When I was 19, I went to see the movie Sideways in theaters. (Wouldn’t it be funny if the next sentence I wrote was, “And that was the moment I knew I was going to become a sommelier.” Like, can you imagine? Do you think that’s ever happened to anyone? Like, “I was just so compelled by this thrilling tale of two depressing middle-aged men who are failures but also like wine, I simply couldn’t help but change my entire life trajectory in its honor!”) Anyway: I hated it.
At that age, I was entirely disinterested in wine and would have been weirded out to discover that in a decade’s time it would become the central focus of my professional, creative, and social life. I guess I thought that liking wine, in that particular Sideways-y way—knowing enough about it to be able to sniff inside a glass and then have a bunch of shit to say about what it smelled like, or what it “was,” or whatever—was an inoffensive, if useless, way to spend one’s time. Being a Sideways-y wine person was slightly cooler than snowboarding but slightly less cool than skateboarding. I didn’t hate Sideways because it was about wine, I hated Sideways because it was about two depressing middle-aged men who are failures. It was the year 2004, and I was an effervescent, cigarette-smoking baby. I liked drugs. I wore Ugg boots. I had no room in my life for the depressing failures of middle-aged men. (But now it’s 15 years later, and they’re my entire dating pool!)
After the movie, my boyfriend and I smoked a joint in the trunk of his parents’ minivan, and I yelled for a very long time about how much I hated Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles, who is smug, and pretentious, and irritating, and middle-aged, and depressing, and wears a corduroy blazer in the style of a recently Me Too-ed professor, and no woman as hot as Virginia Madsen would ever bang him ever, and his voice is both gulpy and nasal, and his hair is both thin and curly.
I swore, in that moment, stoned on shitty weed in the trunk of my ex-boyfriend’s parents’ minivan, that “My only goal in life is to be the exact human opposite of Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways.”
I recall that moment so strikingly vividly—how delighted I was by my brain’s decision to throw the word “human” into the middle of the “exact opposite” sandwich.
At first, I thought it would be a cute idea to rewatch Sideways as my hook for writing about Merlot since I remembered Sideways as being rife with anti-Merlot sentiment, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it: I would rather do anything than rewatch Sideways! (Except kill a person. Or go to Burning Man.) Then I Googled a plot synopsis of Sideways, but I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Then I Googled “sideways movie merlot,” and skimmed an article affirming Sideways’ partial responsibility for the decline and fall of Merlot sales in the 21st Century. You see, Miles sucks, and spends the entire movie making a big deal out of how much he hates Merlot, and why? Simply because his ex-wife liked it, which is a bullshit reason to dislike anything, and, further to my earlier point about how no woman as hot as Virginia Madsen would ever bang Miles ever, I find it impossible to believe that any human, or mammal, or robot, or flea, would ever marry him, so suck on that gaping plot hole, Alexander Payne.
Being Miles’ exact human opposite became a hell of a lot harder once I concurrently chose to devote my life to loving wine, but at the very least my fiery, defensive love of Merlot—in 2020 considered a dowdy and unfashionable wine grape—sets us as far apart as can be.
My mother is a Merlot-drinker: the same type of Merlot-drinker that I believe we are meant to imagine Miles’ ex-wife to be. She likes it because it’s “smooth,” and because it tastes like fruit. When she orders wine in a restaurant, she asks for a glass of Merlot without consulting the menu, a behavior I find abhorrent in others (my current restaurant’s wine list is French-only; the number of people who blindly ask after Pinot Grigio makes me want to tear all my hair out), but endearing on her. I respect her dedication to Merlot, a grape that has been wholly rejected by the contemporary palate, and perhaps my fierce allegiance to the grape has as much to do with my love for her as it does with the fact that I think it’s simply fucking awesome.
So why has Merlot fallen out of vogue? Well, 2% because of Miles, we know that much is true. And the remaining 98% is about as arbitrary as why fashionable 21-year-olds currently think it’s cool to dress like sporty dads from 1992. Trends come and trends go, and for whatever reason, fruity wines are currently out of style. I talk about wine to people who know nothing about wine for a living, and it seems as though the popular consciousness has embraced the viewpoint that liking fruity wines is amateurish, and gauche.
But I, for one, am a huge proponent of the resilience of fruit character in wine. Last spring, I wrote the list at an Argentinian steak restaurant, where we sold a lot of steak. Steak, steak, steak. Never-ending steak. Steak Central. Steak City, USA. Population: me.
It was not the most creatively-stimulating somm job of my life. I would ask customers what they were in the mood for, wine-wise, and every last one of them would say: “Well, we’re having steak, so probably something full-bodied, like a California Cab?” and I’d say, “I don’t have any California Cabs on the list,” and then they’d keel over and die of a heart attack because of what a horrible and controversial somm I am, and then, after the jaws of life had been put away and all was back to normal, they’d sigh and say, “I guess we’d better have an Argentinian Malbec, then,” and I’d grab them a bottle of the finest goddamned entry-level Mendoza Malbec they ever tasted (because I’m non-Miles-y, and believe in giving people what they want) at an extremely high markup (because sometimes this is the somm’s job).
After a couple of months of reliving that same interaction over and over again in the contemporary reinterpretation of how Groundhog Day my life had somehow become, I had a revelation: every steak we sold at that restaurant came with a small ramekin of chimichurri, a garlicky parsleyed flavor-bomb that clashed horrifically with the oaky, inky reds my guests were after. While the Malbecs, Aglianicos, and Riojas I sold by the Costco-style gallon paired impeccably (if uninspiredly) with the meat itself, they turned into a sloppy fucking mess when sipped alongside the potent green chimi.
“I’ve had a revelation,” I announced to my staff, “When you’re pairing wine with a steak at this restaurant, you’re not actually pairing wine with a steak. You’re pairing wine with chimichurri.”
“Wow,” they all swooned, “You’re a wine genius, Laura.” (Just kidding! They all hated their jobs and ignored me.)
From there on out, I began to have a little bit more fun with my list, stacking it with juicy, jammy reds—lusty, boozy Roussillon Grenaches; rambunctious-yet-decisive Priorats; and, of course, rustic, plummy Merlots—the intense, concentrated fruit character in these wines sailed gaily above the hammy chimichurri, allowing it to shine rather than overbear, or at worst, defile.
Merlot is the most good-natured of grapes, a keen and gracious sidekick, the Rhoda Morgenstern of wine. It’s always happy to play second fiddle—to Cabernet Sauvignon, to literally any cut of meat, and, most adorably, to the warm, cozy, and red-cheeked evenings its enjoyment elicits. I like pairing low-rent New World Merlot with gooey, trashy chain pizza; I love a glass of cakey Right Bank Bordeaux with a cheeky handful of red Lindt truffles at Christmastime. When it comes to Bordeaux, I’ll always go Right Bank over Left; I could spend the rest of my life nosing a dusty old glass of Pomerol: the way it makes me think of old books and candlewax, spiderwebs and spiral staircases. No matter how old it gets, no matter how complex and serious, it always tastes delicious.
The more wine I drink, the more wine I learn, the more I find myself wanting to drink the kind of wine that could best be described as “yummy.” Wine is the center of my entire life—no shit I take it seriously—but I would always rather drink a seriously delightful glass of Bugey-Cerdon or Anjou Blanc than some grave and solemn Jura, some complicated crossword puzzle of red Burgundy.
The other night, I opened up a bottle of my current fave Merlot—Chateau Lestignac’s ‘Va Te Faire Boire’—a plucky Bergerac rouge. It tasted like a very well-written poem about a glass of juice, each line sprinkled every-so-delicately with freckles of cinnamon, nutmeg, and dirt. I intended to drink it while writing a draft of this very essay: it’s a real Merlot’s Merlot, and I hoped it might function as my muse. But—midway through my first glass—I wandered away from the computer, changed into pajamas, curled up in a cocoon of a blanket, and wrote absolutely nothing. Merlot’s not meant to inspire, and it very rarely requires deconstruction. It’s a chill, yummy red to spend an evening hanging out with—and that’s precisely what I did.
I drank the entire bottle. It was fucking delicious.
Lauara Jane Faulds (@laurajanefaulds) is a writer based in Toronto.