Stymie was one of the most famous race horses in American history. Once Stymie gained a lead, he would never relinquish it. So dramatic was his racing style that his name became an official word in our vocabulary. To “stymie” someone is to never let them advance. It was a winning wager on Stymie by my father that gave him the wherewithal to move our entire family from New York City to San Francisco when I was a small child. The label STEELE-STYMIE is reserved for our rarest, small production wines of the highest quality.
-Jed Steele (Owner/Winemaker, STEEL Wines)
I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot! (Paul Giamatti in Sideways)
I wish I could truly understand the degree to which those 7 words changed American wine consumption. The sentiment managed to metastasize through the greater wine drinking community to the point where people where embarrassed to trust their own taste buds.
Overnight, Merlot became unfashionable to the masses. It was arguably on a downhill slide, and with so many other wonderful varietals and available, it was easy to just avoid the shunned berry altogether. Even my ‘no bullshit’ wine writing hero, Willie Gluckstern, preempted the movie with a passage in The Wine Avenger that nicely foreshadowed the bursting of the Merlot bubble:
It’s what people are clamoring for, what they crave. Grape growers can’t grow enough, sales reps can’t sell enough, restaurants can’t mark it up enough. It’s new, it’s hip, it’s now, it’s wow!
So what the hell happened to make this innocuous, also-ran variety the rampaging wildebeest of the wine world?
It’s everywhere—from Bordeaux to Bulgaria, from California to Kazhakstan, wherever money is to be made from wine. They’re tearing up old-vine Zinfandel and Petite Sirah by the acre in California, and Syrah and Grenache by the hectare in Southern France, and inserting Merlot as if it were some great miracle crop that will finally feed the world’s poor.
Over 100 wine reviews on C+C, and Merlot has not carried the torch on a single one. This needs to change. Carey and I made a special trip to Purdy’s this past weekend and visited a rack that I have hardly glanced at over the last the last three years—California Merlot. I was a bit surprised by what I saw. The rack was flanked by big players in the California wine industry, deeply discounted, dusty, and in the prime of their lives.
We settled on the ’05 Steele Stymie Merlot sitting deeply discounted and looking handsome in its 6-bottle wooden cases—and who knows, maybe Stymie raced at Saratoga!
The Founder’s Reserve was beautifully developed and expressive out of the gate—no pun intended. Carey thought Big Red gum, I though Red Hots. Either way, the attack was trimmed with deliciously spicy, sweet cinnamon flavors. The same quality was present on the nose, and joined by heavy, wet tobacco, cherries, currant, chocolate, and pine resin.
Wonderfully, this is not an alcohol bomb—or fruit bomb, for that matter. There is a grit; a rough-and-tumble soil and mineral quality that added incredible dimension—exactly the opposite of a wine, or varietal, that might otherwise be characterized as being one-dimensionally soft souled.
Still loaded with life, strong bodied with still firm tannins and not yet a hint of sediment in the polished, rusty-ruby colored juice. As the wine opened, I noticed it take on a slight bite on the back end that reminded me of a great Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano hard Italian cheese. It was a seasoned, well-placed funk that was a bit nutty, acidic, salty, olive-like, and difficult to put my finger on. Delicious, nonetheless.
I am fairly confident that you will have a much easier time finding this wine on a restaurant wine list than in a wine shop. The total 2006 vintage numbered only 250, 6-bottle cases. But more important than finding this wine, is finding wines in the same boat—underrated, underpriced, and adorned with a scarlet M.