By Randy Kemner, Proprietor
To paraphrase a line about a famous movie ape,
“It wasn’t the Merlot, ‘twas mediocrity killed the beast.”
How did Merlot get to be such a pariah after riding such a wave of popularity? And why did a historically great varietal like Chardonnay suddenly have critics decrying it, exclaiming Anything But Chardonnay! What killed Australian Shiraz? How did New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc get so iffy so quickly? What happened to Veuve Clicquot? The list goes on: Pouily-Fuissé, Vouvray and German Riesling all took dives after they became popular.
What’s next? Moscato is probably going down. Malbec, too. Pinot Noir, possibly. Napa Cabernet, well, it’s too soon to tell if they’ll rebound, but if they don’t get their heads out of their alcoholic bungs, definitely.
The cause for the decline of such classic wines isn’t phylloxera nor the glassy-winged sharpshooter. The enemy to great wine is mediocrity. And it feeds on success like knock-off Rolexes and Gucci bags in Tijuana.
How does that happen?
Great wine is about great dirt first. A wine gets an elevated reputation because the special soil and the variety and the exposition to the sun and winemaking skill all work together to make something distinctive and grand. When it happens, there is critical acclaim followed by increased demand. Prices rise and then there is a great deal of temptation to increase supply to meet that demand.
But wine is different than merely putting on extra shifts at the factory to make more of it. Planting more grapes in another vineyard results in different wine due to all the factors I mentioned. Blending them with the original produces a different result. Caymus’ Estate Bottled Cabernet from Rutherford became simply Napa Cabernet, a different wine with a much different taste.
What if there is a shy crop? An artisan makes less wine and tells his customers he has to cut back on their allocations. An industrial winemaker buys grapes from his neighbors to meet the increased demand. The risk is obvious; his neighbors don’t have the same special dirt.
The most cynical result of wine expansion is when the artisan sells his winery to a liquor company for a zillion dollars and the liquor company boosts production by making low priced tiers of similar varietals using the winery’s prestige as a hook. Big money corrupts the brand and the varietal, and eventually the reputation of both, as in the case of Inglenook, once the proud producer of California’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon and now a label found on 3 liter boxes.
Consider Chardonnay as another example. Chassagne Montrachet, Chablis, Chateau Montelena, Talley Vineyards all produce great Chardonnays. Compare those with what you usually find in the supermarket. There is a heck of a lot more mediocre Chardonnay on American’s store shelves and wine lists than there are Chassagne, Chablis and Talley.
The point I’m getting at is this; next time you are tempted to dismiss an entire wine genre, think of the pioneers, think of the artisans. They’ve always done good work. It's unfair to them and it's unfair to you to dismiss them because of a prejudice you hold based on wineries making focus-group wine.
So is a bad reputation the fault of Merlot or is it the fault of mediocre Merlot? Now the culling out begins.