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The truth about Merlot and the Sideways effect

Back in 2004, a movie came out with a funny little man screaming about how he didn’t want to drink Merlot, and the wine industry has been squirming ever since (even 10+ years later).

I’m sipping a delicious glass of the newly released 4th vintage of Bridget Raymond’s Intertwine Merlot, a Napa Merlot that she’s made with us since we launched. And there’s a lot of Merlot truths I want to get off my chest.

1. Merlot can be awesome, as a solo variety and in blends

There’s nothing inherently bad about Merlot. When it’s mass-produced, it can create a very forgettable wine, and a few mass-producers have done some work to ruin the reputation of an otherwise very noble grape.

My family has some Merlot planted in the Cabardes region of France and we think it’s actually a much better parcel than our Cabernet vines just a few hundred yards away.

What’s more, Merlot is a perfect grape for blending.

Bridget’s Merlot is actually 92% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot. Interestingly, in the US a wine only has to be 75% Merlot to say Merlot on the label. And that’s true about all grape varieties.

And Bridget’s in good company. Some of the world’s most famous blends are predominantly Merlot, which brings me to point #2…

2. Miles (the guy in Sideways) doesn’t actually hate Merlot.

Miles rants about not wanting to drink Merlot, but he also waxes poetic about this epic bottle of wine he’s had stored away for a special occasion. It’s a bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc which is ironically a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

paul-giamatti-i-want-some-fing-merlotThe whole movie builds up to him drinking Merlot.

I saw the author of Sidways, Rex Pickett, speak at the Wine Bloggers Conference a couple years ago, and he said “Bear in mind that if you go back and look at the movie, [Miles] is trying to really just stop the train wreck of his friend Jack: Merlot just kind of got caught in the crossfire.”

Note: The author also said “Merlot deserved it” and then some really mean things about his mom… the whole thing was a bit… ummm…. it was unforgettable.

Anyway, most people don’t realize that the main character of this movie loves and hates Merlot in equal portions.

3. The Sideways effect on Merlot was pretty negligible

There’s actually a detailed mathematical analysis of the effect Sideways and other events in 2004 may have had on sales of Pinot Noir and Merlot. OMG I love wine nerds. And it doesn’t get much wine-nerdier than this.

The study showed that Merlot was already suffering some downward trends and the movie at worst exacerbated those already existing trends.

But the psychological effect was devastating. Winemakers still sometimes label 100% Merlot wines as “red blends” just because they don’t want to put Merlot on a label and risk being rejected by some middleman or distributor who thinks Merlot can’t sell anymore.

4. The sideways effect on Pinot was pretty extraordinary, but a lot of Pinot is not 100% Pinot

The movie does seem to have caused a surge in Pinot sales and changed the trajectory of Pinot Noir pricing from a general downward trend to a booming positive trend. Or something else happened in 2004.

In any case, Pinot has been in big demand for the past 10 years.

So much so that winemakers often cut corners by putting 25% of other grapes into their Pinot Noir. As I mentioned earlier, you can label a wine pure Pinot Noir as long as it’s 75% Pinot. So a lot of winemakers try to amp up production volumes (and add some beefiness to their Pinot) by blending in less sought out grapes.

Irony of all ironies, there might be a Pinot Noir somewhere out there with 25% Merlot in it. 🙂
So that’s the truth about Merlot and the Sideways effect. If you’re like me, you think it’s ridiculous that a cool little movie could have the wine industry changing its labels and making big proclamations like Merlot is dead or the Sidways Effect is dead, but that’s what the industry does. Please, rise above all the marketing and enjoy a good glass of Merlot this week. Bridget’s is available to Angels only, but there’s a lot of great Merlots out there so get drinking!

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