The Crush Jan/Feb 2024 - 4

By Ted Rieger
The 2024 Unified Symposium session, " Merlot
Renaissance: Celebrating Two Decades Beyond
Sideways, " looked at the history of merlot as a
varietal wine and the effects of the popular 2004 film,
" Sideways " on merlot production and sales. Merlot
surged in popularity in California and the U.S. in the
1990s as an approachable red wine, drinkable at a
younger age, in contrast to heavier-bodied, more tannic
cabernet sauvignons. The airing of the French Paradox
segment on 60 Minutes in 1991 helped boost merlot as
consumers sought red wine along with a Mediterranean
Diet. Merlot is a key variety to blend with cabernet
sauvignon and in Meritage blends domestically. Merlot
is often the leading variety in French Bordeaux wines
blended with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc,
malbec and petit verdot.
The consensus among the Unified panelists was that
although Sideways significantly increased demand for
pinot noir, the film did not cause the death of merlot.
Even though its sales growth and popularity flattened
following Sideways character Miles' infamous line, " I
am not drinking any f#*k!%g merlot, " merlot survived
just fine over the long run. Some believe the movie
helped weed-out lower quality merlot from the market,
and forced producers to plant it in better locations.
The panelists speculate merlot could be poised for
new growth as a red wine with a favorable taste profile
and price point to appeal to today's consumers. Four
winemakers with merlot as a prominent varietal in their
brand's lineup talked about vineyard management,
winemaking, and led tastings of recent releases.
Markham Merlot
Merlot has been Markham Vineyards flagship wine since
1990 and is 45 percent of total production. Winemaker
Kimberlee Nicholls joined Markham in 1993. She
produces up to 12 different merlots or merlot blends
each year sourced from different Napa Valley AVAs,
including Markham estate vineyards in Yountville, Oak
Knoll and Calistoga. Fruit from each site has particular
characteristics that Nicholls uses for blending. She
requires every merlot to have a velvety, lush body and
character. Markham merlots range from $32 to $85/
bottle. Yountville Ranch Estate Vineyard is 100 acres
planted with five Bordeaux varieties and a favorite source
of merlot for Nicholls, from a block of ENTAV-INRA
clone 181 on a north facing slope. Yields are 3.5 to 4
tons/acre. Nicholls said, " We have sustainably farmed
our estate vineyard more than 10 years, and our focus
is on improving fruit quality to make better wines every
year. " She observed: " Growing and making merlot can
Page 4 | January/February 2024
be difficult. The grape clusters have big shoulders, and it
can be hard to get sunlight into the cluster. I think merlot
winemakers work way harder than cabernet winemakers. "
Regarding Sideways, Nicholls said, " I loved Sideways. It
didn't have any effect on our sales at the winery. We've
been making merlot a long time, and our customers
know what to expect. "
Materra Merlot
Chelsea Barrett has been winemaker at Materra Wines/
Cunat Family Vineyards since 2019, in Napa Valley's
Oak Knoll AVA. She brought the Materra 2021 Right
Bank Merlot for tasting, sourced from blocks on the
" right bank " of the Napa River. The original 50-acre
vineyard was replanted to improve row direction and
sun exposure and for high-end production. There are 20
acres of merlot in nine blocks with ENTAV-INRA merlot
clones 181 and 348, and some FPS 09. Barrett said, " Site
is a more important factor for me than clone. " Yields are
4.5-5 tons/acre. The Oak Knoll vineyard has clay loam
soil with good moisture levels, and good exposure.
" Merlot does not like heat and growing extremes, "
Barrett said. The vineyards are certified sustainable under
Napa Green and Fish Friendly Farming, and are moving
toward organic certification. She sometimes makes a
100 percent merlot, but more commonly adds cabernet
franc, her preferred blender, to round-out the wine and
enhance finish and complexity. The 2021 Right Bank is
91 percent merlot with some cab franc and cabernet
sauvignon. It retails for $60/bottle, and 1,000 cases were
Andrew Will (WA) Merlot
Washington winemaker Will Camarda said Andrew Will
Winery has produced merlot and Bordeaux blends since
1989 from the Yakima Valley AVA where it now has its
estate Two Blondes Vineyard first planted in 2000. He
said the site is dry, arid, with plenty of growing degree
days and a high diurnal temperature shift. It is planted
with 6 acres of merlot producing low yields of 2-3 tons/
acre, with ENTAV-INRA clones 181 and 348, and one
block of California merlot clone FPS 03. " The French
clones provide a darker fruit, (plum, cherry) complexity
and character, " Camarda said. The wines are produced
with indigenous yeasts, unfiltered and unfined. " There
is not a lot of manipulation we have to do with these
wines, " he said.
Chateau Grand Village (Bordeaux, France)
French winemaker Omri Ram of Chateau Lafleur, that
produces Grand Cru Bordeaux wines from the Pomerol
appellation, brought the winery's affordable Chateau

The Crush Jan/Feb 2024

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The Crush Jan/Feb 2024

The Crush Jan/Feb 2024 - 1
The Crush Jan/Feb 2024 - 2
The Crush Jan/Feb 2024 - 3
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