Merlot Isn’t Serious in California: Here’s Why

I’ve talked at length about the death of Merlot over the years here at Uncorked Ventures.  The back of this Santa Barbara Merlot got me thinking about it again.  Here’s a reminder on why Merlot isn’t a serious grape in California and let’s be clear off the top, that has nothing to do with the grape itself.


Video Transcription:

Hi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. So I’ll hold this up so you can get a good look at it. This is a Folkway 2012 Nien Nacido Vineyard and it’s 100% merlot. That’s not something you see everyday anymore.

In any case, not about Folkway today although we’ll have more on the winery. I talked about Santa Barbara County. Nien Nacido is Santa Barbara. It’s actually one of the larger vineyard sites in Santa Barbara and it’s kind of well known. If you’re going to make wine on the central coast you almost have to have a Nien Nacido kind of set fruit coming in.

Merlot is interesting. You know we talked about how some of the marketing challenges facing Santa Barbara vintners in that they can grow almost anything if you just get it in the right spot. I’m going to actually read from, just a short line. Actually it’s on the back of this bottle which I found interesting. “Basically it’s a small block of cool climate merlot sheltered from the coastal winds of the Pacific. Some call this block overlooked. We call these people overvalued.”

So overlooked, overvalued, that kind of stuff, so that’s merlot. You know Sideways in all essence killed the varietal in California and it kind of still struggles for acceptance and there’s a few kind of other reasons for that too. You know the interesting thing is I don’t think it’s an issue with merlot. I think it’s an issue of vintners’ and growers’ choices about the varietal that go into it.

If we think about Bordeaux, if you know a lot about Bordeaux or even a little bit, you know that the left and right bank, one is based mostly on cabernet, and the other based on merlot and we think of those as the most collectible and sellable wines ever or at least in the world today, but yet here in California we think of merlot as this kind of base grape that can make cheap wine and then nothing else. In France, it’s kind of given this entirely different kind of spectrum of possibility.

So when you think you know, when we plant merlot what happens? Or when you plant a vineyard what happens? So if you’re in Napa or another kind of A plus growing region, you put in cabernet, you put in pinot. You know you choose based on the weather conditions. Then if you’re in Napa and put in all this cabernet, you might find a small block in the corner and you say I don’t think it’s perfect for cabernet. Let’s put in merlot.

Then what’s the second thing? Well the merlot is not as good as the cab. Well of course it’s not. You put it in the worst spot in the vineyard. That’s what happens over and over again. Eventually the common wisdom is merlot is not as good as cab in California. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that it’s vineyard choice and vineyard location choice that matters almost as much as anything else.

So we’re going to ship this because I think it’s a good message and reminder to wine club members that merlot is still a serious grape. It still can be a serious grape. In California you need to find the right spots for it. Santa Barbara based on land and availability of land can still ripen stuff that you might not try in some other spots and so I think this will be a fun one.

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