“I am NOT drinking any [darn] merlot!”
Ah, yes, the oft-quoted quote from the 2004 movie Sideways. It is credited for the demise of worldwide sales of merlot-based wines. The pathetic sad sack/wine snob Miles screams this to his buddy Jack before they meet their dates waiting inside a restaurant. The not-so-subtle implication is that merlot is too pedestrian and insufficiently sophisticated for Miles’ palate.
Lemming-like wine drinkers in America followed Miles’ lead, turning up their noses at the suggestion of drinking oh-so-boring merlot. Or at least that’s the story we’re supposed to believe.
To understand what caused Miles’ profanity -laced pronouncement, a little history is in order.
1 B.C. (Before Chardonnay, circa 1980)—There was no wine made or consumed in the United States. (This may be an overstated literary flourish.)
1 A.C. (After Chardonnay)—Chardonnay wine discovered in California! Americans trade in their bottles of Bartles & Jaymes Wine Coolers for buttery, lemony and slightly sweet chardonnay wines.
10 A.C. (circa Nov. 17, 1991)—CBS broadcast’s the 60 Minutes segment called The French Paradox. Morley Safer interviews a researcher who correlates the lack of heart problems in France, the land of high-fat diets, with the consumption of red wine.
11 A.C.—Every winemaker in California and several other countries plant merlot grapes in response to the American consumers’ sudden interest in red wine following The French Paradox broadcast. Turns out that merlot is easy to pronounce, does not have overwhelming tannins and is easy for chardonnay drinkers to take the next step in their evolution of wine enjoyment.
12-23 A.C.—A whole lot of lame merlot wine is made. Wine consumers slurp it up; wine retailers and restaurants conspire by offering many shades of insipid merlot wines; wine critics and snobs take every opportunity to say bad things about jammy, lifeless, boring merlots.
24 A.C. (circa Oct. 22, 2004)—Miles’ famous declaration regarding merlot—which was more of a reflection on the state of merlot at the time and not so much the cause of merlot’s fall from grace.
30 A.C. (circa 11 a.m., Feb. 22, 2010)—An obscure Atlanta wine columnist meets Margaret Duckhorn in the fourth-floor lounge of the St. Regis Hotel to talk about the decline of merlot. She—one of America’s preeminent merlot winemakers—counters that the plight of merlot had little or no impact on her operations, or other wineries committed to making quality wines. The obscure columnist is inclined to believe her since the Duckhorn Wine Company empire, which includes a couple wineries and several hundred acres of prime vineyard land, was sold a little over two years ago for a quarter billion dollars. She still travels incessantly promoting Duckhorn labels, such as Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Decoy and Migration, which will release the company’s first chardonnay wine this spring. After all, we still live in the age of chardonnay.
“Those of us that stuck to our normal regime have not had much of a problem [over the past 10 years],” Duckhorn said. “People still drink merlot.”
And it may be that merlot’s time wandering in the desert is over. California’s 2009 merlot harvest was up by 100,000 tons over 2008, according to a report by Turrentine Grape and Wine Brokerage, a wine consulting firm. “So many acres of merlot have been removed [since 2005], it is surprising that the state produced such a large crop of merlot, a total of over 326,000 tons,” Steve Fredricks, Turrentine’s managing partner, said in his report.
Duckhorn reminded the columnist what was lost in the cloud of negativity surrounding merlot in the past decade. Merlot grapes, when grown with care in the right locations, make staggeringly wonderful wines.
“After the movie [Sideways], a lot of merlot was planted in not a lot of good regions,” said Duckhorn, who oversaw the production of her winery’s first merlot in 1978 (3 B.C.). “It is not an easy grape to grow. It flowers early. If there’s too much wind or frost or hail, it interrupts the flowering, creates uneven clusters and that impact the ripening.” Perhaps one reason for so much ho-hum merlot on the market.
Duckhorn owns seven large merlot-producing parcels and has long-term contracts with proven merlot growers throughout Napa Valley. “The merlot vines are happy there,” she said. “Merlot should be grown in the same geographical areas that [cabernet sauvignon] is grown.”
Surely tired by inane questions about merlot, Duckhorn maintains a smile and happily uncorks evidence that the merlot grape’s days are far from over. After all, merlot is the most planted grape in Bordeaux, where it has thrived for hundreds of years. And she is quick to point out Sideways’ clever ironic twist.
Toward the end of the movie, we see the broken, tragic figure of Miles opening his prized Bordeaux wine, a 1961 Cheval Blanc. Any wine geek worth his snooty salt will tell you this is a classic wine from a renowned vintage and, naturally, made with a substantial amount of a noble grape called merlot.
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Aromas of blackberry, spice, smoke and talc-like minerals. It offers tastes of bright, fresh raspberries with some bolder flavors of plum, cola and a hint of milk chocolate.