How a movie sent merlot sideways

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Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) in a scene from “Sideways”.

“Seeing the movie ‘Sideways’ again got me thinking about how unfair the insecure hero is towards merlot and how I now want to slap him,” writes our normally passive wine columnist RICHARD CALVER.

A MEANS of passing time in lockdown is to revisit movies that have meant something; for oenophiles that movie is “Sideways”, a 2004 Californian road trip movie through wine country, the Santa Ynez Valley. 

When I looked up the location of this place on the internet, I found that it is near Santa Barbara and they offer “Sideways” bike tours taking you to the places that were visited in the movie; reality reflecting art. That bike ride is now on my bucket list. 

While downbeat, the movie makes me laugh, including the articulation of the definition of oenophile that drops from the lips of the anti-hero’s companion on the trip: “He’s not an alcoholic, you understand; he’s an oenophile, which means he can continue to pronounce French wines long after most people would be unconscious.”

Hey, I resemble that remark.

The premise of the movie is quite simple: two middle-aged men, who were former college roommates, go on a wine-tasting weekend before the blond, handsome man’s wedding where the depressed, less-attractive man, played by outstanding actor Paul Giamatti, will act as the best man. 

He despises merlot but has a passion for pinot noir. Like a lot of road-trip movies, it is character driven with the main character seeming cringeworthy in the latest view I undertook. 

But some of the funniest moments in the movie are the unlikeable character’s ranting about how merlot is execrable and how pinot noir is, like him, admirable. 

As a fan of pinot noir, the movie resonated at the time and, in retrospect, the recorded US decline in merlot production seemed to show how a popular movie can have amazing effects on consumer taste. But that trend, at least in Australia, hasn’t continued. 

For example, the vintage report for 2019 produced by Wine Australia showed shiraz, pinot noir and grenache recording decreases of between 2 per cent and 15 per cent, while cabernet sauvignon, merlot and ruby cabernet increased by between 3 per cent and 13 per cent.  

In fact, Wine Australia says about merlot that while wine critics aren’t fans the public loves this varietal and “if you look past the rumours and accusations you’ll find that merlot has never been in better shape in Australia than it is today”. 

And ironically seeing the movie again got me thinking about how unfair the insecure hero is towards merlot and how I now want to slap him. I have, for example, tried the 2016 James Irvine Springhill Merlot 2016 that, at just under $20, was amazingly good value for money. It has a plummy depth and smooth finish that surprised me because some of the merlots I remember from the late 1990s were always short and sharp on the finish. There is also an excellent Canberra District Kyeema Vineyard Reserve Merlot 2014 but that’s $46.

Wine Australia provides us with a quotation from Jim Irvine, as a passionate defender of merlot that explains how some Australian producers went wrong with this varietal: “So much merlot in Australia is planted on the wrong sites – people expect that it will just grow like shiraz or grenache, but it doesn’t – it hates wet feet, for a start, it needs well-drained soil; so if you plant it in clay you’ll have problems, the fruit won’t set properly. 

“The day will come when we get rid of the merlots that are lean, green and mean, the poorly made merlots – they’re a damnation. Merlot has a hard enough time being heard above the cacophony of shiraz.

Forget about the cacophony of shiraz, Jim, if you want to view “Sideways”, you’ll see that there was a cacophony of abuse for merlot. Looking back, it seems unfair.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” –Wayne Dyer

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Richard Calver
Richard Calver walks, talks, thinks, drinks and writes passionately about wine, especially the wines of the Canberra region.

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