One Wine's Revenge
Sideways Anniversary Inspires Merlot Tasting - Gabe Discusses with Louis
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 the Oscar-winning film "Sideways," the main character, Miles, delivers the sentence in a frenzy along the alleyway outside the Los Olivos Cafe. He's on a wine-fueled double date with his friend, Jack. To be fair, the outburst by Miles, played by actor Paul Giamatti, is more about the expletive than the wine; merlot is his ex-wife's favorite wine, and he's not handling their breakup well. Ordering merlot now would be nothing short of a self-inflicted emotional flogging. To fan the irony, the wine Miles famously drinks in self-medication toward the end of the movie — a fancy 1961 Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux — comprises, in large part, merlot.
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 percent share of the U.S. wine marketplace today compared to 15 percent 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 the "Sideways" rollout into 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 3 to 6 p.m. Sept. 13 in the garden courtyard of the Solvang Festival Theater, 420 2nd St. 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 Sunday and $75 afterward, can be purchased online at www.solvangusa.com
Mr. Lucas, who owns more than 400 acres of vineyards in Santa Maria, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez, is quick to tout the merits of the merlot he and winemaker Megan McGrath produce for his Lucas & Lewellen label. "There's a lot of flavor there, and some really nice fruitiness," he says. The wine retails for $20.
But Mr. Lucas doesn't sugarcoat 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.
"After the movie, I took out two merlot plots — a total of about 12 acres — and grafted them over to pinot noir," he admits. "And because spacing was wide — 12 feet between vines — I inter-planted and put another row of pinot noir down the middle, tripling my pinot vines per acre."
Data from the California Agricultural Statistics Service, provided to the News-Press by Santa Barbara Vintners, which represents most of the county's wineries, concurs. 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.
"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 Baehners planted carefully — Louie Lucas was among their early consultants — and their boutique approach has kept production manageably small. They've also picked winemaking talent wisely — Nick DeLuca early on, Steve Clifton now, both highly regarded players. Last year, their 2010 merlot took gold in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
"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," says 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 event include Sunstone, Buttonwood, Carivintas, Core, Dascomb, Happy Canyon Vineyard, J. Ludlow, LionsPeak, Point Concepcion, Sagebrush Annie's and Sevtap.