“Suck it, Sideways!”

The current political “scene” (read: shit show) in the United States has made it abundantly clear that stereotypes and sweeping generalizations remain the preferred currency of communication for the ignorant and uneducated in this country, and around the world. Candidates paint xenophobic pictures with broad brushes, outdo one another with petty attacks, and promote racism and intolerance 140 characters at a time. At times the result is merely offensive; at others it means departing the European Union. But history and common sense agree that painting with broad brush strokes can be dangerous, whether it is about groups of people, other cultures, or even wine.

I cringe and a little piece of me dies inside when I hear someone say, “I don’t like merlot.”  It’s like saying, “I don’t like books,” or “I don’t like men.”  Sure, some of them suck, and my guess would be that if you’re the one saying this, then you yourself may well have encountered a pretty unimpressive example. But let me encourage you to put the very human urge to make generalizations aside for a second, for your own sake.  Just as men, or books, (or other cultures, races and religions) vary widely both inside and out, the same is true of grape varietals, and that of course includes merlot.  Maybe when you were forced to read the Russian classics in undergrad or having that particularly bad second date at HuHott with the cocky guy in the Affliction t-shirt who ruined us all for you, the experience was unfortunately complimented by a glass of funky merlot. But remember for a moment that it is possible to tell a good story in under a thousand pages, that the meathead you briefly dated is not my representative, and that whatever bad juice you may have previously imbibed was not indicative of the entirety of merlot as a grape, regardless of winemaker, vintage, or style.

The merlot varietal, a favorite of the storied winemakers of Bordeaux and the primary grape used in all reds crafted on the Right Bank, has been around as long as any, and has been enjoyed for just as much time. Well crafted, it’s known to be soft and velvety in the mouth, exhibiting plum and other dark fruit flavors, and an excellent compliment to foods that vary from casserole to cheeseburgers, barbecue and more.  And yet, the wines made from this beautiful grape seem to be tragically underappreciated here in the United States. Of the 928,000 acres of California that the USDA estimates are planted to grapes, a mere 44,460 of those, or 4.8%, are planted to merlot, and much of that is used for blending.  Contrast that to 87,972 acres for cabernet sauvignon, or 97,826 acres for chardonnay, and you get a snapshot of where merlot ranks on the proverbial drink-chain.

Some of merlot’s apparent overshadowing may be attributed in part to pop culture. In 2004, the already in-decline merlot industry took another blow with the release of the now cult movie Sideways.  If you haven’t seen it, Sideways is the story of a sad little wine snob whose frat-tastic douchebag of a best friend cheats on his fiancé while the two of them drink their way through California wine country. The would-be novelist played by Paul Giamatti was the one to utter the now infamous, “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving.” Then, through clenched teeth, “I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” Though there is some debate about the true impact of the movie, this short scene appears to have done no favors to the already-hobbled merlot industry.  Why anyone would deliberately take a cue from the characters in this movie is beyond my understanding, but wine lore holds that this movie somehow managed to do further damage to merlot sales.

Interestingly, director Alexander Payne is reportedly a fan of the varietal and, with deliberate irony, the climax of the movie involves Giamatti’s character seated in a fast food restaurant drinking a bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc (a bottle of wine currently valued between $2,500 – $5,000) out of a Styrofoam cup. Chateau Cheval Blanc, located in Saint-Émilion, is a Right Bank Bordeaux, and thus the blend is composed mainly of merlot.

Every time I find a new merlot I love, and this occurs with a fair degree of regularity, I include the line “Suck it, Sideways” in my review, a passive-aggressive response to the many people who would never have tried the wine because, well, I suppose because Paul Giamatti is such a phenomenal actor. Or else because they’re stupid doodie-heads. It’s one of those two.

To read the rest of the article, please go to Food & Spirits Magazine, where it was originally published:



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