(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/28/14)
It took just one line. Granted, it was delivered dramatically, and with angst. But just one infamous line is all it took.
“I am not drinking any [expletive] merlot!”
|In Sideways, Miles (played by Paul Giamatti, left) prefers pinot noir and|
won't drink "any [expletive] merlot!"
(courtesy: Fox Searchlight and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)
But all this didn’t really matter to the American wine buyer, of course. Miles’ defiant refusal to drink merlot in one of the movie’s most complex scenes was enough for the once-reigning wine to take a hit with consumers – a sting that still hurts today. Data from Nielsen, the statistics collection company, suggests merlot has a 10% share of the U.S. wine marketplace today, compared to 15% in 2004.
But now, “merlot wants to get even,” jests Louie Lucas, who’s been growing a wide range of wine grapes in Santa Barbara County for four decades. And many of his colleagues agree.
Inspired by this year’s 10th anniversary of Sideways’ rollout onto theaters, more than a dozen local producers of merlot are hosting a “Merlot Taste-Off!” The event, sponsored by the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau, takes place Saturday, September 13th, from 3-6pm, in the garden courtyard of the Solvang Theater. This is a fundraiser for the popular open-air performing arts venue, which opened its doors in downtown Solvang 40 years ago. Tickets – priced at $65 through August 31 and $75 for purchases September 1 through the event date – can be purchased online at www.SolvangUSA.com.
|Lucas & Lewellen grows its estate merlot in Los Alamos|
But Mr. Lucas doesn’t coat the fact that the movie -- about two bachelors who stumble their way through Santa Barbara wine country, extolling the virtues of pinot noir while, even if inadvertently, dulling merlot’s luster – has led him to do things differently in the last 10 years.
|Louie Lucas, right, and Royce Lewellen inspect |
grapes before harvest
Data from the California Agricultural Statistics Service, provided to the News-Press by Santa Barbara Vintners, which represents most of the county’s wineries, concur. Between 2003 and 2013, the amount of California acreage planted to merlot fell by half, while the amount of land dedicated to pinot noir doubled. “It’s staggering,” says Mr. Lucas, who adds that pinot noir remains, in fact, their top seller.
But these days, a decade after Sideways’ jab, many growers like Mr. Lucas are revisiting merlot by focusing on optimum planting sites. For the man behind two Solvang-based tasting rooms and three top-selling wine brands – Lucas & Lewellen, Toccata and Queen of Hearts – the answer is in Los Alamos. “It’s an in-between place,” he says,” where it’s not too cold and not too hot. When merlot is grown in a place that’s too warm, it makes a good red wine, but it loses classic merlot character.” If the industry’s focus returns to the nuances that once made quality merlot a consumer favorite, believes Mr. Lucas, its renaissance in the marketplace may be inevitable.
Bob and Vickie Baehner, who live in the warmer eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, are counting on it. The couple – he’s a former doctor, she’s a travel agent – planted five acres of their backyard to grapevines, including merlot, in 2001. Their first Baehner Fournier Vineyards wines hit the marketplace in 2005, right when the hoopla over Sideways, which had just won an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, seven Independent Spirit Awards and the title of the American Film Institute’s “2014 Film of the Year,” was at its peak.
|The Baehner-Fournier Vineyards in the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley include about 1.5 acres of merlot|
“We were a little nervous, sure,” admits Mrs. Baehner, adding, undaunted, “But merlot is my favorite wine. In fact, we planted it mainly on my insistence.”
|The Baehner-Fournier 2010 Merlot|
“The nose is particularly nice,” says Mr. Baehner. Blended with a bit of cabernet sauvignon, “you get dark cherry, you pick up plum on the mid-palate, nice balanced acidity and a finish that’s long and smooth.”
Yes, people still reference Miles when the Baehners discuss their estate merlot. “They joke about it,” admits Mrs. Baehner. “But then they taste it, they love it, they ask for a second taste, and they buy it.”
The Baehners made 151 cases of their 2010 merlot, and less than a quarter of the production remains. It will be poured at the upcoming Merlot Taste-Off!
Other wineries taking part in the September 13th event include Sunstone, Buttonwood, Carivintas, Core, Dascomb, Happy Canyon Vineyard, J. Ludlow, Lions Peak, Point Concepcion, Sagebrush Annie’s and Sevtap.
For upcoming events commemorating Sideways’ 10th anniversary, check out social media: #Sideways10.