There’s probably no other place in the world that produces merlot as well as Bordeaux. Less fruity than its American counterparts, this bottling from Bordeaux’s famed Right Bank is a lesson in subtlety. Notes of worn leather and tobacco leaves intermingle with cardamom and raspberries. If it were a person, you could easily imagine it having a whiskey and a cigar while wearing a smoking jacket.
2014 Seven Hill Winery Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot, $48
I know I said that Bordeaux is the pinnacle of merlot, but in wine, there’s always an exception. This bottling from Washington state’s Walla Walla Valley is the best merlot I’ve had in years. It’s like drinking the Batmobile: intense and powerful and full of energy that exists right beneath the surface. A chorus of spices on the finish—bay leaf, clove, cinnamon and sage—buoys an overriding note of stewed black cherry. Think you don’t like merlot? Have a glass of this. I dare you.