It's probably not American wine drinkers' fondness for lots of alcohol and oak that most thoroughly confounds Old World wine lovers: It's their tendency to let fictional characters tell them what to drink.
In one of the goofier episodes in American wine history, a film intended to celebrate the joys of oenophilia nearly decimated an entire subset of it. When Miles Raymond, the nebbish Napa tourist at the center of 2004's Sideways, declared he wasn't "drinking any f—-ing Merlot," a gazillion moviegoers followed his lead. Sales of the nation's most popular varietal suddenly plummeted, with then Today Show host Katie Couric musing on-screen that she'd heard she wasn't supposed to drink the stuff, and freaked-out California growers reportedly yanking their merlot vines out of the ground.
"Only in America could it have that much effect," grumbles Red Willow Vineyards' Mike Sauer, one of the many merlot producers featured in Rudy McClain's new documentary Merlove, slated for a one-night screening at the Fine Arts Theater next week.
While a minor backlash has since softened the Sideways effect, Merlove represents the first serious attempt to meet the Oscar-winning film on its own turf: the silver screen. McClain traveled to California, Washington and France to quiz merlot producers and wine connoisseurs on the varietal's neglected virtues.
If restoring the grape's honor seems like a matter of chivalry for some of the men interviewed, it's no accident. While Merlot fans can cite brawny examples of their favorite wine, the varietal has long been considered a feminine force. Merlot is prized by Bordeaux growers, who use ample quantities of it to soften tannic Cabernets. In the wake of the Sideways debacle, a San Francisco Chronicle wine writer compared cab and merlot to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, the Governator's dutifully charming wife. To many wine insiders, leaping to the defense of poor, mistreated merlot seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do.
"Merlot's a nice grape," Gary Vaynerchuk reflected on his hugely popular video blog. "It never wanted to hurt anybody. It got caught up in the crossfire."
Problem was, defending merlot was often easier to justify as courteous behavior than an educated stance, since much of the merlot available throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s was really quite bad, as McClain readily concedes.
According to McClain, Merlot sprang to prominence after 60 Minutes ran a segment touting the health benefits of red wine. (The entertainment industry apparently giveth as well as it taketh away.) Americans went looking for a red wine they could comfortably swap for their supper-time colas and teas, and they settled on Merlot: an easy, fleshy wine with a pronounceable name.
"The fact that you could pronounce the name correctly was like 'Wow, ooh, you know your stuff,'" McClain says. "Plus, the structure is soft, and you don't have to lay it down for 10 years."
Winemakers, eager to give drinkers what they wanted, responded by flooding the market with sub-par merlots. But most Americans kept drinking them until Paul Giamatti's character clambered onto his soapbox.
The producers of Sideways reportedly worried that the film could tarnish merlot's reputation, and so made a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc — a blend that includes merlot — the object of Miles' most ardent affection. The device was perhaps supposed to signify that Miles really didn't know what he wanted, or didn't adequately appreciate women, or was failing to find the beauty around him. In any case, viewers missed the very subtle point.
"There's a serious intimidation factor with wine," McClain says. "It's like if you get caught in middle school without the right jeans. It's devastating. So when someone comes out in a movie and he's not drinking a wine, you think at last you know one thing about wine."
Still, McClain says, merlot's becoming uncool had an upside: The incident purged the industry of the very worst merlots.
"It was like a fire going through a forest," he says. "People who were abusing it fell by the wayside."
Merlove celebrates the well-made merlots. But, more importantly, it's a lively call for wine drinkers not to let Hollywood guide their palates. Leading wine educators — such as Vaynerchuk and, closer to home, Jessica Gualano, owner of Asheville's soon-to-open Wine Studio, who's hosting a merlot tasting in conjunction with the film — have lately been talking themselves hoarse about the importance of drinking what tastes good, regardless of expert opinions and big-budget films.
Or as it reads on the reverse of McClain's business card, "Have the courage to embark on your own wine adventure."
Food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.