Why People Love To Hate On Merlot

Making fun of merlot became a thing largely because of the movie "Sideways." At one point, a character named Miles Raymond in the acclaimed 2004 film remarks, according to IMDb: "No, if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing merlot!"

The film subsequently received several Academy Awards nominations. But this cinematic rant affected the way consumers thought about wines made with the merlot grape and had tangible effects on merlot sales. Dubbed the "Sideways effect" in a 2008 study published in the Journal of Wine Economics, merlot sales were negatively impacted for years after the movie premiered, while sales of pinot noir — the character Raymond's favorite wine grape — increased.

By 2005, the Los Angeles Times had even headlined an article about the phenomenon, with the article's author noting the surfeit of "boring" and "insipid" merlot wines that had been produced in California since the grapes were first planted in the state during the 1980s. Of course, the same article also mentioned that merlot grapes were responsible for some of the world's best wines, a point also made by Raymond in the film, albeit much less famously.

What got lost about merlot in the movie 'Sideways'

It was hard to miss the contempt the "Sideways" lead character, Miles Raymond, seemed to have for merlot wines poured in California tasting rooms. What may have been missed by all but wine connoisseurs was that the bottle Raymond was saving for a special occasion — a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc — is a wine made predominantly from merlot grapes.

Bordeaux, the French region known for producing some of the world's most sought-after wines, regulates the red wine grapes that can be grown in its famed vineyards. Yes, this list includes merlot, along with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, petit verdot, and carmenère. You may not know this about merlot, but it is the dominant grape used in the so-called "right bank" wines made in acclaimed Bordeaux appellations like Saint-Émilion. Cheval Blanc, notably, was labeled as a Saint-Émilion wine when the movie "Sideways" was released in 2004.

So, despite the famous rant, the character of Raymond in "Sideways" did appear to drink merlot on occasion. This nuance seems to have been lost, however, on many consumers.

Has merlot ever recovered?

Pinot noir wines definitely received a boost from the "Sideways effect," but some in the wine industry believe the movie actually ended up being a net positive for merlot, as it led to an overall improvement in the quality of wines made from the grape in the United States.

"Those who weren't dedicated to making [m]erlot in its highest form left the category to pursue other varieties," Carol Reber of Duckhorn Vineyards told Grape Collective in 2014, a decade after the movie's release. "This has made for a far healthier and more vibrant category, with more fruit from top-notch vineyards available to those of us who understand and love merlot."

In addition to its sales recovery in the U.S., merlot continues to be grown in countries around the globe. High-quality wines from the grape are now being produced not only in France and the U.S., but also in Italy, Chile, and several other countries. So, obviously, not everyone hates it.