The point was that a small handful of critics, who dominated the national conversation far more than they (we?) do today due to the rise of the Internet and blogs, were instructing consumers that Merlot was "the soft Cabernet" they should be drinking. Consumers responded accordingly, if rather lemming-like; Merlot sales took off, and, last time I checked, more Merlot is sold in America now than any other red wine variety, including Cabernet Sauvignon.
All well and good, but the problem was that Merlot wasn't very good. When I started getting paid to review wine, in 1989, I was shocked at the poor quality of California Merlot. It was muddy, indistinct; it had no particular personality, a bland wine that, even when ripe, had about as much personality as a doorknob. You couldn't say that about almost any other wine type: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, Barbera, Syrah. Merlot alone was the most undistinguished "great" wine California produced.
So there was a disconnect between how much Merlot Americans drank, and its actual quality. In the 1990s, whenever I read a wine writer state that Merlot was "the soft Cabernet," I wanted to hunt him down and force a retraction. It wasn't true. There was a lot of hard, tannic, green Merlot produced in the 1990s, and Americans who gulped it so happily down didn't have a clue about what makes wine great.
Then came 2004 and a little movie, called Sideways, that virtually destroyed Merlot overnight. "I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!" Miles, the lead character, declared in a famous scene, and Americans, who always have had some trouble discerning the boundaries between reality and show business (ask Ronald Reagan), abandoned Merlot by the millions. Even as sales of Pinot Noir (which the film celebrated) soared, sales of Merlot fell off the cliff, except at the lowest wine levels, where it remains popular, due no doubt to its French-sounding, easy to pronounce name.
Today, statewide acreage is practically unchanged since 2001; in fact, acreage peaked in 2005, and then began to decline, the only major grape type in California, red or white, to suffer that way. Even in Napa Valley, where you would think Merlot would be welcome, if for nothing else than as a blending grape into Bordeaux-style wine, plantings have remained nearly flat for a decade, while plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and even Malbec are up considerably. Poor old Merlot: growers don't like growing it, winemakers don't like making it, restaurateurs don't like selling it.
In my role as a critic, I myself admit to being puzzled about Merlot. I certainly have given high scores over the years to bottlings from Chateau St. Jean, Duckhorn, Swanson, Keenan, White Cottage Ranch, Ehlers, Hall, Freemark Abbey, Carter, Trefethen, Yates Famiy, Shafer, Trinchero, Merryvale, Whitehall Lane and Pride Mountain (all, by the way, from Napa Valley and its various mountains, except for Chateau St. Jean, which is in Sonoma Valley). But I don't think I ever purchased Merlot to drink in a restaurant, or brought my own bottle and paid corkage; and I don't think I ever will. If I were looking for a Bordeaux-style wine, it would be a Cabernet Sauvignon or a blend (including blends that include Merlot). However good and rich California Merlot can be, it still seems an indistinct wine, wanting personality.
The variety likes clay soils, in California as well as in Bordeaux's Right Bank. It finds those clays in certain alluvial deposits on the east and west sides of Napa Valley. There isn't much clay in Napa's mountains, it having been washed down to the valley floor; but the mountains concentrate Merlot's fruit, as they concentrate the fruit of any grape grown in those low-vigor soils, and thicker grape skins from devigorated, dry soils contribute tannins. The prime feature of a mountain-grown Merlot from Napa Valley, therefore, is fruity concentration and firm tannins, as well as, of course, dryness. Still, in my opinion, the golden age of California Merlot is over. It could come again; one learns never to make predictions that are too firm, lest one be made to look foolish by reality. But Merlot's resurrection is not going to happen anytime soon.