March 9, 2006

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What once was old is new again
Sideways notwithstanding, it is time to drink merlot
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

If you’ve ever worked in a big corporation you’ve met someone like Tina (not her real name, in fact I’m not even 100 percent sure she’s a woman).

She knew all the right people. She networked constantly and she even had a “Five-Year Personal Development Plan.” Like a beautiful swan she moved effortlessly through the corporate circles. And, like a swan, she was tough, ruthless and, just below the surface, paddling like crazy. I suspect her greatest power was that she had the ear and confidence of the all-powerful regional manager. Their informal talks could make or break careers. Then one day the regional manager got a new job. It could have been a promotion or a demotion, but it spelled the end of Tina’s influence. Of course, people were secretly happy but Tina was a doer — after all, she had a five-year plan. When everyone had just about written her off, she received a big promotion and she was back on top. She did it herself, through corporate cunning, a killer Rolodex and hard work. The reason I’m telling you this is that Tina’s a lot like my new favorite grape varietal. It is one you’re intimately familiar with, one you’ve enjoyed marginally for years. What is it? We’ll get to that right after the backstory, because I’m contract-bound to submit 600 words or more.

In 1921, a soldier survived a machine gun attack in Crimea. He was the son of an Imperial Court official fighting with White Russian forces against the Communists. His name was Andre Tchelistcheff (Chell-li-Cheff). He recovered and returned to Moscow and he and his family soon left Russia for Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and France — countries with ancient wine industries and traditions. In 1938 Andre left Bordeaux for Napa to work for George de Latour, owner of Beaulieu Vineyards. He was nicknamed “the maestro” and he brought Californian wine to a new level.

Some people claim this was the beginning of the California wine industry but really the Californian wine industry was thriving in the 1870s when the vines planted during the Gold Rush matured. They were a mix of native and imported vines, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s that European imports outpaced the indigenous vine. Then Prohibition pretty much killed the wine industry. Wineries could make a limited amount of wine, but not sell it, so they cellared it. They made grape juice and grape concentrate that people would buy via mail order and make their own wine. The great estates went into decline.

When Tchelistcheff got to California he concentrated on cabernet sauvignon, the noble manly Bordeaux grape. He didn’t neglect merlot, he just viewed it as the feminine counterbalance to cabernet. After all he was European and Europe was a man’s society.

Prohibition and the Depression moved wine into the background of the American drinking culture. In the 1950s, the cocktail was king and wine was relegated to the realm of beatniks, hipsters, intellectuals and aging eastern Blue Bloods. It was the time of the working man, and wine was confusing and effete.

But great wines were produced. Tchelistcheff said the greatest vintages he ever produced were the 1946 and 1947 pinot noir at Beaulieu 1. This was well before the Days of Wine and Marketing when the basso profundo voice of Orson Welles proclaimed, “We sell no wine before its time.”

As California’s wine industry recovered from its three-decade decline, they focused on cabernet, and the great cabernets of France almost always included a little bit of merlot.

Some daring wine makers took a different track and started to use merlot as the main grape, like they do in Pomerol and St-Emilion. And in the early 1990s merlot became our favorite red. Soon merlot was growing everywhere! It wasn’t easy to grow, but the demand outpaced the tonnage and there was a lot of money to be made. But merlot sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

It was a gateway wine, a friendly, approachable red that lured the chardonnay and beer drinkers. And once that gate was open, the newly red-wine friendly moved on to more exotic grapes. Shiraz came pouring in, zinfandel had a resurgence and fine meritage and Bordeaux blends that once confused and scared people now graced middleclass tables. Suddenly, like our friend Tina, merlot was eclipsed.

And now, just like Tina, merlot’s back, this time on its own merits. Ten years ago vineyard owners were ripping out everything for merlot space. That’s leveled off and the merlot that’s being produced is good, really good. Once the demand for merlot leveled off the vintners could treat it like their other grapes and, with a little hard work and time out of the spotlight, it’s achieved the greatness it inherently possessed. Today, I declare,

“Merlot is the new merlot.”

Here are some stunning merlots that taste of French craftsmanship and Californian soil.

2003 R. Pepi, $10.99 — You’ll think you’re back in the Clinton years with this slightly tannic, part fruit vino from an Oakville vineyard founded by Robert Pepi, a Napa legend.

2002 Sebastiani Alexander Valley, $21.99 — slightly tannic with powerful dense brandied plum fruit and a lingering sensual finish.

2001 Pine Ridge Crimson Creek Merlot, $21.99 — Still a little early to wake this one up, but it was crisp and dry like a great Pomerol and had clove, tobacco, chocolate and dried raisin flavors

2002 Hahn Monterey Merlot, $12.99 — A bit of shyness in this one but aeration and food coaxed it onto the dance floor. Ripe fig bouquet with a silky texture.

2002 Pavilion Merlot, $11.99 — Loved the 2001 cabernet, but was disappointed by the 2002. This merlot was rich and fruity with a touch of sweetness that was refreshingly different from the usual tannins.

2002 Clos du Val, $21.99 — The only wine Squiggy, our youngest wine rookie ever, pronounced “delicious!” Subtle with fruit that slowly moves across your tongue. No cottony tannins, just a slight dryness that separates the flavor layers. Plum, grape, chocolate hints and a tiny touch of spice, like a candied crabapple. Our first great wine of the year!

Finally, expect to spend $20 to $25 a bottle on great-quality merlot. There are good everyday merlots available (Callaway Coastal $7.99) but for something completely different go for the higher end. You won’t be disappointed.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at tprotzman@sbcglobal.net.


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