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What You Really Want Is Merlot!

By Bruce Sturgeon

Selling wine on the floors of fine dining restaurants for over 30 years gives you a unique perspective on trends that come and go. I have witnessed the rise and fall of Merlot, the emergence and acceptance of Northwest wines, the curiosity for Viognier, the chic appeal of Pinot Noir, the out-of-nowhere fascination with Gruner Veltliner and many more. Overseeing a wine program for a busy seafood restaurant you might think we would sell more white wine than red. Well, we sell more red wine by the bottle than white; the trend in Seattle and the West Coast is the bigger the red wine, the better - without consideration of the occasion. The wine is often selected before the food. White wine for a lot of people is just not serious enough to be considered.

Blueacre bar

As a sommelier, I often get asked to help a guest pair a wine with their meal. What I find is that most people drink what they like regardless of what they are eating or what I suggest. What they usually want is a recommendation on what is the best Cabernet Sauvignon to go with their oysters on the half shell and one that will also go nicely with a thick piece of grilled halibut. Or, more to the point, they are looking for validation for the choices they have already made.

The 2004 movie Sideways both popularized wine drinking and greatly influenced wine selling trends. The sale of Pinot Noir increased dramatically due to the lead character (Miles) being so enamored with it. Merlot sales on the other hand, were all but killed as a viable wine commodity. The reason that Miles would not drink Merlot was because it was his ex-wife's favorite wine, not because he thought badly of the grape. However, this background info from the book was cut from the final movie version. So, everyone's take from the movie was Pinot good, Merlot bad! As a point of reference - by the late '90s in a mid-sized restaurant, we were selling 6 to 7 cases of Merlot a week by the glass and bottle while still offering 75 other wines. Merlot became synonymous with "I will have a glass of house wine." Now in a restaurant more than twice that size, I may sell a case of Merlot in a month and most of that is by the glass. Almost never do I sell a full bottle of Merlot to a table.

Sideways, Miles (actor Paul Giamatti)

Pinot Noir and Cabernet are now the most dominant varietals. Guests know that they should not order a big tannic Cab with seafood and they also know it is very wine savvy to order Pinot Noir, especially from the Willamette Valley. We also think this is great! Pinot Noir with grilled salmon is one of the greatest food and wine pairings on earth. The real challenge we run into with the Cabernet-turned-Pinot drinker is when they say, "I would like a Pinot, but I want a really big Pinot, and it needs to be from Oregon." Not that big, luscious, over-ripe Pinots are not made, they're just mostly from California, not Oregon. What the guest is looking for is a flavorful wine that's not too tannic, that will not overpower the food, is bigger than a Pinot, has depth of character, layers of rich flavors and texture that will linger long after you have set your glass down.

In the final scene of Sideways, Miles drinks such a wine, Chateau Cheval Blanc, one of the greatest wines made (and one of the most expensive) - a Merlot-based wine blended with Cabernet Franc. The wine that everyone is looking for has been there for centuries! It really is okay to order a Merlot in public, no one will laugh at you, and you will enjoy the experience. While trends effect what we wear, what we drink, and what we eat, they are not always for the best.

About Bruce Sturgeon:

Bruce Sturgeon, General Manager and Sommelier at Blueacre Seafood, has a wealth of experience in the restaurant industry. Starting as a dishwasher at 16 he moved to cooking to floor management to bartending. He began his front-of-the-house career as a waiter, then began studying wine. He has been maître d' and sommelier and general manager at a number of high-end restaurants. In 1992, he became the bar manager at Wild Ginger, staying 18 years, taking over the wine program, and becoming the Beverage Director for the company. In 2010, Bruce joined Blueacre as general manager and sommelier.

About Blueacre Seafood:

Blueacre Seafood sources 100% of their wild seafood from sustainably-fished U.S. waters, and sustainably-farmed freshwater species, oysters, clams, and mussels. Also on the menu are farm-fresh meat, game, poultry, and vegetables. The bar is stocked with American spirits, wine, and craft beer on tap.

1700 7th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101

January 2018

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