Enviable Predicament

When it comes to promoting and defending Merlot as a "serious wine," said Swanson general manager Stu Harrison, "we have a very vested interest." Harrison was co-presenting, with winemaker Chris Phelps, a pro-Merlot wine seminar at Donovan's restaurant, in an effort to save Merlot from its own success at the bargain level. "We're the largest single estate-grown Merlot producer in the Napa Valley. We are committed to Merlot because, when Clark Swanson bought the vineyard in 1985 -- long before Merlot became a craze -- he hired a guy named Andre Tchelistcheff."

Tchelistcheff, of course, was the Dean of American Wine, the guy who helped drag California into its modern era through his work as winemaker at Beaulieu and as a consultant all over the place. Harrison said, "Tchelistcheff took a look at the property that Swanson had just purchased, and he said, 'You plant Merlot. This site is perfect for it.' And indeed, that's what Swanson did. We have 52 acres of it."

Swanson is situated in Cabernet country -- Oakville, just a couple of blocks from Mondavi, and a stone's throw from Rutherford. What was Tchelistcheff thinking? "Clay-ey loam," said Phelps. Clay -- a particularly iron-rich strain of it -- makes up a good part of the soil undergirding Chateau Petrus, the most sought-after Merlot in the world. "You'd think clay-rich soil would get oversaturated with water," he granted -- clay doesn't drain the way other soils do. "But it meters out water during the season and sloughs it off after it's saturated."

Clay doesn't provides any guarantees, however. "Merlot is extremely site-sensitive," continued Phelps. It may produce drinkable wine in all sorts of conditions, but once you start trying for something special, it gets finicky. It's not unusual for a Merlot from cooler regions -- such as Carneros, south of Napa -- to pick up a slightly herbaceous quality. "In Bordeaux," said Phelps, "they celebrate a little bit of green, herbaceous character. I have a bit of an aversion to it." He prefers the fruit-friendly heat of Oakville, especially given Merlot's natural ability to hang on to its acids as it ripens. (Heat can drive acid down during the latter stages of ripening.) "In the California wine business, we add a lot of tartaric acid, but it's a lot better on the palate if you don't have to -- it makes the wine hard, accentuates the tannins and astringency. It was nice when I came back to Merlot" -- after years of working with Cabernet -- "and I remembered, 'With Merlot, we don't need to worry about acid. '"

To demonstrate the importance of place, Harrison and Phelps set up a couple of tastings as part of their pro-Merlot seminar, held a few weeks back at Donovan's steakhouse. First, a lineup from around the world, with all five wines displaying distinct differences. Chile, softer and fatter (possibly thanks to consultant Michel Rolland); Italy, leaner and harder; Washington state, richer/deeper; France, dirtier/more herbal; California, riper/sweeter.

Harrison took the opportunity to lament the predicament of American Merlot, plagued as it is by its own success at the bargain-wine level. "France is far and away the largest producer of Merlot. When you walk into a café in Paris and sit down and have a wonderful Bordeaux Superior, you are drinking Merlot. Over 40 percent of the grapes grown in Bordeaux are Merlot -- there's almost twice as much Merlot grown as Cabernet Sauvignon. But of France's 262,000 acres of Merlot, only the 2,000 acres of Pomerol produce a world-class, stand-alone Merlot. It shows you how specific the growing conditions must be and how fanatical the people must be."

But nobody rags on cheap French Merlot the way they do cheap American Merlot. And everybody knows about Pomerol's Chateau Petrus. Said Harrison, "It's sort of a stealth varietal. The U.S. and Chile are well-known producers, because 'Merlot' is on the labels. In other countries, for the most part, it's not. We call it the 'New World handicap.' Here, we have a varietal-based labeling system...we don't have the ability to give the consumer information on the label that allows him to differentiate between, let's say, Swanson and two-buck Chuck. They both say 'Merlot.' When was the last time that anybody in this room lumped together Petrus and Mouton-Cadet? They're both Merlots, yet at the end of the day, you don't confuse the two.

"The next step," according to Harrison, "is much more specific appellations...as in the case of Bordeaux, developing specific proprietary wines steeped in very specific appellations." And he hopes it's a step that will be taken someday: "The Europeans have been doing this for three or four hundred years; we're sixty years old."

I sympathize with Harrison. He's striving to market a serious and complicated Merlot in a time when Merlot has become associated with words like "easy" and "simple" and "drinkable." But I think he's overstepping a bit here. In fact, you can lump together Mouton-Cadet and Petrus, just by calling them both Bordeaux. In fact, he does have the ability to put stuff on his label to help the consumer differentiate between Swanson and two-buck Chuck. For starters, there are the words "Napa Valley" -- still the biggest indicator of serious wine quality to the American mass market. Then there's the word "Estate," indicating that the grapes were managed by the winery and presumably, grown to the winery's specifications. (Not everyone would know that, of course -- which is why he's running these seminars.) And labels aside, there is the matter of price tags. Presumably, when someone buys a $20-plus Merlot, they're going to be looking for something more than "drinkable." But that's not to say that there's no room for fine-tuning.

A second tasting provided a NorCal tour -- Carneros, Rutherford, Atlas Peak, Bennet Valley, and Oakville. The differences were less obvious but still discernible. What was more interesting to me was the third tasting, which highlighted winery practices. It was all Swanson Merlot, treated in various ways. One sample had spent time in a high-end commercial American oak barrel, and another in one of Swanson's custom barrels. Explained Phelps, "We buy our oak in Pennsylvania, and we have the staves cut to our specifications. I leave half of them in Pennsylvania and have the other half trucked to Oakville, where we air-dry them for up to four years in the open air." (The Pennsylvania half gets rained on more often -- "It's important to develop special molds on the wood. And the rain helps leech out some of the green tannins.") The custom barrel was miles ahead of the commercial. A strong note of coffee and the trademark American-oak dill, a general roundness to the mouthfeel. "It's probably not a big factor, but we're

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