After being one of the most popular kids at the party in the 90’s, Napa Valley Merlot took a hit to its reputation in the 2000’s. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the reason as the quality did not suffer. If anything it got better.
The 2004 movie Sideways certainly did not help. In perhaps its most famous scene, the main character Miles, who adores Pinot Noir and seemingly loathes Merlot declares before a double date evening with his best friend Jack, “I’m not drinking any f—ing Merlot.” After that Pinot Noir sales went up and Merlot went down in the US and that remained the trend for many years. Yet in reality Merlot was already stumbling. I know because I spent many a Saturday or Sunday in Napa during this time and could see with my own eyes that the interest in Merlot among the wine tasting crowd was waning.
Some will point to the fact that California Merlots used to be too one dimensional, intended for blending or for making a very quaffable wine that appealed to a wide range of people albeit in a simplistic if not monolithic fashion. My personal theory is that Merlot took a back seat to Cabernet from a perception standpoint during the late 90’s and early 2000’s—a unique period in US history when a lot of money was being made (and later lost) and people based their opinions more on what they read or heard versus what they actually experienced or tasted. From expensive technology stocks to expensive wine, perception played a big role during these hifalutin times. Commanding higher prices and receiving higher scores from the critics (namely Robert Parker and Wine Spectator), Cabernet was king in California.
This superficial period also happened to conveniently coincide with some stellar Cabernet vintages coming out of Napa and Sonoma, thanks in part to favorable weather and a mini winemaking renaissance of sorts which further helped solidify Napa Valley on the worldwide stage—along with its most high profile varietal—Cabernet. Combine these factors with the advent of the Internet—which allowed wine geeks like me to keep tabs on exactly which wines were getting the top scores—and it’s no surprise that Napa Cabernet, the most expensive and highest scoring in California, took off in popularity.
But Napa Valley Merlot—which has been thriving in the valley for as long as Cabernet—never faltered in quality during this time. In fact, while not a lot of people were paying attention it just better. And people are starting to take notice. At least I am.
I recently tried a Merlot from Sullivan Winery in Rutherford (Napa) and it blew me away. I can easily say it is one of the best wines I have had from Napa, of any varietal. It’s important to also point out that I tried this wine without knowing the price. No matter how unbiased a wine writer or critic attempts to be, it is inherently impossible not to have the knowledge of price effect our thinking or judging. In this case I was not surprised to find out after I had relished in a glass for twenty minutes that it commanded a hefty price. It’s justified in my humble opinion.
2018 J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Merlot ($250)
Consisting of 80% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Petit Verdot, the 2018 J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Merlot is actually more of a “right bank” Bordeaux style than a straight up merlot. And I love that. Aromatically, this wine has distinguished earthy qualities rooted in the typical notes synonymous with “Rutherford Dust” leading with notes of graphite, tobacco leaf and cocoa, along with an unforgettable fruitful essence that emerges from the glass. On the palate, the seriousness of the wine becomes apparent. Broad, structured and coating, the wine maintains an old-world finesse, with freshness and bright acidity. Layered, nuanced and complex, flavors of raspberries, rhubarb, crushed herbs and wet stone minerality meld together seamlessly, leaving a prolonged and satisfying finish. The polished, yet complex tannin structure gives the wine an invitation to cellar.