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by Cyril Penn | August 31, 2012 | 7:00 AM

Rex Pickett, the author of Sideways, was a keynote speaker during the recent wine bloggers conference, which was fitting as the conference was held in Oregon, the land of Pinot Noir. Picket sat in an easy chair and rambled, riffing with a Q&A format and probably telling the audience more than most wanted to know about his personal life (Miles, the neurotic character in the book is based on Pickett’s life experiences). But Pickett’s comments undoubtedly were illuminating for aspiring writers.

Sideways is currently running as a play in Los Angeles by the way.

It was inevitable that the self-depreciating author, who readily admits that he was "lucky" Sideways took off - would get the Merlot question again. He gets it all the time. “Oh No, My God, I thought the Merlot questions were over,” he replied.

Pickett pointed to an article wine critic Dan Berger wrote a couple years ago concluding Sideways was ultimately great for Merlot. Then Pickett offered his take:

“In 1991, 60 minutes did a thing on the French paradox – so drink all the red wine and you’re going to live forever. Whatever: It was a totally flawed study, bla, bla, bla. Everyone rushed out to get red wine. They probably were getting Cabernet Sauvignon – and most of it was too tannic for a neophyte palate – so they drifted to Merlot. Thus Merlot became the vitamin E of the 90s. This is truly what happened. Then they started to over-crop it, then they started to over-farm it, then it would go down conveyor belts with rats and mice and everything else and suddenly you had $5 complete plonk.

When I wrote the novel, and I wrote, “No I’m not drinking any fu&#%#ng Merlot,” I didn’t know it was going to make it, I didn’t know it was going to be a movie – I didn’t know the wine was going to be in the movie. I didn’t do the screen play adaptation. Honestly, I didn’t know it was going to be uttered with such venom. Bear in mind that if you go back and look at the movie, (Miles) is trying to really just stop the train wreck of his friend Jack: Merlot just kind of got caught in the crossfire.

However, Merlot had 18 percent of the market – undeservingly – number one – and – you know, I mean, good God: Any idiot if they had a vendor’s license they should have it impounded for the way they were making it with mechanical harvesters – it’s like my God – this is like unbelievable – so they needed a correction (a) and they got, and they got it big time, and they deserved it.

But look, back to (Dan) Berger, like what he wrote: ultimately it was good because the great Merlot – like Duckhorn, and Shafer - not to mention all those great wines like Petrus and whatever, they remain standing. It’s a noble grape. It has it’s limitations in my opinion but by the late 1990s when I was going to this wine store (where Pickett** had a good friend) when I came up it was just common knowledge that Merlot was a joke – that if you liked Merlot it was a joke. So that’s how it found its way into the novel.

But I had no idea it would go like that. I had no idea it would reach the point where there would be tee-shirts saying, “No fu&#%#ng Merlot – In fact, we’re going to give some out here tonight. In fact, I’m going to patent No fu&#%#ng Merlot because when the play goes that will keep me out of the poor house.

Look, they haven’t sent a hit man after me, but they’ve yanked out a lot of vines. But let’s bear in mind a couple things: On a serious note: Sideways was great for wine – period – not just Pinot Noir in Santa Ynez valley, where it’s somewhat overrated. Lets’ face it – especially those thin astringent hitching post crappy wines – and you don’t know what’s in those bottles – it could be yak piss.

But Pinot went from 1 to 8 percent of the market and deserves it … Those Merlot guys – they aren’t artists – I mean the ones who are making $5 plonk. They’re just crassly commercially into it, and they devalue wine in general. Wine went from a $40 billion to a $90 billion business, pre film post film. You can’t quantify it all to the movie, but a lot of it.

Wine appreciation skyrocketed. And it wasn’t just Santa Ynez Valley and Pinot – it was a lot of wine – all wine and all reaches around the world. I’m not saying that arrogantly. I get it on twitter every day. …It did a lot for wine in general.

So Merlot deserved it. They needed to come down from that 18 percent market and I’m hoping those oak chip chardonnays – those start coming down – I’m going to hammer them in the next novel. I’ve got power here – Watch out, I’ll take you down.


Alana Gentry comments:

Hi. I'm the gal that brought Rex to the WBC and did the fireside chat with him. We also did this at the Pinot Noir Summit in San Francisco. He's a hoot isn't he? Read Vertical, his next novel, I think it's a better read personally and his ailing mother (my favorite character) loves her oaky Chardonnay.

Also, Rex has a Merlot out made by the master blender, Bion Rice. It's called Apostate. Pretty cute. Also, he was involved in the screenplay but he wrote the script for the play and hired the director. It's his baby.

Joe Becerra comments:

I was at the wine bloggers conference and heard Rex Pickett's keynote. No doubt he is the character Miles in the movie/book and bit full of himself.  What he says about Merlot can be applied to any bulk wine on the market, even Pinot Noir.

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