Closet Merlot Drinkers, Unite!

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There's no reason to hide our love of top-notch Merlot.

The current attitude among wine fans about Merlot - don't get caught dead with it - is a fashion trend, not a wine evaluation. Like many bashin'-fashions, it arose in response to over-exposure. Starbucks was cool once, before it was on every block downtown. Even Jennifer Lopez went from scorching hot to the, ahem, butt of jokes when she put out too many movies, videos, and albums too quickly. Same with Merlot. So it's useful to remember when Merlot was first emerging into the limelight.

That was back in the 1980s, when Dan Duckhorn, Sandra MacIver and others like them were experimenting with moving Merlot out of Cabernet Sauvignon's shadow. The French had been using Merlot for generations as an invisible blending component that made Cabernet Sauvignon into a complete wine, meaning a wine that offers everything from aromas through flavors to the finish at the same high level. Such blending was necessary more often than not in overcast France, and at first California winemakers followed suit.

But then winemakers in sunny California and equally sunny eastern Washington discovered that Merlot could make a complete wine on its own. Furthermore, when it was grown alongside Cabernet in choice vineyard spots, it could offer similar complexity and ageworthiness as well.

Then Fetzer decided in 1994 to sell half a million cases of Merlot annually by the year 1999. It was an audacious, visionary goal, but under winemaker Dennis Martin, Fetzer reached it a year early and kept flying right past it. Other big wineries chased them hot and hard. These mega-producers didn't worry too much about where they planted their new Merlot vines, or where they bought the grapes they couldn't grow themselves. The aim was to own a piece of a huge national market. The result, of course, was a steady diminishing of quality.

Nevertheless, a huge market still opened up. The reason - don't be astonished - is that people liked Merlot. This was especially true if they were new to wine. They liked Merlot's softness, its natural sweetness, its ability to meld into most meals without challenging the food. Most of all they liked Merlot's ability to go from supermarket shelf to cocktail hour or the dinner table within hours, if not minutes.

But only a tiny, tiny fraction of that huge national Merlot was drinking the Merlot from Duckhorn, Etude, L'Ecole No. 41, Leonetti, Northstar, Pahlmeyer, Paloma, Pride, Provenance, Selene, Shafer and Turnbull, or the high-end bottlings from Sterling and other mass-market Merlot producers. These are serious wines, complete wines, the kind collectors stash away for later.

And that's how to became a closet Merlot drinker. Literally put good Merlots on the floor of a closet, where it's cool and dark and quiet. Then when you want a wine that you know will impress, dig into the closet and pull out a marvelous Merlot.

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