By Caroline Osborn
Merlot is suing for libel, and Rudy McClain is its expert attorney. As the Napa Valley native boasts a résumé as both filmmaker and wine aficionado, he is the perfect man to mount a defense for this defamed French varietal. His documentary, Merlove, celebrates its joys; V. Sattui Winery hosts an outdoor screening June 11.
Onscreen, McClain interviews winemakers from Napa Valley, Washington state and Bordeaux, France, about their experiences with Merlot. He describes the film as a "fun, philosophical journey."
Ever since the release of the 2004 film Sideways, Merlot's sales have dropped dramatically. Miles Raymond, the cantankerous protagonist portrayed by Paul Giamatti, spirals into a rage about the possibility that his company might want to drink Merlot. "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving," he vows. This fictional character's tirade seeped into wine consumer culture. "For a while, it was a faux pas to drink Merlot," says Claudette Shatto, vice president of marketing at V. Sattui Winery. "Merlot has been something people hide in the back of their closets."
McClain has a theory on why a fictional character can influence the market. "I think it goes back to middle school," he muses. "People are afraid to show up with the wrong clothes or the wrong watch. Anything concrete they can latch on to, they'll go with." This taboo against Merlot wormed its way into the wine community so wantonly that it devastated livelihoods. "Lots of [growers] picked up and replanted their vineyards," Shatto says. "But Pinot Noir was flying off the shelves." Miles, remember, favors Pinot Noir.
But McClain is not so easily swayed. "Merlot is a chameleon," he says. "Depending on where it's grown, it tastes different. It can be an expression of where it's from." Shatto agrees, calling it "robust, bright, fruity and more food-friendly than Cabernet."
Merlove screens outdoors at V. Sattui Winery on Friday, June 11. Bring low-back chairs, blankets, children and even the family dog to eat a picnic dinner and drink a glass of wine (guess which kind?) under the stars.
1111 White Lane, St. Helena. Greet the filmmakers at 7:30pm; film at 8:30pm. $5–$10. 707.963.7774.