Merlot went through a series of ups and downs in sales and popularity.
Merlot grapes like soil with clay in it. (barmalini/Shutterstock)

The film “Sideways,” which was released 19 years ago (in October 2004), shows its absurdist antihero, Miles Raymond, trashing the merlot grape variety and the wines it makes.

The film is intended, in part, to elevate pinot noir to a position of prestige. And the movie does pay homage to that Burgundian grape variety from start to finish.

However, the film also came out at about the same time that a lot of fairly mediocre merlots were being produced, which filmmaker Alexander Payne emphasizes often.

There’s one line in the film that does this most convincingly. Every winemaker who made merlot at the time, on hearing that line, probably winced and had acid reflux for a month.

At one point in the film, long after Miles proclaims his passion for pinot, and before going into a restaurant, he blurts out: “... if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any (expletive) merlot!”

It’s true that the movie jump-started U.S. sales of pinot noir, which continue to soar. But at the same time, we also saw sales of merlot immediately decline. In a certain way, that was a fitting blow to a grape variety that, when it is not made from exceptional fruit, can indeed make a rather lackluster wine.

Merlot long has been seen as a lower-tannin alternative to cabernet sauvignon. The lower-tannin image of merlot was discovered by Americans in 1992, soon after the November 1991 French Paradox report on “60 Minutes” that spoke of the lowered risk of heart disease among moderate red wine drinkers.

Immediately after the French Paradox report appeared on “60 Minutes,” cabernet sales rose. But by early 1992, it was evident that many consumers weren’t really red wine lovers, and they discovered that cabernet was too astringent for them.

As a result, many switched to merlot. Before long, the state ran out of merlot, prompting a rush to plant it. Between 1993 and 2000, merlot began to be so widely planted that much of it was put in the wrong locations. In California, merlot acreage went from 8,000 acres planted statewide to 58,000 acres. And much of that new acreage was in areas that were either too warm or had the wrong soils to make a great red wine.

The merlots that Miles was railing against were part of that vast sea of mediocrity that soon developed.

To be sure, the film’s anti-merlot comment had a negative effect on merlot sales to newcomers. But sales of iconic merlots from producers such as Markham, Duckhorn, Clos du Val, Frog’s Leap, Mondavi, and dozens of others really weren’t hurt.

Merlot remains an excellent and widely respected grape variety, often being blended into cabernet sauvignon to soften its “savage” nature. Merlot is best when it is grown in slightly cooler regions than cabernet prefers. Also, merlot really likes being planted in soils with clay content.

Some people may find the tea leaf/olive/bay leaf aroma of quality merlots to be slightly challenging, but the grape’s flavors really work nicely with savory foods such as beef stew. And such wines often respond nicely to decanting, which allows the wines to open up and display additional notes of complexity.

Wine of the Week

2021 Decoy Merlot, Sonoma County ($22): This medium-weight red wine has a slightly complex varietal aroma of black cherry and tea, and its balance is charming, allowing it to be good with hamburgers and other simple foods.
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