I am slightly behind due to the Thanksgiving holiday (there could be worse reasons) but two weeks ago one of my favorite Napa events went down: the Napa Valley Film Festival.
I was lucky enough to be in a position with my previous day job that allowed be to get in on the ground level of the festival during their first year which spawned some awesome events, friendships and experiences. This year I found myself a little bit removed but was able to jump on board a Merlot retrospective tasting that was put together to “celebrate” the 10th anniversary of the movie Sideways. It was a panel discussion with a few notable wine industry folks: James Laube of the Wine Spectator, Tom Rinaldi, Chris Carpenter the winemaker at La Jota and Hailey Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards.
To be honest I didn’t catch the vast majority of the panel discussion as I was chatting with folks about MTGA but there seemed to be a pretty consistent theme: that Merlot is a great varietal when it is done well. It’s biggest problem are all of the “bad” Merlots out there.
I can’t say I disagree with that analysis. It seems that more often than not Merlot is a afterthought with not a lot of focus put behind it (except for the producers that choose to do so). There a lot of Merlots out there that are kind of flabby and not interesting; one-dimensional is how I usually describe them. On the flip side there are plenty that are worth hunting down.
Another point that was made by a couple of the panelists was the importance of Merlot for blending purposes. If you look at Bordeaux and many of the big reds coming out of Napa I think this point is pretty self explanatory.
The last point I overheard was the importance of utilizing Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot or Cabernet Franc to help enhance Merlot. This particular point brought a bunch of folks to my wine station to check out a 100% Merlot that was in the crowd. I am a firm believer that Merlot can do just fine on its own as long as you make winemaking choices that highlight the great things that Merlot has to offer (this is the short version of how I approach making Merlot). The biggest question I received after that point was made was, “Why don’t you blend it with any of the varietals that they talked about?” The quick answer was because I’m not them and while there was a ton of winemaking experience and wine knowledge in the panel there is a reason that they have their opinions and respective wine styles; there is also a reason why I have my own way of doing things. If I wanted to make my Merlot like one of theirs I could… or I could try and do something different (the latter has been way more fun than following in other footsteps or grasping for coattails, I’d like to think).
All in all it was a great crowd to be a part of with a bunch of other Merlot enthusiasts. As I was saying all day at that pavilion:
Merlot isn’t making a comeback, it has been here the whole time.