Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wine Study- "Merlot"

"Cabernet without the pain."
 –Jancis Robinson.

We continue a series of sessions with the Francesca's at Sunset and Brannon's Cafe teams we are calling "Wine Study."  Our guide is Jancis Robinson's Wine Course DVD, Mrs. Robinson poured depth and detail into this television series that aired in the United Kingdom in 1995; it withstands the test of time!  If you have not purchased this DVD series yet; do so now!

Episode 8- Merlot is amazing; like the previous episodes where we have seen personalities of the winemakers influencing the wines and/or the terrior of different regions in comparison.  ONLY  in this episode we see the in stark contrast the way the fashion of wine drinking has changed; it is not as popular today to drink Merlot as it was in the mid-1990's! Watch...

Jancis starts us out in the world’s most glamorous wine region; Napa Valley; making the connection here that owning vines is a lifestyle statement for those with the millions of dollars to create this wonderland AND THE BILLIONS maintain it.  Here in the 1990's Merlot was all the craze
“It is immediate gratification
 it is the one wine that sells it self;
for the moment at least.” 
-Jancis Robinson    
This video tour is great at highlighting the diversity of California and the outdoor lifestyles that inspire comparisons to paradise.  A very seductive and emotive image that draws many of us to at least visit the area and dream about it.  Those with the money to buy into paradise like Financier turned winemaker; Dan Duckhorn, filmmaker and winemaker; Francis Ford Coppola, businessman and art collector; Donald Hess, Realtor come cult winery owner; Jean Phillips, all have bought into the dream and prospered during the boom years and then have earned their place in paradise by doing what ever it takes to get through the hard times.

And the hard times do come, even to paradise, in the 1980s phylloxera struck again; this time killing vines planted on the AXR-1 rootstock which U.C. Davis recommended as immune to the devastating pest.  Real estate prices plummeted, winery income was slashed, owners were forced to make very difficult business decisions from selling off real estate and assets to going out of business entirely.  Only the strongest and most determined wineries survive.

Embodying this hard nosed determination is the farmer's farmer; Dick Steltzner, shown here bitterly pulling vines in the vineyard and lamenting U.C. Davis' recommendation for rootstock AXR-1. It turned out it was NOT immune to phylloxera for the long haul.  While 80-90% of California vineyards were planted with the roots and made tremendous wine for years only to fall victim by the 1980’s.

The French did not buy into the AXR-1 rootstock and avoided this wave of phylloxera.  Here the Mecca for Merlot is St. Emilion, east of the city of Bordeaux, it is a Disneyland version of France with ninety-four wine shops and not a single butcher.  Walking down the streets here tourist are called by hawkers to storefronts where they are implored to buy wines made from Merlot. 

This is the birthplace of the world's most famous and sought after Oenologist; Michelle Rolland.  Interviewed here Jancis get's the full display of his ego when he shares his ambition to consult with grape growers on the moon!  He does have huge success to support this grand ambition and is the most revered of only seven or eight people in the world who can do this kind of consulting.  The intervening years since this interview have proven his remarkable abilities.  
“I try to find the maximum.”
- Michel Rolland

While Michel Rolland typifys our ideal of the French wine expert it is worth noting The average Frenchman is ignorant about wine.  In contrast more and more Americans are quickly learning about wine.  Although their knowledge is often tainted by our melodramatic culture; the crime and punishment of PROHIBITION from 1918-1933 (which stunted the growth of our wine industry), the over protective Sulfite Warning on every bottle (Even though sulfites are naturrally occurring in all the produce we eat!), the Government Warning Label for health and safety which makes wine sound almost poisonous, and our laws that allow only adults over 21 years of age to purchase.  While we are embracing and enjoying wine in our daily lives we still hold on to a neurotic fear and loathing of this natural, delicious and beneficial beverage.

Jancis does highlight the civilizing role wine fulfills at the dinner table and shows us how many are working to promote this in our culture.  Featured are the Women for Wine Sense as they show young people the seasonal cycle in the vineyard.  It will take decades of work by people like these women to overcome this deeply seeded feelings held by many in North America.

Interestingly side by side in the video is Paul Dolan of Fetzer Vineyards, talking about organic wine making, with a holier than thou approach.  Mr. Dolan and Fetzer Vineyards were definitely early adopters of organic techniques and using them as marketing tools; in 1995 they had 10% of their grape production organic AND very boldly sought to have complete organic grape production for ALL OF CALIFORNIA by the year 2000!  Well, this prediction did not hold up with time, however they did make a difference and have advanced organic grape growing to the point where every winery is striving to show their customers just how very holistic they are.  Sustainability is the key concept every winery wants to be associated with in the mind of their consumer.  The question is; does every consumer want their winery to be sustainable?  I am confident that we do, only with a less sanctimonious tone about it. 

Without a doubt it takes a bit more effort to do things the right way and with winemaking's quality of authorship it brings an added pride that makes the owners want to boast about it at every level.  It is a romantic idea that one person could do it all from start to finish.  Seduces us all to dream about our own vineyard…with this one nagging question, standing in the way...

How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?
and the crushing answer...Start with a large one.

Another episode that is amazing television!  Cheers to Mrs. Robinson for calling out Merlot as a fad; this predates the Sideways movie by almost a decade however she describes the varietal with "
the one wine that sells it self; for the moment at least."  For shadowing the crash of the market for Merlot in 2004 after the Sideways.  It is stunning to consider how powerful fashion is in the wine business, while everyone is saying Merlot in this video today they are all making a fortune selling Cabernet Sauvignon and singing it's praises. This was possibly the best thing to happen to the Merlot; it caused labels that were mediocre wine to go away and left only the very best Merlot made available today.  Almost a value category today the wine is due for a comeback with the American wine drinker.  And, it will come back, it is the red wine equivalent to Chardonnay; there really is nothing to object to in the wine.  That is the one thing the casual wine drinker wants more than anything.  For you and me; we want something more challenging and rewarding. 

If you will read this handout which has a few notes from the video and a lot of information and links to more on the web related to the topics Jancis covers, hopefully it adds to the subjects and fills you in on where the personalities from the video are today.  It is my sincere hope that you are finding this blog informative and instructional.  To check your learning experience and highlight the most important information here is the quiz.  And the quiz with answers.  And please reply to this blog; is Merlot  your  favorite wine?

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