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TODAY

Tuesday, February 19

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Airbags

The most popular question I get at wine events nowadays is: Have you seen Sideways? Quickly followed by: So what's wrong with drinking Merlot? The short answers are "yes" and "nothing." I'm just thrilled that no one asks me about carbs anymore.

Here's the deal in more detail. Miles, the loveable alcoholic wine connoisseur in the movie, retreats from his mundane life of teaching and unsuccessful writing by traveling to the Central Coast and Santa Barbara wine regions of California. He is alive with passion when he tours wineries, wanders vineyards and waxes poetical about the merits (or lack thereof) of each glorious drop of vino. He's pretty unhappy in life overall, but at The Hitching Post (a famous restaurant in the area) he is Norm at Cheers. Everyone knows his name. Miles definitely knows his stuff, but he's a major snob. He's all about tossing out little wine factoids that no one else knows to make himself feel important. He seeks out the rarest and most exclusive bottles of Pinot Noir from the area and he steals money from his elderly mother to pay for them. Not too classy.

So, yeah. Miles goes on and on about how Merlot is pedestrian and only fit for the masses. But should anyone really care what one snob thinks about what you drink? Heck no! To be fair, I think his point is also a bit misinterpreted. The central coast, the region he frequents, is super-premium territory for Pinot Noir, his beloved varietal. It's not that they can't grow decent Merlot in this area — they can. It's just not what that region is known for. It's sort of like ordering a steak at Shaw's Crab House. I'm sure the steak is perfectly tasty, but I prefer to order crab or some other seafood that they are really famous for.

Now, if you begin a conversation with a wine retailer or a sommelier by saying, "I'm a Merlot drinker..." they will indeed peg you as a novice and possibly a yahoo. Same goes for folks who order Pinot Grigio by the glass. Not quite as unsophisticated as White Zinfandel, but the same idea. Somehow, these varietals got a rap for being "safe" to drink socially and that sort of thing bristles wine professionals. You would never say, "I'm a pork eater" to a waiter and limit your diet exclusively to one type of protein; why should you do it with your wine? I think you should drink (and eat) what you enjoy and explore new tastes whenever you have the chance. But if you really like a particular Merlot, Pinot Grigio or White Zinfandel, don't be shy about ordering it. Who cares what other folks think. It's your freakin' beverage.

To further illustrate this movie character's flaws, I should point out that the most treasured bottle of wine in Miles' collection was a 1961 Cheval Blanc. A rock star wine for sure, but made primarily from Cabernet Franc and (you guessed it) ...Merlot. Yep. It's true. Now, Merlot grown on premium estates in Bordeaux is of a much higher pedigree than the $10 California Merlot we pick up at the Jewel. But he definitely drinks Merlot — even if it's out of styrofoam cups with a sloppy cheeseburger.

Merlot is trendy. So if you are embarrassed to be seen drinking something trendy, order something else. Just don't order Pinot Noir. Thanks to Sideways, Pinot Noir is the new Merlot... and very trendy.

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About the Author(s)

Christine Blumer is the owner of Winediva Enterprises, a private wine education and events company. She writes for several culinary and wine magazines and produces a monthly e-newsletter, Diva Dish. Subscribe via email to winedivaentmsncom or visit www.winedivaent.com.

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