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Knocked Sideways
Merlot is suddenly uncool -- but the great ones still shine
Thursday, February 24, 2005
San Francisco Chronicle
By W. Blake Gray, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wine is more than a part of dinner -- for many people, it's a fashion statement. And no varietal is more vulnerable to the vagaries of coolness than Merlot.

In less than 15 years, Merlot blossomed from a subservient blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon to its current status as America's most popular red wine. Many oenophiles have turned up their noses since the mid-1990s, when "a glass of Merlot" became synonymous, for casual drinkers, with a glass of red wine. But sales never stopped rising, and Merlot passed Cabernet as America's best-selling red wine in 2000, according to the Wine Institute.

Now everything has changed, thanks to just two lines in the movie "Sideways." In a much-quoted scene, the wine snob character Miles tells his easygoing friend Jack before a double-date dinner: "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f -- Merlot."

Suddenly, America's favorite red wine is also its most uncool.

Merlot sales are still rising overall, but AC Nielsen reported some early warning signs of a possible reversal Monday: the percentage of households buying it is down 2 percent compared to a similar 12-week period a year ago; repeat purchases of Merlot are down 3 percent.

I admit, part of me cheers this development. There are a lot of lousy Merlots made in California, and in researching this story, I tasted dozens of bland, vegetal, over-oaked and overpriced wines. If a falling market pressures many farmers to replant with varietals more suited to their terroir, I'm in favor of it. More


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