Nosh Pit

Reassessing merlot 10 years after ‘Sideways’

By Chris Macias

Paul Giamatti, left, and Thomas Haden Church, starred in “Sideways.” Giamatti’s character disses merlot, and a drop in its popularity followed. It’s not clear how much effect the movie had on drinking habits, but merlot remains a favorite among consumers.
Paul Giamatti, left, and Thomas Haden Church, starred in “Sideways.” Giamatti’s character disses merlot, and a drop in its popularity followed. It’s not clear how much effect the movie had on drinking habits, but merlot remains a favorite among consumers. Twentieth Century Fox

The words were like a corkscrew through the heart of a signature wine grape.

“If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any (bleeping) merlot!”

This seeing-red meltdown might be the second most famous movie line about wine (the top prize has to go to Hannibal Lecter and his Chianti). And it was 10 years ago this fall that moviegoers first heard Paul Giamatti’s Miles utter it in “Sideways,” a film that would go on to earn more than $100 million at the global box office, five Oscar nominations and a win for best adapted screenplay.

But this infamous merlot diss became more than just a memorable quote from the road-trip dramedy that mixed Santa Barbara County’s bucolic wine country with a mighty mid-life crisis. Miles’ anti-merlot rant seemed to cause ripples in the wine marketplace, a phenomenon studied in a 2008 paper called “The Sideways Effect: A Test for Changes in the Demand for Merlot and Pinot Noir Wines.” This research team was headed by Steven Cuellar, an economics professor at Sonoma State University.

The study found that national grocery store sales of merlot fell 1.4 percent each year after 2005, though its decline had been underway for a few years prior. Meanwhile, sales for Miles’ preferred pinot noir skyrocketed in the months after the movie’s 2004 release, to the tune of a 16 percent sales spike, according to an A.C. Nielsen analysis.

Nevertheless, a decade after the film’s release, merlot still ranks as one of the country’s most popular wines.

According to data from Nielsen, merlot accounted for 9 percent of supermarket wine sales in 2013, compared to 4 percent for pinot noir. Chardonnay reigned as king of the wine grapes with 20 percent of sales, followed by 13 percent for cabernet sauvignon.

California’s vineyards are also more flush with merlot grapes than those precious pinot noir. According to the California Agricultural Service, merlot accounted for more than 45,296 acres of plantings statewide in 2013, compared to 41,301 for pinot noir.

Merlot remains one of the world’s signature varietals. France’s Bordeaux wine region wouldn’t be much without merlot, where it remains the area’s most widely planted grape and key red varietal along with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petiti verdot and malbec.

That’s to say, merlot’s popularity hasn’t gone kaput like Miles’ marriage in “Sideways.” According to those who tracked the “Sideways effect,” it was always more complicated than merlot simply becoming a grape non grata. Merlot shipments remained steady after the film’s release, though buyers weren’t purchasing as much.

“Merlot (shipments) continued to grow even after the movie came out, even three years after,” said Gladys Horiuchi, spokesperson for the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based trade organization for California’s wine industry. “It maybe started to flatten in 2007 or 2008. Was that from the movie? I don’t know. It’s still in the top four (of most popular wine varietals).”

But its appeal appears to be trending down. Back in 2005, merlot accounted for 22 million cases in yearly domestic shipments, according to research from Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a Bay Area-based wine consulting firm. Pinot noir’s numbers were just a fraction of merlot’s, with 4.7 million cases shipped.

Fast forward to 2013. Pinot noir’s numbers had risen to 11.5 million cases, while merlot’s slipped to 19 million.

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why merlot’s popularity has decreased. But like pinot noir, merlot was once a grape in the spotlight, and it’s tricky to sustain large growth over an extended time period.

Sales of merlot spiked in the early 1990s after a “60 Minutes” segment about the purported “French paradox,” which suggested that antioxidants in red wine and other factors could promote a healthy heart. That also led to a glut of merlot in the marketplace, and growers capitalizing on the craze planting in areas that weren’t quite suited for merlot. Buyers were bound to get turned off by some of the product, “Sideways” or not.

Since then, “a lot of low-end merlot got out of the game,” said Matthew Lewis, a Sacramento sommelier and wine consultant. “In my mind, a lot of the premier California merlot producers are still the same, before and after the movie. On the flip side, what’s now getting overplayed in the market is bad pinot noir.”

No matter which wine remains in vogue, merlot offers an easy gateway to the world of fermented grapes. It’s much smoother around the edges and less puckery than, say, young cabernet sauvignon. Bottles of merlot don’t require extensive cellaring, like many top-flight cabernet sauvignon wines need, to reveal their complex flavors. Merlot’s simply an easy wine to drink – perhaps too easy for those who crave a more ruminative experience.

One of the great ironies in “Sideways” is that Miles actually has a soft spot for merlot. His beloved bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc, which he savors in a foam cup while chowing down on a burger? That wine is a blend of cabernet franc and merlot – the two grapes Miles disses in the movie (the former in a scene in which his buddy Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, tries to make the moves on a tasting room employee, played by Sandra Oh).

It’s still unclear why Miles has such a fit over the merlot. Perhaps it symbolizes his inability to enjoy what’s right in front of him, whether it’s wine or friendship. Miles clearly associates with the thin-skinned pinot. To him, merlot is too obvious.

Either way, those who avoid merlot because of a line in a movie are missing out on a taste of Petrus. This merlot-based wine from the right bank of Bordeaux is one of the world’s most revered and expensive, an ultimate trophy bottle. The 2011 vintage costs about $1,700 per bottle, while a 1982 Petrus now fetches about $3,000 at auction.

“I find it humorous that the majority of Americans are unaware that all those expensive Bordeaux are made out of merlot,” said Lewis. “I don’t think that’s really penetrated the American consciousness yet.”

The 10th anniversary of “Sideways,” meanwhile, has brought out the marketing forces around Santa Barbara County, with an official map of “Sideways” locations for tourists who want to take their own road trip.

Or you can just celebrate its anniversary at home by curling up with “Sideways,” recently released in a new Blu-Ray edition. Whatever wine you choose to drink while watching should be just fine – even if it’s merlot.

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.