Merlot Fights Back

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A stunning new Merlot helps dispel the varietal's bad rap

by Courtney Cochran

Ever since Sideways' curmudgeony wine geek Miles dismissed Merlot as something he'd rather skip a meal over than swill, Merlot's been suffering under the blight of crashing sales and a seriously downtrodden image.

In fact, the backlash against the varietal has been so bad that Swanson Vineyards - Napa Valley's largest producer of estate-grown Merlot - recently launched a PR campaign called "Merlot Fights Back." Their message? Don't diss the misunderstood varietal just because a fictional down-on-his-luck oenophile with a penchant for Pinot says it's not worth your time.

Taking It to the Web
At their website devoted to the cause,, Swanson trumpets the merits of the misunderstood grape, eventually pointing up the ironic makeup of the wine Miles horded until one of the flick's final scenes, when he enjoyed the coveted bottle with fast food, of all things: the wine was a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux made of - whaddya know - 50% Merlot!

Besides Swanson's pioneering efforts in resurrecting the image of the blighted grape, another Napa vintner is making major strides in upping its appeal. Blackbird Vineyards, acquired in 2003 by financial services guru Michael Polenske, has in its Napa Valley Proprietary Red Wine a new cult favorite that's comprised of 95% Merlot.

Merlot Can Be Cool, Too
Although there's currently no mention whatsoever of Merlot on the front label, the wine's tech sheet isn't shy about broadcasting the fact that the grape makes up the lion's share of the blend. And, when wine retailer Vinfolio stated the fact loud and clear in dubbing the 2003 Blackbird "the best Merlot nobody had ever heard of," the news was inarguably out.

Besides trumpeting the wine's contents, Vinfolio awarded the wine an impressive 98 points.

Scarcity Can Be Good
The first release of the coveted stuff was miniscule - a measly 100 cases. This scarcity, along with a second, also remarkably strong 95 point rating from Vintrust, was enough to grab the attention of cadres of wine writers and buyers, all of whom were clamoring to try the stuff. Problem was, few of them could get their hands on it.

Fortunately for Blackbird, Polenske and - perhaps even for Merlot's broader reputation - a much more robust 1,100 cases of the stuff crafted by winemaking wunderkind Sarah Gott (who cut her teeth at Quintessa and Joseph Phelps) were made from the 2004 vintage. Released in November 2006, the unfined and unfiltered 2004 Proprietary Red retails to the tune of $80 a bottle.

It's In the Taste
Is it worth it? I must admit that after reading Vinfolio's effusive review of the 2003 vintage (sample copy: "Is there a better Merlot produced in America?") I was skeptical, especially given the fact that the wine reviewed was the label's first release. However, having tasted the 2004 twice now, I have to agree that Blackbird is a beautiful wine with lots of potential.

Is it eighty-bucks-a-bottle worth of potential? I think that question can only be answered in four or five years, when the wine clocks in at what I predict will be its ideal drinking time. Here's why: the Proprietary Red's assertive acidity (it's made in the new Oak Knoll district of Napa, where cool temperatures translate to sturdy acidity levels) should soften over time while its already complex aromas and flavors develop still greater depth.

With Merlot's rep on the line, I truly hope Blackbird's Red lives up to its potential.

Tasting Notes
Incredibly smooth with velvety, Pinot-like tannins (take that, Miles!), the 2004 Blackbird Proprietary Red shows layered aromas of brambly red and black berry fruits, cocoa powder, strawberry seed, caramel chew and brownie batter. On the palate it offers up crisp acidity - and the capacity for aging - alongside juicy red fruit including cherry and strawberry followed by more cocoa powder and a touch of cinnamon on the finish.

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