Ever since that November evening in 1991, when CBS broadcast the now-famous 60 Minutes segment entitled, “The French Paradox,” which proclaimed that moderate red wine consumption was good for the heart, U.S. red wine sales have grown tremendously.In particular, merlot sales have skyrocketed.
From a small base of fewer than 1 million cases sold in 1991, merlot sales in the U.S. have grown to 8 million cases in 1997, and demand for the varietal seems to have no end in sight. And yet as a restaurateur, you should be concerned; this trend is not necessarily a sign of good things ahead.
Wine professionals who base their red sales primarily on merlot may miss opportunities that appear to be just around the corner. To be sure, merlot sales often pay the bills these days, so I’m not suggesting you ignore the grape entirely, but more diligence in wine buying is essential.
First the background: Americans saw the 60 Minutes broadcast as a signal that regular moderate wine consumption was a way to help prevent the risk of heart disease, and it initially prompted them to try cabernet sauvignon. When that wine proved a bit too astringent, they heard that merlot was a softer way to get their red wine in a more palatable form. That started the craze.
It was fine for a short-term solution. But as far as I’m concerned, merlot is not necessarily your friend. For one thing, merlot is a grape that simply lacks the depth of flavor that cabernet has in abundance. You may think I’m daft. You may believe that merlot is softer and has more fruit than cabernet sauvignon. Perhaps when it is made well, from premium grapes and when it is treated with care, the wine carries more fruit than cabernet sauvignon… on release.
But merlot is an odd grape, prone to giving all sorts of green herb and tea aromas in all but the best climates. And it ages oddly, yielding up more of these same herbal notes with just a year or two of bottle aging.
This is not what Americans have come to like in their wines. True, the real red wine lovers of this world, those who willingly part with $60 or more for bottles of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, understand the mature character in a properly aged red wine. But how many of your $15 to $30 merlot drinkers are prepared for a mature red wine when the primary grape is merlot?
Not many. Which is why the merlot phenomenon is like a ticking time bomb. It’s only a matter of time before today’s merlot addicts discover two factors: first, it’s not easy to drink some of these wines young because of the tannins that make them astringent (tannins we had heard were absent from merlot). And second, aging the wines for as little as a year can often change the fruity notes in the aroma to notes of herbs, not a very appealing thought to those who simply wanted a cherry-smelling wine.
There is another, more practical dynamic to consider also: there is such an abundance of merlot on the market now that an increasing portion of these wines are becoming redundant. True, many excellent merlots exist, but there are also a lot of good-to-mediocre merlots that sell for reasonable prices and are more or less the same. Ask yourself this question; how many different merlot labels do you have on your wine list, and how many of them are so similar that if a guest asked about the differences between them, you would have a hard time answering?
There are probably more merlots that fit into this category than you would like to admit. In many restarants, there is ample space to offer a wide range of merlots of varying depth, character and origin at different price points. I would never suggest depleting your merlot inventory if I didn’t suspect that in many instances there are simply too many of the same wines competing with each other. These wines take up valuable space that could be devoted to other wines, which feature more versatility and, in some cases, higher margins.
So I suggest a sound strategy for the next few years: Buy a range of the most reliable merlots you can and stock them for those regular guests who must have merlot with their meals. But also look at some of the following alternatives to fill list space that would otherwise be filled by an overabundance of merlots unlikely to earn a major profit. Then suggest the alternatives to your merlot consumers, noting especially the wines’ ability to make food taste better, a trait that seems absent from the merlot lovers’ vocabulary.
Beaujolais: the lighter-weight French wine with excellent fruit and style. Several remarkable beaujolais wines are inexpensive and can compete in the value game with some of the good, value-priced merlots these days.
Moderately priced cabernet sauvignon: don’t overlook this grape, which makes a finer red wine than most merlots. In the lower-end price range, a side-by-side comparison of cabernet sauvignon and merlot will reveal the former’s value.
California sangiovese and chianti: with their naturally high acidity and affinity for pasta, these wines ought to be explored by all who want wine with food, not as an aperitif.
Syrah: a plummy sort of wine that typically carries less acidity and works nicely with hamburgers and chicken. Also, when called shiraz and imported from Australia, the wine can be appealingly ripe and fleshy, without the harsh tannins associated with some red wines.