Many Merlots deserved 'Sideways'

Wine Press NorthwestMarch 12, 2010 

It has been roughly six years since we were witness to one of the wine world's most feared enemies. It is an enemy so fierce that it can play havoc with our beloved industry in ways that are so devastating and so horrifying that mere mortals are driven to cowering in corners.

Most people don't even know it is coming, and when it arrives, it strikes with a venom that can turn invoices to ashes, and can drive tractors to tear out harmless grapevines.

It is the motion picture. It is the picture in which someone does something so outrageous that entire industries are left destitute. Families are torn asunder.

Look what Pretty Woman did to prostitution! Utter disillusionment. Look what Ghandi did for dieting! Look what Sideways did for Merlot!

You all remember the scene, don't you? Jack and Miles are on a wine country holiday just before Jack's impending marriage. They find women for an evening out and as they approach the steakhouse, Miles, a Pinot Noir freak, is unprepared for the coming apocalypse.

"If they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot," says Jack. To which Miles replies angrily, "No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f---ing Merlot!"

Well, there goes the neighborhood. Anyone who makes Merlot may now leave the room and find a large bottle of pills. Merlot has just been reduced to a steaming pile of rubbish and it's all thanks to a filmmaker who knows squat about wine, and who has never tasted a great Columbia Valley Merlot.

Ah, the myths that pervade this business. Cabernet is nobler than thou. All Riesling is sweet and thus undrinkable. Napa is the king and everything else is a pretender to the throne. Miles Raymond's epithet that trashed hundreds of years of grape growing and winemaking merely adds to the fairy story.

So where are we? Well, perhaps better off now that we have had our wake-up call.

Remember that Merlot sales were sailing along since early 1992 on a path to near-collapse anyhow. Had it not been for the Sideways swipe at it, which wasn't all that inaccurate, incidentally, we might have had to continue to defend rotten-quality Merlot for another decade. Because the myths persist.

Let's all look back to those early days of Merlot growth. It was November 1991 when 60 Minutes first broadcast that report on the French Paradox, in which it was categorically stated that the French smoke more, eat more fat, and yet have a lower heart disease rate. And the reason was that the French drink more wine. Red wine, to be specific. And that small factette led millions of persons out to buy red wine.

And what did they buy? Why, Cabernet Sauvignon of course. That was what merchants suggested. And what did the people do? They gagged. Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape with a great deal of astringent tannin. So for months, Cab sales rose and the people were sorely miffed.

By March of 1992 or so, the word began to leak out that if you wanted red wine for your heart's sake, try Merlot. It not only has less astringent tannins (well, a bit anyhow), but also was equally as good for your heart.

And that began the runaway wagon. Californians began to plant the grape in all manner of locations, most of which were far too hot to sustain it as anything more than a munchy treat with seeds. The flavors it produced were almost anti-Merlot: weedy, harsh and totally unattractive.

So what message was the American consumer getting between 1995 when the new plantings were coming on line and 2003, when Sideways was being shot? We saw a flood of lousy Merlot. That is only an eight-year span, but it was a period in which oak chip-flavored Merlots were bought by people whose ostensible justification was heart attack insurance, not wine enjoyment, and they treated the stuff the way you would medicine.

Is it any wonder that we began to see sales of Merlot fall like a shot pigeon? Was it Miles Raymond's fault (or the writer of the book, Rex Pickett, or the director, Alexander Payne) that the hammer came down on Merlot?

In fact, we should be thanking all three gentlemen (two men and a character) for shining a light where one was needed. True wine lovers never were misled by great Washington Merlot during the build-up in sales. Washington Merlot did rather well during the "Merlot as Medicine" period.

What the film was trashing was bad Merlot. The fact that the character, at the end of the film, was happy to drink a wine in which Merlot played a role was an ironic twist that may well have been lost on Payne.

Funny thing is that sales of Merlot did actually decline from the time the movie came out in 2004 to now, and that's all to the benefit of top-quality Merlot. What was discarded were those $5 to $10 Merlots that, for the most part, have little to do with the grape.

And the upshot? Acres of California warm-climate Merlot vines are being converted to varieties that do better in those regions, and those people who made bad Merlot are no longer making it, which leaves us with a group of quality Merlots from which to choose. A lot of it is from Columbia Valley.

I see no bad in that.

DAN BERGER is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

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