July Fourth picnic? Merlot is the way to go

Posted: July 03, 2014

 BUZZ: Hey Marnie, what kind of red should I get for our July Fourth block party? Someone said malbec is good with burgers. What do you think?

Marnie: Don't get me wrong, Buzz - I love malbec, and Argentine wines are getting lots of love as the World Cup has all eyes on South America. Call me old-fashioned, but I think there's no better occasion than Independence Day for celebrating with American wine. Style-wise, merlot is perfect for barbecues, beaches and backyards.

Buzz: Merlot? For real? I thought it was supposed to be swill?

Marnie: Far from it. Merlot is undeniably one of the finest wine varieties of all time. It may have been "unfashionable" to drink merlot in the last 10 years or so, but only because it had been the height of fashion in the 1990s.

Buzz: How did it get to be all the rage in the first place?

Marnie: Likely because merlots deliver so much of what people love in a red wine. They're dark and rich without being too harsh or heavy, especially when they come from warm regions like California. "New World" merlots are packed with fruity berry-cherry flavors without the earthy funk of the European classics or the aggressive, spicy aromatics associated with many other red grapes.

Buzz: So why'd people stop drinking American merlot then? Was it because of the movie "Sideways"?

Marnie: It's a typical boom and bust story, really. When merlot first caught on, there wasn't enough planted out west to meet demand. Growers in California and Washington rushed to plant more and more to keep up as the grape's sales grew and grew.

It got to the point where the word "merlot" on a label could increase its value significantly. Many merlot vines were planted in less than ideal locations and growers were tempted to overcrop, diluting the wine's quality.

Eventually, wine drinkers caught on that their dollars could go further in other categories. That's when we saw the rise of Australian shiraz and Argentine malbec. Today, though, merlot is back on track and the slump in demand means prices are back to being bargains.

Buzz: I'm sold. California merlot it is.

Marnie: Great, but I'd look further north, Buzz. Not only does your wine dollar stretch further in Washington state than in California, but why not toast the Founding Fathers from a bottle that has one of their names on the front?

Buzz: OK, I'll take Washington, with a Sam Adams chaser.


Marnie Old is a local sommelier and wine author known for practical advice with real-world relevance. Her newest book, Wine: A Tasting Course, is an illustrated crash course for the wine-curious. Marnie also advises clients in the beverage and restaurant trades. Check her out at MarnieOld.com or follow her on Twitter at @MarnieOld. Buzz's musings are interpreted by Daily News Assistant Managing Editor Gar Joseph.

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