Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay: The bottle alone is worth it

In trying to find out more about the wine in the extremely cool ceramic bottle at right, I went to Mer Soleil's website, where I was immediately greeted by "Buttery Rich & Golden. Oh My." So I know I'm not the target audience for the winemaking Wagner family (of Caymus fame), unless they make popcorn.

But I like Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay, mainly because I love the bottle. A few wine writers have been tweeting about the bottle over the last week since we got samples of it, and I decided to take my thoughts on it past 140 characters.

Why do people order wine in a restaurant? In the US, the two answers most likely to come up in France -- "to go with the food," or "because one does" -- aren't common. Most people here look for an experience in a restaurant wine, and that extends across what I've come to think of as the liberal/conservative wine spectrum.

Your hippie liberal drinker wants something tended by hand from a biodynamic vineyard where the cover crop is grazed by goats. The flavors are less important than the process.

Your conservative drinker wants a heavy bottle with an impressive wine, preferably one he can tell his colleagues the next day that he had. Here, the flavor is less important than the image.

People in the middle, what do they want? A variety of things. But while there are plenty of people who are content to order "ol' reliable," whether that's Silver Oak Cab or K-J Vintners Reserve Chard, most American drinkers want something special -- in some way -- when they're dining out. It's easy for a sommelier to romance the client with "only 100 cases of this were made" or "this is a reserve version of the one you see in stores." This is why the wine-selling wizards at Bronco make special brands like Salmon Creek only for restaurants. It's different, it's special, it's an experience.

If I was out with a group of four, and I saw the Mer Soleil Silver bottle on another table, I'd want some. Yes, I'm going for package over contents. But to me, his is by far the coolest wine bottle I've seen in years. Maybe ever.

The bottle is supposed to evoke the cement tanks in which the unoaked Chardonnay ferments. What it evokes for me is the Roman Empire. Surely the Romans didn't have containers this precisely made, but the design sense seems the same.

Technology has advanced since the Roman Empire to create glass that allows us to see the wine, which is an important feature we take for granted. We can tell when a white or pink wine is too old just by looking at it. Mer Soleil Silver could go brown and we wouldn't know until it got in our glass.

It's a risk I'm willing to take. I just love this bottle, from the gray -- not silver -- color to the unfinished bottom that reminds me of fine Japanese pottery. I wish I could drain the wine from this bottle and smash it on the ground like you do when you have a cup of chai in a train station in India. At 14.8% alcohol, though, I'd be smashed first.

The question is, how is the wine? It isn't as cool as the bottle, but how could it be? It doesn't ruin the experience either. It's medium-full bodied, generous with lemon fruit, yet not flabby because of the absence of malolactic fermentation. It's a fairly simple Chardonnay that would be fine with white-flesh fish or fowl. Fried chicken? That'd work great.

I also tried Mer Soleil Barrel Fermented  Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay 2009 ($32) for comparison purposes. I was afraid after the slogan, but it's not a bad wine: certainly rich, but not as buttery and golden as I was led to believe. There's enough acidity to make it drinkable, but there's not enough character to induce me to order it.

The Mer Soleil Silver, though, I would order if friends were visiting just so they could dig the bottle and we could talk about concrete fermentation tanks and the Roman Empire and how if I worked for the Wagners I could rename myself W. Blake Silver. We'd have an experience, and any wine that gives me that, I can enjoy.

Mer Soleil "Silver" Santa Lucia Highlands Unoaked Chardonnay 2010 ($26). Buy it here.

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Ted said...

Wonder what the winery's cost is on the bottle. Standard glass is about 60 cents, this must cost significantly more.

W. Blake Gray said...

A great question, and I'm sure a lot of people would be grateful if someone from Mer Soleil would answer it here.

Joel Brüt said...

You think quality, me thinks Lancers!

Kris Chislett said...

Personally I think this is one of the best wine packaging innovations I've seen over the past few years. I'm surprised I haven't seen more marketing from the winery on this change of packaging...

Anonymous said...

Love this bottle. Bought one the other night at our local wine shop. Feels great to hold; love the weight of it. Indeed, it's kind of like the Lancers bottles, but I kind of like that association. Very old school. Cost-wise, I don't think it's much more than about 75 cents a unit.

W. Blake Gray said...

Lancer's! Ha, it never occurred to me. I'm not old enough to have been a wine drinker in the Lancer's era. I've seen it, but don't think I've ever tried it.

As Anon says, nothing wrong with old school. I miss the Franken wine traditional packaging, though not the wines themselves.

Paul in Boca said...

Let's see, 12 cement bottles in a case, (which weighs how much more than a standard case?) times 56 cases on a pallet, times a couple of hundred pallets on a truck, means exactly what to a carbon footprint?

Robert LeRoy Parker said...

Do you know what the production numbers are on this?

I'm wondering how they went about bottling, if a bottle like that could function through a sparger, filler, and corker and still maintain its integrity? Or was it done some other way, by hand even?

Very cool.

W. Blake Gray said...

Paul: It's not actually cement. While it's not as lightweight as could be, it's not heavier than the showoff bottles that many premium wines come in these days. If you want to make that argument, there are better wines to make it against.

And to use your own argument: this wine came to me from two counties away, so to me, its carbon footprint was quite small. I hope you're also drinking only wines that come from that close to you.

Robert: That is a very good question, and another one I hope the Mer Soleil folks visit to answer.

Anonymous said...

It's actually a ceramic bottle. They go for between 60 and 80 cents a unit. Can work on a regular bottling line with some adjustments.

Chris Smith said...

Yeah, I'm not sure how these could be used with a standard bottling line. If I remember correctly, everything we've used had a laser to keep fill levels even. We even had some issues with really dark Port bottle glass throwing off the laser and leaving the bottles half full. I wonder how it would work for a truly opaque ceramic bottle.

Patrick Clark said...

I bought this wine for the bottle... The wine, I ended up not liking. I'm not educated on wine, but all I could taste were green cocktail olives and vinegar... No other chardonnay has ever tasted like this... It has been 2 years in the bottle... Maybe it was stored wrong in the store, or doesn't age well?

lisa said...

I agree with Patrick Clark. My husband and I thoguht the wine was a bit skunky, like we should return it to the store. But we've never returned a bottle of wine, so instead, we'll probably end up with a really cute bottle for 20 bucks.