I remember the first time I saw the scene in Sideways, I was a sophomore in high school on a first date. I saw Miles scream his opinion about Merlot, and even then I knew that people were going to take this drunk and miserable fictional creation seriously. And, boy, they have.
Although nationally Merlot is still the best selling red wine in the US (fancy that), around here Pinot Noir has taken over as the accepted standard. I can’t tell you how often I meet people who, upon learning that I study wine as both a hobby and profession, immediately deride Merlot with this sort of “See, I’m on the team” earnestness that, frankly, I find disappointing. The sad truth is that there is a lot of bad Merlot out there, but the grape can’t help that. It’s people getting in the way that makes Merlot bad.
Traditionally, Merlot has been used as a component in a blend, frequently as the star of the group (just ask Pomerol or St-Emilion, in Bordeaux). Its full body and plummy fruit character are appealing, and its gentle acidity makes it more approachable than many other grapes. Other varietals were added to the equation to add more complexity, not to cover up a fault.
In the US, Merlot took off in the early 90s as a response to the medical finding that drinking red wine could help reduce the risk of heart disease. Of course, the nation didn’t have as many wine drinkers then as it does now, and so many companies had to make simpler, softer, rather wimpy wines to ease the new market into the product. That’s the root of the problem.
Fast forward to today, though, and the ‘No F’ing-Merlot’ movement is just silly. For every boring, flabby Merlot from the Central Valley there are just as many interesting examples from Washington, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, the list goes on. I don’t wear Omega watches and Tom Ford suits because James Bond does, and I certainly don’t let movie characters pick my wines for me.
If there’s any doubt about what I’m saying, though, enjoy this delicious extra piece of irony the Sideways writers threw in for the true cork dorks in attendance. The bottle of Cheval-Blanc that Miles treasures, that he sips alone from a paper cup in a burger joint when his world has collapsed around him? That’s a Merlot.