Merlot After Sideways

Ten years after the movie condemned it, merlot is alive and well

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Illustration by Jon Estrada

On January 21, 2005, a little film called Sideways, based on a book by Rex Pickett, was released to movie screens across the U.S. The story chronicled a pre-matrimonial last romp by two old friends through Santa Barbara wine country. The film gained notoriety for its trendy take on California wine, and while it won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, its most lasting impact wasn’t artistic but commercial.

Blame it on a single line: At one point in the movie, the character Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, shouts, “I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” It was a funny line in a very funny movie, but nearly overnight, sales of merlot fell through the floor.

Up until that time, merlot had been a huge seller nationally, far surpassing pinot noir. Many wine merchants, producers, consumers and wine journalists who were slaves to fashion tossed merlot overboard. Meanwhile, pinot noir, which had gotten the hipster nod from Miles and friends, was hailed as the new “it” grape.

It’s a pity. I was a fan of merlot before, during and after the film’s release. Good merlot expresses wonderful aromatics, rich and silky textures, and comforting yet ample tannins.

So, 10 years post-Sideways, I decided to look at the fortunes of American merlot to see how it’s really doing. I reviewed data from Nielsen, which collects, tabulates and distributes information about wine sales from off-premise food and drug outlets—accounting for the majority of U.S. sales—and also supplement my inquiry by talking with producers, sommeliers and other wine experts, too.

Here’s what I found out.

What The Data Says

In a Nielsen report dated December 2001, merlot held a 14 percent share of the overall U.S. wine market. Merlot sales even topped cabernet sauvignon, which stood at 12 percent. Pinot noir held a paltry 2 percent share. By December 2004, just prior to the release of Sideways, merlot had attained 15 percent market share.

Suddenly, things changed. By December 2006, merlot had dropped 3 percentage points to claim merely 12 percent of U.S. wine sales. Meanwhile, pinot noir had risen from 2 percent to 5 percent. By March 2014, merlot sales stood at 9 percent. Pinot noir, meanwhile, accounted for 4½ percent.

The upshot is that today, merlot outsells pinot noir by nearly two to one, and is the fourth-most-sold wine varietal in the country after chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio. Merlot may not have re-attained its 2001 dominance, but is far from dead.

A Drop in Volume, But a Jump in Quality

Merlot has emerged stronger from its period of market readjustment. The many insipid, thin, cheap and just plain bad merlots that previously flooded the market have been replaced by wines with more character. “Sideways was one of the best things to ever happen to merlot,” says Carol Reber, chief marketing and business development officer at Duckhorn Vineyards, a merlot standard-bearer. “Those who weren’t dedicated to making merlot in its highest form left the category to pursue other varieties. [That leaves] more fruit from top-notch vineyards available to those of us who understand and love merlot.”

“[Merlot is] no longer the darling for easy and commodity-driven consumption,” says Jeff McBride, vice president of winemaking at Benziger Family Winery. “[It] has re-established itself as one of the true members of grape royalty and distinction.”

Well-Liked by Somms–And Customers

“People are more willing to try merlot now that time has passed since the movie was first released,” says Danielle Aita, head sommelier at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville, Calif., and one of the original sommeliers at NoMad Hotel and Restaurant in New York.

One force helping merlot’s resurgence is its reasonable price. Another is flavor.

“I really cherish the floral perfume on the nose,” says Jon Ruel, president of Trefethen Family Vineyards. Trefethen’s merlot sales have remained strong over the last decade. In fact they planted more merlot in 2010 and 2012 to meet demand. Their merlot is one of my new favorites—hearty and toothsome.

Catherine Rabb, a senior instructor in the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University and a wine judge at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, likes merlot’s food-friendliness and pairing ability. “A smooth and rich merlot is an obvious choice with big meaty dishes,” Rabb says, “but I am often quite surprised by how well merlot goes with lots of other food—mushroom-y risotto, tomato-based dishes like lasagna, roasted red peppers, pâté. The best pairing I’ve had was a bowl of white-bean and kale soup, fresh sourdough bread and butter, and a rich Napa merlot. I still think about how good that was.”

Wither Merlot?

For his part, Pickett is rueful about his fateful line, which incidentally didn’t appear in his original book. “I cut the line for the published novel, not because I wanted to, but because I was given bad advice by a senior editor to do so. Of course, at the time I had no idea that the line would become this trope or meme in popular culture, even to this day,” Pickett says. “‘No fucking merlot’ is the No. 1 thing I’m requested to inscribe on books.”

“Merlot was bastardized by a movie quote,” says Grant Long Jr., the winemaker for Blue Oak Vineyards. He produces one of Napa Valley’s very best merlots—a real standout that’s velvety, strong, aromatic and delicious. But he’s not worried about merlot’s future. “Merlot’s roots in wine history will always overcome moments in public opinion. It is no surprise to me, a decade later, to see it gaining a foothold yet again.”

Bob Ecker is a wine writer based in Napa, California, and contributor to Decanter, Grape Collective and other publications. Read the complete story here.