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How merlot’s ‘Sideways Effect’ could have been sidestepped

“Sideways” is best-known as the hit film that follows the antics of two friends on a wine-sipping spree in the Santa Ynez Valley. But for wine lovers, the movie is often reduced to what merlot-bashing Miles Raymond, played by Paul Giamatti, said with disdain: “If anyone is drinking merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any f---ing merlot.”

It’s surprising to learn that Miles’ merlot trouncing, which left the varietal smarting with depressed sales for years, could have been avoided. Author Rex Pickett, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, divulged as much as he sat by the fountain outside Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery last weekend. He was there to serve as master of ceremonies for “A Concert of Songs from Sideways: The Musical,” featuring 10 songs he wrote as the latest incarnation of his book.

Pickett said that although he did write the disparaging words about merlot, they didn’t make the final cut of his manuscript. However, “Sideways” director Alexander Payne found the passage in one of Pickett’s old drafts. The author said Payne apparently read through every single draft.

The “Sideways effect” — the drop in merlot sales and the boost in popularity for pinot noir after the movie’s success — “totally surprised” him, Pickett said.

“I write a line,” he mused. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a book. I don’t know if it’s going to be a film. I don’t know if I’m going to jail.”

Pickett laughed and added, “People think I hate merlot. I just don’t like it.”

When the film debuted, a lot of wine lovers pointed out this incongruity: Miles, the unabashed merlot hater, prized his 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, which is a blend of merlot and cabernet franc.

Pickett explained the discrepancy with another secret. He said Payne had hoped, but failed, to get permission from Chateau Latour to make Miles’ favorite wine a 1982 Chateau Latour. One of the most enduring First Growth wines (top wines from France’s Bordeaux region that are among the most expensive and famous in the world), the Latour would have been a wine-savvy pick. It’s typically a blend of 75% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, 4% cabernet franc and 1% petit verdot.

As master of ceremonies earlier in the evening, Pickett was charismatic and self-effacing. “Alexander Payne said, ‘You know what I like about your book so much? Your characters are so f---ing pathetic,’” he joked.

The concert featured 10 songs from an as-yet-unproduced stage musical. Pickett decided to showcase a concert of songs in and about Wine Country since wine lovers continue to be enamored with Miles, the struggling author who finds poetry in pinot.

If the musical comes to fruition and takes off, merlot could take another hit with the song “No Matter How Low We Go.” It’s a spin on the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” and it curses merlot in a playful, but bruising assault.

In case merlot comes under siege yet again, I’d like to point out several impressive ones I’ve tasted recently. If Pickett had uncorked this trio, Miles may have taken to the varietal rather than making it his nemesis.

Chelsea, 2019 Salmon Leap, Dry Creek Valley Merlot, 14.5%, $25. This is an elegant merlot with generous, juicy red fruit and an undercurrent of cracked black pepper. It’s balanced with bright acidity and it has a supple texture, with a lingering finish. The budget-savvy Chelsea is well-crafted.

Matanzas Creek 2017 Keyes Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot, 14.5%, $70. This is a tasty merlot with notes of blackberry, boysenberry and forest floor. It has a seamless texture and it’s lovely.

Pride Mountain Vineyards, 2018 Napa/Sonoma Vintner Select Merlot, 14.4%, $92. This merlot is earthy, with notes of black cherry, plum and black pepper. With supple tannins and a lingering finish, it’s impressive.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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