Have you seen the movie Sideways? It’s on my mind because I recently started reading the sequel, Vertical. Sideways is the 2004 dramedy (based on the book of the same name) starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, and Virginia Madsen that chronicles a bachelor party / California wine country tour that struggling writer Miles (Giamatti) gives his struggling actor friend Jack (Church). Despite wine’s presence as a backdrop for a complicated story about relationships, much of the world came away from that movie with two conclusions: pinot noir is king, and serious wine drinkers do not drink merlot. Thus began the rapid rise of the former and the untimely demise of the latter.
Miles waxes on, sometimes at length, about the glorious potential of pinot noir. Two hours of that will leave almost anyone wanting to pour a glass. But at one point in the movie, as Jack coaxes him to the dinner table with a couple of lady-friends, Miles vigorously, and rather comically, declares that he will not be drinking merlot at dinner. That one statement sent sales plunging.
We also learn during the movie that Miles’ prized bottle of his small collection is a 1961 Cheval-Blanc from the Saint Emilion
growing area in Bordeaux. The irony is that Cheval-Blanc is a blend of merlot and cabernet franc (the standard blend of “right-bank” wines from the area of Bordeaux to the right, or east, of the Gironde and Dordogne Rivers). Many viewers assumed this was commentary on Miles’ true ineptness; he portends to be a wine expert, eschewing a varietal that many “common” wine drinkers embrace, only to [unknowingly?] hold in greatest esteem a wine made primarily from that very grape (the 1961 had more merlot than usual; Cheval-Blanc is known for its backbone of cabernet franc).
My take, though not original, but indeed in the minority, is that merlot represented Miles’ ex-wife. He still had feelings for her, and at that time in his life, she represented the epitome of his high standards. He also recognized the self-destructive nature of his reliance on her, and that frustration boiled over when he lashed out at merlot. Unfortunately, the nuance was lost on the majority of the viewers, and merlot was tagged with an inferior label.
I’ve been asked my thoughts on merlot by folks who assume I would take the same stance as Miles. As with most questions about wine posed to me, my answer is more than a couple of words. I say that merlot is made by a lot of winemakers around the world, and some of them throw it in oak for too long and create a bulk wine that eliminates terroir. In general, I’m just not a fan of oak juice. But in the right hands, merlot can be a very satisfying varietal (bottled as a single grape), and it most certainly can be blended into the stuff of legends, as demonstrated in Bordeaux for centuries. To that end, I’ve added a couple of recommendations where merlot is either the star or sits among a supporting cast. Either way, I encourage you to look past any tarnished image of merlot you may have and discover the opulent, velvety nature of the most widely-planted grape in Bordeaux.