Updated: Mar 29
After spending my entire pre-trucking adulthood engaged in the wine business one way or another, it was just during the past year that I’ve come to realize that I really, really like Merlot... GOOD Merlot, that is.
This is a big deal, because among the œnological cognoscenti, admitting you actually enjoy Merlot is akin to informing your co-workers that your psychiatric profile is uncannily consistent with that of a serial-murdering cannibal. But screw it… I’m a trucker now, and I’ll drink what I want. And one night not too long ago I was doing just that... sitting on the back deck to behold a glorious sunset with my bride Andrea, wine glasses in hands, when I casually mentioned, “You know, I was always way ahead of the curve with Merlot. I liked it before most people ever heard of it, and I liked it after everyone got sick of it and moved on.”
And right then a Merlot label from my distant past suddenly materialized in my brain, as did the long-buried story that accompanied it.
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The Holy Trinity of red Bordeaux grapes are genetic kin— Cabernet Franc is a parent grape of Cabernet Sauvignon, which in turn is a parent to Merlot. They definitely demonstrate familial affinity— while other red varieties are permitted in the region, most of the famous reds of Bordeaux are blends of two or three of these varieties. And although Cabernet Franc and Merlot are the featured grapes in certain Bordelaise districts, Cabernet Sauvignon is generally considered superior to the other two when the climate affords full ripening. California— and Napa Valley in particular— proved to be perfect for maximizing its potential. When the Great American Wine Boom dawned in the early 1970’s, Cabernet Sauvignon had already been firmly established as the prevailing benchmark of Californian quality wine.
Meanwhile, fewer than 100 acres in California were planted to Merlot vines… but oh, how that would very soon change.
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In the early 1980’s I was an aspiring young wine geek while still in college, well versed enough to at least be aware of Merlot’s existence. The notion of a Bordeaux-style red that is softer than Cabernet Sauvignon and more approachable in its youth intrigued me. Hungry (or thirsty) for more wine knowledge, one January between semesters at UMass/Amherst I took a special wine tasting course focusing on the red wines of Bordeaux, all from the halfway decent 1976 vintage. To my surprise as well as the teacher’s, I could identify by nose alone the wines of the main sub-regions — Pauillac, St. Estephe, Graves, St. Julien, St. Emillion, and Pomerol. (The latter two— my favorites of the bunch— are the “right bank” districts, where the soil and climate are more suited to Merlot cultivation than are the districts across the Gironde River, where Cabernet Sauvignon predominates.)
Might I have a future in this business? Perhaps... but if my newly discovered nose and taste memory suggested a career in the wine trade, I surely wasn’t going to be paying my bills with Merlot sales anytime soon. Hardly anyone had even heard of it. And yet, as the American wine boom gained traction, Merlot gradually got popular enough to make it a “thing,” albeit a minor one. For the Californian producers it was mainly about economics— Merlot is easier to grow than Cabernet Sauvignon, it ripens earlier, and it requires less barrel and cellar maturation before going to market. And yet everyone in the industry understood that Cabernet was the king of grapes and would likely remain so.
After presenting my senior honors thesis (in environmental economics) that spring, I moved to Northampton and became a full-time restaurant rat while completing my remaining undergraduate courses part-time, riding the free buses back and forth to Amherst. One day that autumn I happened to catch the bus in downtown Amherst... and one of the few remaining seats was directly beside a strikingly attractive Smith student who was taking one of her courses that semester at Amherst College.
It is not difficult for a reasonably attractive female to catch the eye of a 23-year-old guy, whether she wants to or not. But Lisa— as if her long blond hair, reed-like frame, and blue eyes that crackled with intelligence weren’t enough, she spoke in a knee-buckling London accent. All in all, she was a beautiful, long-stemmed rose of a young lady... complete with especially sharp thorns to dissuade those who would try to hold her too tightly. I was so smitten that I figured out her class schedule and made sure that, going forward, I was on the bus with her. I made a point of having chocolate to share with her on the rides to Northampton. We hung out a few times. And then— almost out of the blue— she called me and invited me to go out drinking with her after an upcoming mid-term. Struck stupid with delight, I countered with a bold suggestion of my own— how about staying in and enjoying some nice wine? She liked the idea.
I showed up with a bottle of 1979 Clos du Val Napa Valley Merlot.
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The Clos du Val winery was established in 1972 by John and Henrietta Goelet, a couple with deep roots in the French wine trade and a taste for great Bordeaux. They hired a young French winemaker, Bernard Portet, whose father was the technical director at Château Lafite-Rothschild. Their ambition was to produce world-class Cabernet Sauvignon in the as-yet barely developed Stag’s Leap District of Napa Valley. (Spoiler alert: They picked the right spot. See Judgement in Paris.) With their shared Bordelaise sensibilities, the Goelets and Portet planted Merlot alongside their Cabernet Sauvignon just like the left-bank Bordeaux estates.
American wine law requires that wine labeled by grape variety (“varietal wine”) contain at least 75% of the stated grape, which left considerable room for Portet’s cellar artistry, i.e., adding minor proportions of Merlot to soften and round out the muscular Cabernet like they do in Bordeaux . But the Clos du Val team soon found that their Merlot, ripened to fullness in the warm Californian sun, was sturdy enough for a stand-alone varietal wine.
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Lisa and I enjoyed a perfectly nice evening together, slowly sipping the delicious Merlot as we engaged in smart conversation about music and art and all kinds of stuff. Our minds seemed to mesh, and I dare say a spark or two flew. I optimistically foresaw us possibly becoming a regular item. But when it was time for me to go, just when I was about to inquire when I might see her again, she apologetically but matter-of-factly explained that she was very busy with her studies, and that she had this guy friend at Williams whom she saw every other weekend or so to round out that detail of her tightly-scheduled existence. And so that was that. It felt like a really long walk back to my side of the tracks.
I last saw Lisa in person a couple of years later, shortly after she graduated from Smith. By then I had risen to the position of general manager at the fanciest restaurant in town, one that rightly boasted the finest wine list in the area code. Lisa was applying for a waitress job to keep her busy until she headed off somewhere in the fall, she explained. Delicious as this situation might sound (for any number of reasons) I brusquely sent her away... in part because I knew that, as an economically-privileged only child, she wouldn’t have “the right things wrong with her” so often found in good waitresses... like, for instance, a deep-seated eagerness to please total strangers. But I also sent her off because the restaurant was owned by a fast-living gangster who regularly preyed on women like her, and he and his Cognac & Blow cohorts weren’t accustomed to hearing “no” from the female objects of their unsolicited advances. I was already straining to shield several of the waitresses from such lechery by occasionally walking them home or other such brotherly gestures, and my capacity to extend such protection was nearing its limit. And also, truth be told, I knew I would have been privately crushed had Lisa— like a handful of her more adventurous Smith-mates— actually accepted an invitation to party on my boss’s 50-foot Nantucket-based yacht. Of course I couldn’t tell her any of this… she probably figured I was just being a jerk.
As I advanced in my restaurant career through the mid-1980’s and got more involved with wine, I noticed that when we catered an event there were twice as many white drinkers as red drinkers, and that they drank twice as much... a 4-to-1 white-to-red ratio that pretty much held true until 1991, when the entire wine universe suddenly shifted. A “60 Minutes” segment that year explored the “French Paradox,” a generous interpretation of which might suggest that red wine was actually good for one’s health. Right past the Chardonnays and Rieslings the erstwhile white-swilling public hurriedly stampeded... right past the Cabernet Sauvignon, which they were afraid to mispronounce, or maybe thought too rich and heavy... right past everything until they got to the Merlot rack, whereupon they promptly emptied it. By the time I became the sommelier at a top Boston steakhouse in 1994, it was imperative that we served Merlot by the glass while we struggled to keep the printed wine list up-to-date... because our wholesalers kept running out of whatever Merlots we had listed. It was hard work, but also fun and profitable to have wines that so easily sold themselves.
But all good things come to an end, often with scant warning. The end for Merlot came so suddenly that it shocked the industry even harder than the abrupt shift from whites to reds because of the French Paradox… and as ignominiously, perhaps, as the death of disco in 1979. The exact moment of Merlot’s implosion came in a 2004 buddy film set in Californian wine country—SIDEWAYS— when Miles, a lead character and insufferable wine geek, uttered a memorable and consequential line:
“I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot! If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving!”
The wine-drinking public had likely had its fill of Merlot by that point, and Miles’s rant perhaps crystalized their latent, simmering desire to move on to something new. And so— as with me and Lisa The Merlot Girl— quite abruptly that was that. End of story. Sales of Merlot instantly cratered... in part, I suspect, because an acceptable substitute, an especially shiny new object, was readily at hand and just emerging into long overdue prominence— Pinot Noir.
The 20th century success of Californian winemakers with Cabernet Sauvignon was counterbalanced by their nearly complete inability to consistently cultivate Pinot Noir of equivalent quality. Compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, the Pinot Noir grape is thinner skinned, ripens earlier, and is more finicky in the vineyard regarding such variables as heat, sunshine, and water. And once harvested, Pinot Noir remains a problem child, requiring more skill and close attention to successfully vinify. It wasn’t until the breakthrough 1990 vintage that quality, varietally-correct Californian Pinot Noir became regularly and widely available... in fact, SIDEWAYS featured Miles’s search from winery to winery in the Santa Ynez Valley for great versions of it. But through it all, good Merlot never stopped being good wine, and the greatest examples from California (and elsewhere) are now at the top of my to-drink list. And while the prevailing anti-Merlot sentiment has motivated Napa Valley wineries to replant much of their precious acreage over to more profitable Cabernet Sauvignon, they’ve kept in place the finest parcels of Merlot vines, which yield some very good wine that generally sells for reasonable prices. I’ve got a cellar-ful of such gems reposing in various states of development.
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And so what ever became of Lisa, The Merlot Girl? Thanks to the age of instant connectivity in which we now live, a few quick keystrokes revealed that A.) a realtor with the exact same name recently ran for a school board seat in Nevada; and B.) Lisa herself has evidently enjoyed an utterly amazing post-college life, first as a freelance journalist in Brazil and then as the CEO of an international foundation dedicated to saving the ocean and its endangered inhabitants from the ravages of capitalism that would destroy them. She even addressed the United Nations about her work a few years ago. By any measure her life has been a smashing success, and I saw no point in even slightly disturbing it by reaching out to her. To paraphrase The Moody Blues, I seriously doubt that she ever thinks about me once upon a time in her wildest dreams… but maybe, just maybe, one day she’ll find herself sipping an especially delicious Napa Merlot and then she’ll pause as a long-buried wisp of a memory suddenly crosses her brow and inspires a wee smile.