“I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot!” — Miles, a Pinot Noir fan, in the film Sideways.
Miles was that reviled thing: a tremendous, unabashed wine snob. And yet, people listened. Pinot Noir sales in America took off after Sideways came out. And Merlot? Merlot got hit hard enough that, at somebody’s birthday party one night in Napa, somebody suggested making a movie in response to Miles’s rejection of the noble grape from Bordeaux.
Filmmaker Rudy McClain was at that party, and he thought it sounded like a good idea. That was the germination of Merlove, the documentary that serves as his first completed effort. “I have drawers full of little ideas,” he says, “and I’ve written a couple of screenplays. But I ended up being stuck inside too much. I decided I needed to get out and see the diversity of real human beings.” His neighbors, for starters. “I grew up in St. Helena, and some of my friends own wineries or are winemakers” — Swanson’s Chris Phelps, for example. “I had a camera for testing out my scenes, so I just grabbed it and started backing people into corners until I got interviews. I looked at it as an opportunity to get out and do something — to actually get out of the house and make a movie. It had all of these elements: it was local, it was an underdog story, and it had ties to one of my favorite filmmakers” — Sideways director Alexander Payne. “I also thought, Hey, a lot of these wineries are having issues with their Merlot not selling. Maybe I could even get some cash to get out and make a movie supporting it.”
As McClain sees it, Miles’s dismissal had such force because, for all our increased ease around the grape, “People had really low self-esteem with wine because it’s not really part of our culture yet, and they didn’t want to be embarrassed. Think about teenyboppers at the mall — everyone wants to have the right clothes or the right accessories, the right ‘in’ thing. It’s not so much about being an individual. You don’t want to make a mistake; you don’t want to look like you don’t know what you’re doing. When it comes to adults and wines, it’s that same thing, hugely magnified. That’s why Sideways kind of turned the tide.”
Of course, it’s not as if Miles didn’t have a point. Long before Sideways, the Merlot market got hot and people started to cash in on the varietal — it’ll make drinkable wine at a low price point, and that’s where many producers aimed. McClain’s final cut of the film — screening at the Copia Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts in Napa on September 5 – has as its principal framing device a personified bottle of fine Merlot that “is forced to empty its contents into an ocean of mediocre Merlot. People can’t tell the difference between what’s good and what’s bad — that sort of thing. Then he’s got to rebuild” — refill? — “himself. He gets help from a French winemaker, who explains to him that he’s not American, he’s French. You know, ‘What did those Americans do to you? Your name is not Merlot — it’s Merlove!’”
McClain thinks that reclaiming Merlot’s reputation — from itself as much as from Pinot or Cabernet — is “all about good wine and bad wine, and understanding what makes them that way.” Things like terroir and winemaking. “I fell in love with the idea of terroir,” says McClain, “keeping diversity of place. If you protect the contradiction – a varietal tasting one way in one place, and being a completely different thing when it comes from 500 miles away – then you can pick up a bottle from a different part of the world and taste that year and that part of the world through that wine.”
Small wonder, then, that his neglected bottle finds himself turning to the French — those great guardians of terroir — for help in recovering what has been lost. McClain’s coup on Merlove was scoring an interview with Jean-Claude Berrouet, then working as winemaker for Château Pétrus, the most celebrated Merlot producer in the world. “Chris Phelps at Swanson was my first interview. Then Larry Stone of Rubicon agreed to talk to me, and that was huge. And then Phelps told me that Berrouet was in town. Phelps asked him if he would mind talking to me, and I think because I’d been cool with the people I’d already interviewed, he agreed. And then, on camera, he said, ‘Maybe I see you in France?’ I was definitely going to France after that. We went there and tasted at Pétrus.” McClain was glad he made the trip. “If you’re in a room, and the room is Napa Valley Merlot, tasting Merlots from [the Bordeaux regions of] Pomerol and Saint-Emilion was like the floor dropping out. It went down to a depth that I had never experienced before, on an emotional level.” (For that matter, McClain was also taken with the Washington Merlots – he praised their earthiness, their acidity, their “clarity of fruit. You feel like you’re more connected to the earth.”)
France’s superstar consulting winemaker Michel Rolland also agreed to an interview. Explains McClain, “I wanted to talk to him because I wanted to see if what was happening around the world matched what was happening in America. I talked to a French woman who worked for the English magazine Decanter, and she said, ‘What do you mean, people stopped drinking Merlot?’” Rolland agreed. “He said he didn’t see a worldwide effect, because the notion of varietal is particularly strong in America.” Elsewhere, “They talk about varietal a little bit, but they’re mostly focusing on the winemaker, the terroir, the place where it’s produced. Plus, he was born in Pomerol. Merlot is his life, it’s deeply rooted in him.”
The goal, says McClain, is to let Merlot serve as a window into the larger world of wine. “If people can understand the diversity of Merlot, if we can take them through that education on Merlot in particular, and then take it to multiple varietals, then we can give them the idea, ‘If Merlot can be made well considering these factors, then who knows what varietals are out there that I might like?’” The diversity of one grape points to the diversity of many, and diversity is the virtue here. “Trying new wines, like trying new things in life, is what’s going to bring you the most pleasure — that’s a premise. Everyone has a hard time trying new things. People say it’s like a little death, getting out of your comfort zone. But it’s amazing, the things that line up for you when you do it. I have friends who are winemakers, who are doing very well financially and have their lives pretty much set, and they can’t get into Pétrus. They say, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ It’s not to say that I’m better somehow, I just kind of kept my heart open.”