The Theory Begins…And Then Along Came A Tangent


Man have I been busy. Every time that I sat down to type away about wine last week I was called away by meetings and appointments. Running a business sometimes just takes the whole day from you. It really is invigorating though. Running around the city with my business partners making decisions on this plate or that glass. Tasting different olive oils and desserts looking for that one ingredient or that one song for the iPod that makes the atmosphere or the menu just right. Talk about a learning experience.
Now that I have a moment I would like to expand on my last post. I have this little theory about merlot versus pinot noir. Now, it’s not about one being better than the other…absolutely not. I love both varietals and the wines they yield. It’s just one is getting all the attention right now and also, nationally all the love from the vineyard to the stores and in the press. I am really trying to suss out my details on this but I thought I would just throw the general idea out there and see if it sparks any discussion. Who knows? It’s not groundbreaking or anything…just fun.
It all started, of course, with Sideways. People started asking for pinot noir like it was going to be gone forever in the morning. As if this were the last vintage ever. It was crazy. I sat and watched the city blow up with love for this finicky little Burgundian. Over the next year I can’t tell you how many people asked me for my opinion as a wine lover (or maybe it was just because I was their waiter) about pinot noir and if I agreed with the craze this indie film had caused. I would tell people that I happen to love merlot and talked about some of my favorites from Umbria, Sicily and Friuli as well as St. Emilion (Check out Eric Asimov’s article on the underdog beauty of 2003 St. Emilion. It’s great). I would then go on about how much I love pinot noir as well and how it fascinates me how picky and difficult it is to take care of and what, I think makes these wines so special is that successful result when all the subtle nuances are in balance. But that doesn’t mean that Merlot should be put on the back burner. Just because it is more resilient (but shares a love for cooler climates with pinot noir) doesn’t mean it should be washed away as yesterday’s fashion.
This past April my wife and I went to California for our anniversary and thought we would check out, among other places, the Sideways area; an area that has been around since before the movie but not on the map so much as after its release. And this is where it hit me. We wound through the beautiful countryside of the Santa Barbara area hitting Solvang and other towns tasting wine and really enjoying ourselves when we came upon Blackjack Ranch. Oh boy, little did we know that this was one of the places the main characters in “the movie” stopped at on their quest for love and the meaning of life. We walked in and it was like one big Sideways advertisement. There were signs everywhere proclaiming this was one the stops for Miles and Jack on their journey. But it didn’t stop there. There were actually screen shots frame by frame of the scene this particular tasting room was in. And it didn’t stop there. Next to each screen shot there was piece of paper with the dialogue…shot for shot. And, yes, it didn’t stop there. On the tasting sheets all wines led to the one bottle that Miles pined over in the film (which was a syrah by the way. Not a pinot noir).
It was all a bit weird. And the people there were eating it up. But this was the capper. As we tasted these wines (some fantastic. Some not so much) this guy turns to me with an accent not from the left coast but from the southeast, introduced himself to me and began talking to me like a long lost friend. He asked where I was from and pulled the Pace Picante Salsa line when I said NYC. And as we started to taste the first merlot on the list he hits me in the shoulder and says, “I’m not drinking any fuckin’ merlot.” and laughs as if he came up with the line (he of course downed the taste quicker than jack rabbit slim with a hound dog’s snout on his tail). I was witnessing a suspect trend being set. Yes, Miles has an amazing monologue about pinot but it is really meant as a metaphor for him or should I say for his personality. Also, the actors in Sideways don’t actually know much about and wine and have admitted that the red and stuff in those glasses was grape juice most of the time. The musings about pinot noir and the scoffing of merlot is only in the script. It just all seems so weird how all this can affect the sales of merlot. This problem goes straight to the point system as well. The point system is and was a great starting…point. But after too long people just kind of stop thinking for themselves and don’t take chances and understandably so because the media has made the point system soooo important. And wine is very esoteric and sometimes quite mysterious so much that people get scared because they are afraid they are not going to buy the right wine and be seen forever as a novice. Same thing about the movie Sideways, a notionally released film that is really well done that touched the hearts of Americans. The movie is really good and people tapped into that…a little too much. I guess what I’m saying is in the same way the point system has given people an easy answer so has Sideways. And easy answers are fine if that is all your looking for but that one person that really wants to know a little more about what they are drinking these two resources are almost not enough.
One of the most amazing things about wine and serving it by the glass is watching the look on someone’s face when after we have tasted through a couple producers they have found the one they were looking for. The wine that was on their mind when they thought, hey, let’s go to wine bar tonight; the wine they are in the mood for today. Tomorrow it might change but for this moment the smile on their face says, yes, I am glad I came here and this glass is genuinely worth every penny. There is nothing like seeing that satisfaction in someone. They may be happy because they know a bit or a lot about wine and have found something new or just comfortable no one made them feel like a moron when choosing.
Sometimes they will ask me to write it down so they can go to their local wine shop and enjoy it in the comfort of their own home or with a friend. I usually like to give people the breakdown when they ask for information on the wine in their glass. I write it down on an order pad: producer, title or fantasy name if any, grape or blend, country, region and vintage (I also jot down the url for wine-searcher so they can find the nearest store that sells it). Now they are armed with information that will get past any pretense at any wine shop. They can go home knowing they have a nice bottle of wine that they have had before and now, if their wine merchant is worth his or her salt they will have an idea for their customer’s palate and a relationship can be formed. No point system needed.
Okay, so here I am, almost three pages into this post and I haven’t even gotten to my theory. It looks as though I found a soapbox on the way and decided to stand on it and shout a bit. I promise this little theory of mine will be on the next post. But this is where it all began. These are the thoughts (even if they are a bit scattered) that have led me to the pinot versus merlot (but not really) theory. Bare with me and in the next post I will come to it to see if there is anyone out there that will one, bare with my long posting style and two, tell me if I am nuts or not. Cheers.

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