Merlot Rising - Press Democrat

03/28/12

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By VIRGINIE BOONE
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.

Jeff Bundschu at Gundlach Bundschu Winery has always been entertaining, but his star turn as “merlot” in the winery’s three-minute video “A Brief History of Merlot” is classic.

There he is, the little Bordeaux-born brother of cabernet sauvignon, living in the shadows as cab’s smooth wingman, second in line and better off than his siblings cabernet franc (“the artist,” always misunderstood), petit verdot (“the builder”) and malbec (the “little brother” who escapes to South America to find himself).

In Gundlach Bundschu’s retelling, merlot first makes his move to catch up to cabernet sauvignon in the 1970s, finding stardom in the 1980s, finally eclipsing cabernet sauvignon in the 1990s, but growing and growing “all over the map,” getting “soft,” “flabby” and becoming “a joke,” before the final blow from the movie “Sideways” is delivered and merlot’s cousin pinot noir (“who lived in a van by the river”) becomes the new star.

But a Rocky-like redemption is now in play, the point being that despite fickle consumer trends and the impact of a broadly seen movie, merlot’s power, balance and concentration remain its strengths, that great merlots continue to be made.

“It’s a category that deserves deeper attention,” Bundschu said. “A lot of the best wines people continue to drink have a whole lot of merlot in them.”

After years of maligned abuse, is the grape finding its mojo again?

“It seems now we’re in an uptick,” Bundschu noted. “It used to be a renegade sommelier three years ago who would stick up for merlot, but 24 months ago we started to see broader interest from restaurants across the country buying into merlot.”

Bundschu explains that merlot is a variety his family winery has always made, one that helped bring a level of fame and fortune to Gundlach Bundschu in the 1980s But given the sour mood around merlot over recent years, “there were a lot of conversations around the dinner table about whether we should remain as committed to it,” he said.

They decided they would, in part because of Jeff’s dad Jim Bundschu’s understanding of the variety’s innate ability to do well on their property and a mature belief that quality ultimately transcends fashion.

“We took the long view that these wines are very good no matter what you put on the label,” he said. “It’s what our family remains all about, the long view.”

It wasn’t always easy when customer after customer would come into the tasting room pre-disposed against merlot.

“But once you’d get a glass in front of them, eyes opened up a bit,” Bundschu said. “It gave me confidence that ultimately quality will reign. At the same time I was glad I wasn’t trying to sell millions of cases of it.”

Many wineries have opted to lessen their risks by playing around with new red blends, many of them merlot-based, instead of straight merlot. With red blends winemakers in many cases are aiming to make lighter, more food-friendly wines.

Among these are David Georges, who makes flipflop Wines, a new line of affordable California wines including “Headshrinker Sweet Red” as well as a merlot, both selling for under $10.

“Merlot over the last several years has found its balance again,” Georges said. “It just took some time from merlot’s fall from superstardom to show what it is capable of. It’s a sustainable variety unto itself for those who love good tannins and lots of fruit, as well as one of the finest blender varieties available to fill out any unbalances cabernet, zinfandel, syrah, etc. may have.”

Lambert Bridge Winery winemaker Jennifer Higgins agrees.

“I’m so happy to make merlot,” she said. “It’s such a fun grape to work with.”

Based in Healdsburg, Lambert Bridge makes a Sonoma County merlot as well as Crane Creek Cuvee, a merlot-based blend that merlot-bashers often unsuspectingly try and realize they like.

“People will come in and say they don’t drink merlot, they don’t like it but they’ll taste our Crane Creek and they’re surprised,” Higgins added. “If there’s one wine that hooks people that’s it. Crane Creek is all grace and balance.”

Higgins says if she had only one wine to drink for a year she would choose merlot, because of its versatility with food.

“You can pair it with everything,” she said. “You have these merlots that are completely fruit driven, like our Sonoma County. It’s just juicy, and you can find powerful merlots. It’s got something for everybody and is so good with food because the tannins are soft, the acids are a little brighter and the alcohol levels seem to be in check.”

At Lambert Bridge, Higgins farms about 12 acres of merlot. She says where and how it’s farmed are crucial, that it needs cooler pockets and heavier soils to sustain the bright fruit notes people love.

“Farming is really important,” she said. “Merlot can be very subtle, very aromatic and pretty, and smell like rose petals. There are fewer things to mask bad farming. It takes a lot of finesse to make a good merlot.”

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com.

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