Ste. Michelle Wine Estates does something no other Big Wine company does as well — produce top-notch expensive wine that speaks to terroir. Not even E&J Gallo has been able to figure that out. How else to explain that the Wine Spectator picked the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon as its wine of the year in 2009?
That’s why I was so eager to try the Northstar Merlot ($42, sample, 14.7%) during the Pacific Northwest tasting at my El Centro class a couple of weeks ago. The Northstar, owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and made with grapes from Washington state’s Columbia Valley, has a fine reputation and it has been several years since I tasted it. It didn’t disappoint.
Look for dark, rich fruit (very intense but not overly sweet black cherry?), with an undercurrent of baking spices, zesty tannins, and just enough oak to round out the flavors. It is a powerful wine, but in that specific Washington state sort of way. In this, it’s not bloated or flabby, and will age for much longer than you’d think — at least 10 more years.
This is merlot as merlot, not as a cabernet sauvignon knockoff or as something sweet and fleshy to sell in the grocery store. Pair it with roast lamb and keep it in mind for a holiday dinner.
Michael Franz, who judged the flight of $15 and under merlots at the Critics Challenge with me last month, was even less optimistic abut finding quality wine among the nine entries than I was. And regular visitors here know how the Wine Curmudgeon feels about $10 grocery store merlot.
So if Michael was happy, then you know the wine was worth drinking. We gave six medals, including a platinum to the Chilean Kon Toki merlot ($12, sample, 13.2%) — easily one of the best grocery store merlots I’ve had in years. It tasted like merlot and not a chocolate cherry cocktail, with almost unheard of depth and subtlety. Look for a black currant aroma followed by black fruit and very correct tannins that weren’t harsh or off, but complemented the fruit.
This is the kind of wine to buy by the case and keep around the house when you want a glass of red wine that does what red wine is supposed to do, and that doesn’t offend you with too much fruit, bitterness, or oak. Drink it on its own, or with any weeknight red wine dinner, from meat loaf to takeout pizza. Dad probably wouldn’t mind a bottle, either, if he needs something for Father’s Day.
Highly recommended, and a candidate for the $10 Wine Hall of Fame if I can find it for that price. The only catch? The importer lists distributors in 33 states and the District of Columbia, but many of them are small and may not have enough clout to get the wine on store shelves.
Grocery store merlot’s reason for being is that consumers like its fruity taste and that it seems sweet even though it’s dry. That combination, plus the fact that these wines have little in the way of tannins, translates to “smooth,” the ordinary wine drinker’s favorite descriptor.
So what are we to make of the news that grocery store merlot sales tanked in 2014, while those for sweet red wine went in the opposite direction?
Call it a sign that we may be seeing the beginning of a seminal change in the U.S. wine business.
One year’s sales figures do not necessarily make it panic time for merlot. But it is worth noting that sales of sweet red, which is grocery store merlot without the hypocrisy — truly sweet, very fruity, and no pretense of tannins — rose seven percent last year, according to Nielsen, while merlot (from a much larger base) fell six percent. Zinfandel, meanwhile, which mimics merlot’s sweet fruitiness, also suffered last year, with sales falling two percent.
This should give the wine wise guys something to ponder, no?
A couple of caveats: Sweet red is included in the red blend category, so some dry wines are part of that seven percent growth. But most of the analysts I’ve talked to say it’s safe to say that sweet red is behind the increase. Second, though supermarkets account for 42 percent of all the wine sold in the U.S., it doesn’t include two key states, New York and Pennsylvania, where grocery stores aren’t allowed to sell wine.
Third, people have been predicting the end of merlot since “Sideways” in 2004, and merlot has always proved them wrong. The difference this time is that sweet red offers much that pinot noir, the “Sideways” merlot-killer, didn’t. It’s less expensive and it’s much easier to make, since it’s a blend and the grapes in it don’t matter to most wine drinkers. Plus, it’s easier to market and sell; witness the success of E&J Gallo’s Apothic Red and The Wine Group’s Cupcake Red Velvet, which didn’t exist until a couple of years ago and today are brands that everyone else seems to be copying.
My guess? This may well be the beginning of the end of merlot, at least as it’s sold as a varietal in supermarkets. Merlot certainly isn’t going away, and will certainly be used to make sweet red. And, as the wine business continues to evolve into two parts — a huge, Big Wine-dominated mass market, and a smaller, independent retailer-driven market — merlot will remain important to the latter. But at some point in grocery stores, there may be little difference between a wine like Apothic and Charles Smith’s Velvet Devil merlot, which is sweet red in everything but name.
Wine suggestions for the holiday next week, whether you need to buy a gift or aren’t sure about what to serve family and friends, be it for dinner or just because:
? Sileni Pinot Noir 2013 ($16, sample, 12.5%): This red wine from New Zealand has been winning awards around the world this year, and why not? It tastes like pinot noir, with dark cherry fruit, soft but still noticeable tannins, and no hint that the wine wants to be anything other than pinot noir, like lots of alcohol or over the top jamminess. If it doesn’t taste like red Burgundy, and I don’t know why it should, it tastes like what it is — one of the best pinots at this price from anywhere in the world.
? Grgich Hills Merlot 2010 ($42, sample, 14.8%): Another remarkable effort from Grgich, which has been making this sort of wine for so long we tend to take it for granted. This California red somehow combines high alcohol with style, finesse, and even some earthiness. Look for red fruit and an almost licorice finish. It’s big enough for red meat, but well made enough to enjoy without it.
? Chateau d’Archambeau 2012 ($14, purchased, 12.5%): Just when I’ve given up on finding white Bordeaux that tastes like white Bordeaux — minerality and crispness without an overabundance of citrus fruit — along comes this French white, made with two-thirds sauvignon blanc and one-third semillon. Nicely done, and worth the extra couple of bucks compared to something like Chateau Bonnet. Sip on its own, or with holiday turkey.
? Argyle Brut 2010 ($22, purchased, 12.5%): Argyle always seems to show up in holiday wine roundups here, but there’s a reason for that. It’s one of the best sparkling wines, dollar for dollar, made in the U.S. — about half the price of its California counterparts, and with that much better quality than less expensive California bubblies. Lots of apple fruit, but also some creaminess. Drink for toasting or with almost any food that isn’t prime rib.
? Hacienda Araucano Reserva Carmenere 2013 ($10, sample, 14%): Carmenere is a red grape from Chile that is supposed to vaguely resemble an earthy merlot, but mostly tastes like grocery store merlot. This wine, from the same family that owns Bonnet, is carmenere the way it should be, and especially at this price. Look for black fruit and some grip, a welcome change from all of the flabby carmeneres on the market. Beef wine without a doubt.
I wanted to find a wine among the six — five $3 merlots and a $4 red blend — that I could enjoy without reservation and use as another example in my campaign to help wine drinkers understand that price is not the most important thing about wine quality. One was OK, one was undrinkable, and the rest were as brainless as bottled ice tea. With so much quality cheap wine in the world, and sometimes for just a dollar or two more, why do so many people buy these, often making a special trip to do so?
When that analysis comes from someone who has spent 20 years trying to say nice things about cheap wine, it means there’s very little reason to drink them.
I drank a bottle of wine with dinner five nights last week to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? I tasted five merlots and a red blend from leading retailers in the United States. Each wine but one was non-vintage with an American appellation:
• Two-buck Chuck ($2.99, 12.5%), the Trader Joe ?s private label, 2012 vintage and California appellation. Call this the Miller Lite of the tasting; drinkable, with some berry fruit, but thin and not very memorable. It’s probably $3 worth of wine, but it raises the question of why you’d go to Trader Joe’s just to buy it. It’s not that much more of a value than most $6 or $7 grocery store merlots.
• Three Wishes ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. Not offensive, but nothing more than that. Some dark fruit, but thin and the poor quality of the fake oak showed through. Not much in the way of tannins, either, and this wine needed tannins to balance the oak.
• Winking Owl ($2.89, 12.5%) from Aldi but may be available elsewhere. Real wine that mostly tasted the way it was supposed to taste — some berry fruit, fake oak that wasn’t annoying, and proper tannins. This is not top-quality merlot or even $10 merlot, but compared to the rest, it was right bank Bordeaux.
• Yosemite Road ($3.99, 12%), a private label for 7-Eleven. This red blend is one of the best sweet reds I’ve ever tasted, and a terrific value if that’s what you’re looking for. It wasn’t as sweet as a poorly-made white zinfandel, and there was fruit flavor (red berries?) to go with the sweetness. The catch, of course, is that the wine does not say anywhere on the label that it’s sweet, and the alcohol percentage indicates a dry wine. As noted before, this is dishonest and cheats consumers. Producers have an obligation to say if it’s sweet, and putting the words jammy, velvety, and soft on the label is not good enough. In other words, I wasted my money.
• Oak Leaf ($2.97, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Almost a carbon copy of the Three Wishes, but with enough unripe fruit to give the wine an old-fashioned, this is what we used to drink from France in the 1970s feel. However, since this is the 21st century and there is no reason for that kind of wine to exist, it’s not a selling point.
• Southern Point ($2.39, 12.5%), the Walgreen’s private label. I had high hopes for this wine, given how well the drug store chain’s chardonnay did in a tasting several years ago. However, it was one of the worst wines I’ve drunk in a decade, combining poor winemaking and poor quality fruit. It didn’t taste like merlot, but like a cheap, alcoholic wine cooler without any fizz. This is the kind of wine that I have been fighting against for 20 years, but somehow still seems to get made.
Rodney Strong is an example of how sophisticated the California wine business has become. It makes $15 wine that is sold in grocery stores, but is of better quality than most grocery store wine. It has a line of very high-end reds, aimed at the Winestream Media and the people who read it, and which are about as different from its $15 wines as possible. In all of this, Rodney Strong produces more than 800,000 cases a year, making it the 20th biggest winery in the U.S., according to Wine Business Monthly.
That Rodney Strong can do all three of those, and do it mostly well, speaks to California’s dominant role in the wine world. It’s not only the best place to grow grapes, but its business model is the best, too. The idea is to make wine the way Detroit makes cars, with something for grocery store consumers, something for people who want to spend more, and then the very high end stuff.
The trick to this approach is not sloughing off. The quality/value ratio at the bottom has to be as impressive as at the top, or you’ll never get anyone to trade up. The 2011 Rodney Strong merlot ($17, sample, 13.5%) shows how much care goes into the wines. The 2011 California vintage was one of the coolest in decades, but that didn’t stop a lot of producers from making their usual over-extracted, over-alcoholic, over-oaked wines — even though, thanks to the cool vintage, they had to use a fair amount of sleight of hand to do it.
But not the Rodney Strong merlot. It tastes like it came from a cool vintage — fresh and juicy, no cloying red fruit, a touch of oak at the back that makes the wine better and not like caramel candy, and almost spicy in a French sort of way. It’s about as honest a California merlot as I’ve had in years, in which the winemaker makes what the grapes give him or her, and not what the focus groups want (“smooth,” “sweet fruit”).
Highly recommended, and not just for dinner (beef and lamb almost certainly). This is a gift wine, to show someone you want them to drink interesting wine, and that you found a very interesting one for them to drink.
Maybe it’s the Wine Curmudgeon’s always-assume-the-worst nature, but whenever I start to feel better about cheap wine and its place in the world, I run across something like this, from a user on CellarTracker about the Velvet Devil: “A nice wine if you need a half cup of red wine for a recipe and want to enjoy drinking the rest.”
What does this person expect from a $13 wine? First-growth Bordeaux?
In fact, the Velvet Devil ($13, purchased, 13.5%) is another in a long line of well-made and well-priced wines from Washington state winemaker Charles Smith and deserves much more than damning with faint praise. This is a red wine for family dinners, with enough merlot varietal character to be recognizable — lots of blueberry fruit, a little leather, and a few tannins — and all more or less in balance. It’s a red meat wine (Christmas, even(, but not so fussy that it wouldn’t pair with roast chicken.
And, it’s a huge step up from all those grocery store merlots burdened with jelly jars of dark fruit, wines that somehow taste sweet even though they don’t have any residual sugar. If the Cellar Tracker user thought the Velvet Devil was ordinary, I don’t want to know what they would say about the other.