Given that you are reading a wine blog, chances are good you have seen the movie “Sideways,” the 2004 comedy-drama set in the Santa Barbara County wine country. For wine lovers, it’s one of two great movies of the last decade (the other being “Bottleshock,” set in the Napa Valley) which celebrate the grape and its juice. For the three of you reading this who have not seen it, the story revolves around a week-long trip to the Santa Ynez Valley to celebrate Jack’s pending nuptials. Miles, the tour guide, is a devout fan of Pinot Noir, while the only “legs” or “full-body” Jack is interested in is attached to the nearest woman. This movie became a cult-classic (and one of the highest rated of all time on the review site “Rotten Tomatoes”) for its witty dialogue and character portrayals.
Of course the guys meet some women, and while Miles attempts to educate Jack about the merits of the magnificent Pinot Noir grape, Jack is hellbent on getting laid. One night before meeting the girls for dinner, Jack tells Miles that they may need to drink some Merlot with the girls. This is when Miles issues the most famous of the movie’s lines: “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!” Little did the film’s writers (Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor) know the effect those seven words would have on the entire California wine industry.
Many folks will tell you that “Sideways” killed the market for Merlot. While that is an exaggeration, there is truth to it. The demand for Merlot in the US and Britain fell after the movie, while Pinot Noir sales (and prices!) rose considerably, much to my chagrin. Pinots had been sort of under the radar here in California, but not after Miles had his say. All of a sudden the good Pinots (not to mention some of the not-so-good ones) rode the wave of popularity and made some of my favorite wines either expensive, hard-to-find, or both. To a large degree the condition lingers today.
In the movie, Miles describes Merlot thusly: “It tastes like the back of a fucking L.A. school bus. Now they probably didn’t de-stem, hoping for some semblance of concentration, crushed it up with leaves and mice, and then wound up with this rancid tar and turpentine bullshit.” So is Merlot really that vile? No, of course not. But I definitely am not a fan of a pure Merlot wine.
Most Merlots I have tried taste like a big velvety blanket of red fruit on my tongue. They are thick and smooth, and lack the highs, lows, and acidity of Cabernets and Pinots, which I love. A good Pinot to me has good fruit in the nose and on the tongue, and is mixed with some spice and/or earth characteristics. It is much thinner than a Merlot, but not wimpy. To me, Merlots are heavy and lack the subtleties of a good Pinot. They don’t taste bad, they just aren’t as interesting on my palate. I understand why many winemakers blend some Merlot into most Cabernets, because it helps to soften the wines and make them drinkable earlier. This is important for the grocery-store market where wines are purchased to be consumed the same day, and not cellared for aging.
That being said, there are a number of wines which I like very much which have Merlot in them. In fact, some are primarily Merlot, with other grapes added in for the final blend. Heidi Barrett has made quite a name for her Amuse Bouche wine (~95% Merlot and ~5% Cabernet Franc), which attempts to mimic Pomerol-style wines like Chateau Petrus. The wonderful folks at Chappellet make a couple of blends (Mountain Cuvee and Las Piedras) which are approximately one-half Cabernet, one-third Merlot, and the rest Cab Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. And the folks at Chimney Rock make their “Elevage” wines from a fairly-even mix of Cabernet and Merlot. So clearly a lot of winemakers here are still growing the Merlot grapes, but they are not calling the resulting wines “Merlot.” I think that’s fairly interesting.
I spied the license plate pictured above driving around the Napa Valley a few weeks ago. I knew it had to belong to a winemaker, but was not sure if it was someone who made Merlot, or someone who sided with Miles. It turns out it belongs to Michael Polenske, the owner of Blackbird Vineyards in Oakville, who makes Merlot-based wines. And apparently, they are pretty good, although I have not yet tried them. Under the guidance of renowned winemaker Aaron Pott, Blackbird strives to produce Pomerol-style wines, and the four different titles in the repertoire have varying amounts of Merlot, Cabernet and Cabernet Franc. They are rated pretty highly, so I may have to give them a try.
In closing, I wanted to point out the surprise irony of the “Sideways” movie. Throughout the film, Miles speaks lustfully about his prize possession in life, a bottle of 1961 Château Cheval Blanc. At the end of the movie, after all the self-reflecting and the awkward scenes and the waxing soliloquies about the temperamental Pinot Noir grape, Miles is alone and despondent, and he drinks his prized Cheval Blanc out of a disposable coffee cup at a fast-food restaurant. That wine, undeniably great, is in reality a Merlot-based wine (with Cab Franc.) Oh Miles!