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OPINION | BOTTLE SHOTS: Chameleon-like merlot deserves another chance

by Seth Eli Barlow | June 9, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

"If anybody orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any [bleep] merlot!"

It's a throwaway line in Alexander Payne's 2004 film "Sideways," but many — myself included — claim it's had an outsize effect on the way Americans drink wine ever since. The film follows two friends on a wine-tasting vacation through Southern California in search of women and a perfect pinot noir. The main character, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, is the classic wine snob, oozing pretension every time he raises a glass.

The film's greatest irony? That Miles' most prized possession, a bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, is a blend featuring a sizable proportion of merlot. The film, rightly or otherwise, gets blamed for a decline in the sales of merlot-based wines throughout the mid-2000s. A more likely version of the truth is that in the 1990s, merlot vines were being planted up and down California to be made into inexpensive, mass-market wines that could be found on grocery-store and gas-station shelves across the country. When the film came out and put a voice to the fact that most of these wines were, in fact, quite bad, it gave many growers cause to rip out their bad merlot vines and replace them with (often equally bad) pinot noir.

Even now, some 17 years later, this change in consumer taste still makes merlot a hard sell for a lot of drinkers. I've had winery representatives tell me they often market their merlot as a "red blend," a term that, for whatever reason, people are more comfortable with when they see it on a label. Pouring wine for guests, I often found that people say they even prefer a merlot-based wine, as long, of course, as they don't know it's merlot.

It's a disappointing trend, as merlot, in the hands of a capable winemaker, can produce incredible wines that run the gamut from delicate and demure to dark and brooding. I like to think of merlot as something of a chameleon, able to change its profile dramatically based both on where it's grown and what other grapes it's blended with. In its native France, the wine is often soft and delicate, with notes of violets, tobacco leaves and leather, while sun-drenched California produces wines that are rich and fruity, bursting with plum, raspberry and spice.

Next week, we'll take a deeper dive into some of the merlots that should be gracing your dinner table.

As always, you can see what I'm drinking on Instagram at @sethebarlow and send your wine questions and quibbles to sethebarlowwine@gmail.com

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