Wine without pretense – and the 2004 Merlot disaster

The Great Merlot Collapse of 2004

Wine on a pedestal? It's better in your mouth (Ned White photo)

Wine on a pedestal? It’s better in your mouth (Ned White photo)

Jack: If they want to drink Merlot, we’re drinking Merlot.
Miles: No. If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!
Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church

Anyone who saw the 2004 movie Sideways remembers this line, possibly for the F-bomb, but more likely for the biggest single smackdown of a grape varietal in the history of popular culture. Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, hates Merlot, hates Cabernet Franc, but speaks with near religious fervor about Pinot Noir, lacing his praise with phrases like “I sense flutters of Edam cheese,” and “soupcons of asparagus.” But Merlot? Only his pal Jack will drink it – and plenty of it.

The movie is much more about two guys with battered egos and shaky morals than it is about wine, but it’s done with such tongue-in-cheek affection by writer-director Alexander Payne that we happily go along with them on their breakaway weekend and almost start to believe what they say about wine. Including –

“I’m NOT drinking any f***ing merlot!”

And if you doubt the power of one line of movie dialogue, know that after the movie came out Merlot sales plummeted worldwide, while Pinot Noir sales soared. More accurately, Pinot sales went up 16% while Merlot sales dipped a modest 2%, but for a grape just gaining traction in the U.S. Sideways was a sharp slap in the face.

But director Payne had an ace up his sleeve: it happens that in Miles’ modest collection of wines at home is his most prized possession – a 1961 bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc – which he ends up drinking out of styrofoam cup in a greasy spoon diner at the movie’s end. As any vintner knows, Cheval Blanc is two-thirds Cabernet Franc and one third Merlot, the very grapes Miles believed he couldn’t stomach. Miles, for all his wine pretentiousness, had no clue, and neither did most of the movie’s audience, including me. Payne toyed (gently) with moviegoers, but in the end offered a dramatic wink of the eye to the world’s Merlot growers.

One movie critic described Jack and Miles as “epicureans out of control,” and I wonder if they’d been foodies instead of borderline winos that they’d appreciate this menu, which I just have to repost:

Chez Trez Pretentieux(1) copy

I love Alexander Payne movies (Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants) and was inspired to share his characters’ passion for Pinot Noir. But it just didn’t work. My wife and I tried wines from several different vineyards – all with the same reaction: thin, watery, wimpy, bland. We returned to our favorites – full-bodied reds like Cabernet or Shiraz or Malbec or nearly anything Italian, usually under $10 – and were much happier.


I took this photo a few years ago in my studio and thought it was pretty good, but wine connoisseurs (or, if you want to be fancy, oenophiles) chastised me for a) not removing all the foil and b) resting the bottle’s neck on the glass. Well, I had no idea these were faux pas. I do know it’s best not to serve a decanter of wine resting on a woman’s foot, but otherwise I think you should open and pour wine any way you want. And forget the label – if it tastes good, drink it.

If you like it, drink it.

If you like it, drink it.

(I need to add a note about Paul Giamatti, one of my favorite actors. Paul was born in 1967 on the Yale campus where his father, A. Bartlett Giamatti was professor of comparative literature, Master of Ezra Stiles College, and later president of the university. “Bart” Giamatti went on to become National League President and then Commissioner of Baseball, wrestling with the issue of banishing Pete Rose from baseball for gambling. Giamatti died far too young, at age 51, of a heart attack soon after the Rose decision.)

There you have it. I do want to get out to buffalo country and South Dakota next week… fingers crossed.




Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.