WHEN SIDEWAYS HIT THEATERS in 2004, no one dreamed it would affect the merlot market. But when audiences witnessed the oenophile protagonist, played by Paul Giamatti, denounce the varietal, they took it as a tip that sipping merlot constituted a faux pas of the first order—despite the fact that the character himself committed more social gaffes than any antihero in recent film history. In a cinematic instant, one of the United States’ most popular wines had become vino non grata. National sales dropped noticeably—from 2 percent to 15 percent on premium bottles. In Washington, where the merlot grape is the second most widely planted (after chardonnay), that posed a big problem.
“Any honest wine company will tell you there were turbulent times after that movie,” says Keith Love, spokesperson for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Having only recently sunk its fortunes into a Walla Walla merlot-growing operation called Northstar, Ste. Michelle had much to lose. But while sales stalled for other producers, Northstar seemed immune to the Sideways curse.
One sip of the stuff tells you why: These are some lush, complex wines. Winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld sources one with grapes from the Columbia Valley, the other with Walla Walla grapes. The latter has scents of licorice and black pepper and immediately coats the mouth like velvet—with cherry, plum, and chocolate bursting on the tongue. With its soft fruit and silky texture, it’s ready to drink immediately. The Columbia Valley, meanwhile, boasts a memorable finish—smoky, with coffee and mocha flavors that linger. It also has more structure and layers, enabling it to enjoy a longer cellar age. Both wines have been widely lauded as being among the top merlots from a state that Food and Wine’s Ray Isle called “arguably the best source in the U.S.” for the varietal.
At the end of Sideways, Giamatti drinks his most prized bottle, a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc—a merlot-based wine! That scene showcases contradictions in its main character, but merlot’s name was already in the mud. Four years later, however, the varietal’s reputation—and sales—are right side up once more, and Northstar continues to light the way.
The 2004 Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot ($39) and 2003 Walla Walla Merlot ($48) are both available at Esquin Wine Merchants, 2700 Fourth Ave S, SoDo, 206-682-7374; www.esquin.com.