Pity the poor merlot. Once an ascendant star in the California wine universe, the red wine grape with roots in Bordeaux is now an albatross, literally hanging – unsold and unpicked – in some North Coast vineyards. All because of a movie.
In desperation, growers are selling merlot for as little as $400 a ton – a third or less of the spot market price early in the year.
Some merlot will wind up rotting on the ground, some vines will be yanked out and some grafted to another varietal.
"Merlot right now is kind of the four-letter word in terms of getting people to buy it," said Glenn Proctor, a grape and wine broker for Joseph W. Ciatti Co. in San Rafael.
Merlot and cabernet sauvignon, longtime mixing partners, share the unenviable consequences of overplanting, overproduction and falling prices in a competitive global wine market in which supply and demand are increasingly difficult to balance, wine industry experts say.
"The market is a little out of whack right now," said John Enquist, president of the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission.
Consumer demand for cabernet, the crown prince of California red wines, is growing, offering hope for eventually draining away the excess supply now sitting in winery storage tanks.
But merlot, following an upward rush in planting and price in the 1990s, is now reeling from flat demand compounded by three straight years of uncharacteristically fulsome harvests, Proctor said.
Wine industry officials in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties say that while cabernet is in a rough patch, merlot may be in dire straits due to market vagaries and celluloid influence.
Just six years ago, merlot passed cabernet as America’s best-selling red wine, but the 2004 hit movie "Sideways" body-slammed the varietal when the cranky oenophile Miles declared: "I am not drinking any (expletive) merlot."