The "'Sideways' Phenomenon." Nothing new, here.
The photo shows a tank of Merlot being pumped-over with, what is called, a pumpover device. They were invented by wizard Tom Beard way back in the early 80's and have been a wine industry standard ever since. For the geek-curious, here's his website.
Back to Miles, Merlot and "Sideways." I just finished the book and have yet to see the movie but I've read so much about it, I feel like I've seen the movie, too. The book reads like a screenplay, which is no surprise since the author is a screenwriter. I wasn't enamored with the basis of the story but certainly enjoyed the passion behind the characters' disparate quests. It's a quick read, for sure.
Now, if you follow the wine business at all, you know that this little Hollywood flick has had a TREMENDOUS impact on the wine business. As a Merlot grape grower and winery, we have certainly felt the impact. I also make Pinot Noir for Elke Vineyards from the Anderson Valley so I am intimate with the other side of the coin, as well. In fact, I spent much of my career as a Pinot fanatic working in Burgundy and Oregon as part of my learning curve. I can relate to Miles' passion for the Pinot. I feel it. I drink. I love it. The thing I, and many others, don't understand is how a movie could trump all of the other wine business trends imaginable.
There is one thing that is wholly transparent to me, however, and that is this: Merlot is clearly a victim of it's own success. Like Peter Frampton in the 70's, Merlot got way too much play when it caught on some 15 years ago. It was appreciated for it's soft, blueberry fruit and smooth tannins. Many said that, like Chardonnay, people liked it also because it was easy and fun to say.(???) Many of us planted more to keep up with demand. It supplanted a lot of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling in the Napa Valley during the phylloxera re-planting era in the late 80's. Turns out, Merlot is a finicky grape very much like Pinot Noir. All of the sites where Merlot was planted weren't ideal. Many high-end producers were trying to make Merlot that tasted more like a Cabernet, thereby burying it's charms with impressiveness. When the planting boom hit the Central Valley, the plonk Merlot kept coming at an alarming rate. Pretty soon, there was a great deal of sub-standard Merlot out there. Perhaps you've had one -- weedy cherry juice, comes to mind. Not so yummy. Enter, Miles.
A loquacious, cynical, ill-tempered Pinot freak on a week-long bender is not a difficult character to imagine. Deriding Merlot at this time in history is pretty straight forward, too. I've heard a lot of stuff about the wines he waxes about in the movie being Merlot-based, a glaring irony to his rants. This part isn't in the book, I might add. In the book, in fact, he's un-inspired by the heralded '82 Latour which should get any wine lover going. The wine business is turned on it's head, thanks to old Miles. The tidal wave of Pinot Noir grapes that were forecast for oversupply is quickly and entirely drained seemingly overnight. We drank it all! It didn't hurt that, we in America, finally figured out how to make excellent Pinot Noir back in the mid-80's. High-fives, all around.
So poor old Merlot crashes and burns and many of us consider our options. I've read a lot about pendulums and decrees of allegiance to Merlot but the market is the market. The fact is, Merlot is a wonderful grape and it will retain that place. As the dust settles, I hope people find Merlot an excellent substitute for overblown Pinots (which there are a great many). Then we'll be back to square 1 -- with a twist! A delicious twist! Great Merlot AND great Pinot Noir in a range of styles and price points. High-fives, all around, encore!
The inspiration for this lengthy post was actually something else, actually. Ranting back at Miles in my mind, I realized that this whole discussion is as old as the hills. It's older than the Napa Valley, literally. This conflict goes back to France's dueling wine regions of yore. Burgundy vs. Bordeaux. What is the greatest wine in the world? What region dominated the fancies of connoisseurs over the centuries??? Answer: both. They're different. They're almost beyond comparison. The old expression "Bordeaux is for the head, Burgundy is for the body" comes to mind. The intellectual meets the visceral, and so on. For me, and I suspect, many of you, it's just an embarrassment of riches for wine lovers.