The State of Merlot, 15 Years After ‘Sideways’

Photo of red wine poured into glasses from bottle on blurred background of a vineyard right before harvest, with hanging branches of grapes. With cork and vintage corkscrew

It has now been 15 years since the release of the Alexander Payne hit film “Sideways.” Many credited this movie with killing merlot sales when Miles Raymond, played by actor Paul Giamatti, proclaimed “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any (expletive) merlot.”

How can it be that one of the most popular Bordeaux varietals was destroyed by a few references in a movie? And keep in mind that some of the most famous wines in the world are primarily comprised of merlot. In Bordeaux’s right bank regions of St. Emilion and Pomerol, merlot reigns supreme. Even Mile’s prized 1961 cheval blanc that he drank at the end of the movie is a blend of merlot and cabernet franc.

Merlot is celebrated in Bordeaux. It ripens early with large grapes. It’s thin-skinned and known for its full-bodied-yet-soft fruit. The tannins are easy and there is often a soft finish that makes it an ideal blending grape.

In California, a wine can still have its varietal name on the label if 75% of its volume is derived from the designated grape. A wine label can state cabernet sauvignon and consist of 75% cabernet and 25% merlot or other varietals. Many winemakers like the flexibility of blending in some merlot to finesse their wines.

Famed Napa Valley Winemaker Aaron Pott, who produces under his “Majesty’s Secret Service” label and has a vineyard in Napa’s Mt. Veeder, actually appreciates the “Sideways effect.” In Northern California, Pott notes, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to merlot. So much merlot was being planted back then and it was green (vegetal) and boring. It was being planted in soils that it should never have been planted in. Only the cream went to the top and some good merlot survives.”

I remember the quality of merlot some 15 to 20 years ago. There was a lot of pretty awful merlot flooding the market. What Miles stated resonated as true, as many wine-lovers looked down on all that sub-par American merlot.

American consumers primarily buy based on the varietal, unlike Bordeaux, which is all about the blends. And when American consumers spend money on premium wines from California’s north coast appellations, like Napa and Sonoma Valleys, cabernet sauvignon is king. Even before the movie came out, merlot was stigmatized and Miles only confirmed what we were all thinking.

Many wineries that still have merlot plantings often don’t label the wine as merlot, but call them red blends. It is more sellable than denoting merlot on the front label. Though there are some wineries that take particular pride in their merlot and designate the varietal as such, like Duckhorn, Pride Mountain, Shafer Vineyards, Stags Leap and Pahlmeyer.

Well-regarded winemaker Reed Renaudin, the CEO of Amicus wine holdings, noted that Merlot sales have never recovered and that it’s basically a blending grape. “Merlot is still a very hard sell. It’s primarily used as a blender to decrease cabernet pricing. It’s a very nice varietal but is still quite depressed, although it doesn’t have as bad an image problem as syrah. There are now more consistent fruit sources for programs that survived, but generally merlot sales are still stagnant.”

And what about pinot noir, the varietal that so impressed Miles and captured his imagination? In California, there has been a triple-digit increase in pinot noir sales in the past 15 years. Pinot noir sales have been on fire and the plantings have grown exponentially.

If ever there is a “Sideways 2,” will Miles remain so enamored with pinot noir, now that the varietal is so popular and the quality varies so widely?

As chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, Jonathan H. Newman was the nation’s largest wine buyer. Follow him on Twitter at @NewmanWine and visit his website: Read his recent piece Evaluating Napa and Sonoma’s 2018 Vintages and Selling Wine With Mr. Wonderful.


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