It has been 10 years since Miles Raymond, the absurdist antihero in Alexander Payne’s 2004 feature film “Sideways,” trashed merlot.
The line, in a film that was essentially an homage to pinot noir, disparaged merlot — and every winemaker who made merlot at the time probably had heartburn for a month.
As despicable as some viewers saw Raymond (he steals money from his mother, after all), his message was the near-orgasmic qualities of pinot noir, and the fact that it was the main raison d’etre in the lives of some people. Think what you will about Miles, but about pinot he was right.
At one point in the film, long after Miles’ passion for pinot has been proclaimed, and before going into a restaurant, Miles blurts out, “ . . . If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any %$#&@ merlot!”
It is true that the movie jump-started U.S. sales of pinot noir, which continue to soar. And anecdotally, we heard that sales of merlot immediately declined.
But in a certain way, it was a fitting blow to a grape variety that, when 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 a major way in early 1992, soon after the November 1991 report on “60 Minutes” about the so-called “French paradox,” which spoke of the lowered risk of heart disease in red-wine drinkers.
Immediately after the French Paradox report appeared, cabernet sales rose.
But by early 1992, it was evident to many consumers (who were not really red-wine lovers to begin with) that cabernet was too astringent for them.