I’d like to begin today’s newsletter with some dialogue from Season 7, Episode 11 of Seinfeld, entitled The Rye.
SUSAN: How do you like the Merlot?
ESTELLE: Merlot? I never heard of it. Did they just invent it?
MRS. ROSS: Oh, mother.
GEORGE: She’s, uh, she’s heard of Merlot.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Merlot. And if not from Seinfeld, then perhaps from this infamous Sideways clip (for the unfamiliar, language warning).
From here the question that usual follows is:
“Did Sideways really upend Merlot sales?
The answer: You bet.
The only mention of Merlot in the entire movie kerplunked sales of the variety in the United States, although that’s not the entire story.
For more color on the impact of Sideways, see:
- ‘The Sideways Effect’: How A Wine-Obsessed Film Reshaped The Industry – NPR
- Data Dive: Sideways and Its Impact on Merlot – Somm.tv
- The State of Merlot, 15 Years After ‘Sideways’ – BeverageDynamics
So what’s the deal with all the Merlot talk?
I think it’s important to note that the typical American wine consumer leads wine conversations with grape variety.
No doubt, you’ve heard the grape talk before:
- “I only drink Cabernet.”
- “I love Chardonnay.”
- “I don’t like Pinot Noir.”
Americans love to pledge allegiance to our favorite grapes and chastise what we believe our lessor varieties. We judge the book by what’s on the cover. In the case of wine, it’s the variety written on the label.
But for America, that’s only 75% true.
And what happens when it doesn’t say Merlot?
Behold, the power of blending.
The truth about American wine labels is that in order to say Cabernet Sauvignon, it only has to be 75% Cabernet Sauvignon. The rest could be Merlot.
As for a red blend? It gets a little more gray.
Red wine blends have two options for labeling:
Option 1. They may list the varietals in the blend on the wine’s front (brand) label. They list the varietals along with their percentage in descending order and the percentages must total to 100%.
Option 2. A winery can list “red wine blend” (or white wine or rose wine) on their front (brand) label and then elaborate on that further by listing the varietals in the wine’s blend in the back label text. If a winery chooses this option they must list in descending order any varietals in the blend that account for 5% or more. There is no requirement to list their percentages with this option. This option fits if your wine blend has several varietals in it and they won’t all fit on your front label along with their percentages but you’d like to be able to share all those details with your wine drinking public.
In short, the order of grapes listed on American bottles can give you an idea to the wine’s makeup.
So, you’re telling me I’ve been drinking Merlot this whole time?
No, not exactly. It’s not like there’s a secret Merlot society slipping grapes in every bottle. Although, the wine world is no stranger to wine fraud.
The key takeaways are:
- Wine labels can be misleading. The words on the bottle can disorient you as much as the design.
- Don’t be a wine snob or take advice from a fictional one.
So, let’s question the anecdotes, the advice, the information we assume to know about a bottle of wine. And let’s prepare for when they’re out of Merlot.
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