In 2004 a little indie film came out that would change the wine industry forever. Featuring a star making turn by Paul Giamatti, Sideways told the tale of two friends in the throes of a midlife crises, all seen through the lens of a sunny Californian wine trip. Despite several Oscar nominations and one win, Sideways real lasting legacy remains a little more dubious
Merlot, or more specifically, the tanking of its popularity by Giamatti’s character, who continually and bombastically preaches on the evils of the grape, was where the most impact was felt. The vast majority of people remember little of the nuances of the movie, but they do recall how much he despised Merlot, which by word of mouth spread like wildfire. With the sudden desire to completely avoid the previously popular grape, vineyards started pulling up their Merlot vines, and stores tried desperately to unload their stock.
On the flipside of the coin, sales of Pinot Noir skyrocketed, as the grape most favored by Mr Giamatti. While Pinot is a wonderful grape in and of itself, this often caused problems with vineyards attempting to grow the grape in climates that otherwise could not support it. A lot of these middling Pinots would have been laughed at by the characters in Sideways.
Surprisingly Merlot, in terms of just its base characteristics, is more or less a crowd pleaser. It is fruit forward with a wonderful jam like texture and little in the form of bitterness. It is also a grape with a rich history. Some of the most expensive and revered wines in the world feature Merlot predominantly.
But a few catchy sound bites trashed a perfectly good grape. Much like our current political climate, headlines can be all that matters. I think in the world of wine we are always looking for answers. We want to be smart, to be able to impart our wisdom of what’s good and what’s bad. But wine is always open for interpretation. We all taste something different, and we all like something different, there are no finite answers. It’s all about what you like, what appeals to your taste buds. The journey of discovery that is wine is meant to be enjoyed and savored, not boiled down to some exact science.
One final note. Throughout Sideways, Giamatti’s character is holding on to a very specific bottle of wine, a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc which he obviously cherishes with all his heart. He’s saving it for a very special occasion, the kind that only comes along once in a lifetime. Ironically being that Cheval Blanc is a Grand Cru Bordeaux, it is most likely a blend with a large percentage of Merlot.