BUZZ: Hey, Marnie, my brother says I mispronounce merlot. He says it's merlow. Who cares - it's supposed to be swill either way, right?
Marnie: Yes and no, Buzz. It's a French grape, so it's pronounced merlow, like Tarot cards, not merlot as in mascot. It happens to be one of the world's finest wine grapes, though. It's a shame that people think there's something wrong with it.
Buzz: Really? I haven't had a drop since I saw that movie. You know, the wine one.
Marnie: (Sigh.) You mean "Sideways." Many in the wine trade blame merlot's sudden decline in popularity on that scene where Miles tells his friend that if the women they're about to meet order merlot, he's leaving. There's no question it had a major impact, but the real issue wasn't the movie. It was the circumstances that led merlot to be funny as a punchline. In many ways, merlot was a victim of its own success.
Buzz: How do you figure that?
Marnie: Well, it helps to remember how hot merlot was in the '90s. It was the sexy fruitbomb grape of the moment - softer and more luscious than cabernet sauvignon, with a more pronounceable name.
The joke was funny because merlot was seen as "Cabernet Lite," a girlie wine that was too wimpy for snobs like Miles. By the time the movie came out in 2004, merlot was overhyped and overpriced and ripe for a takedown.
Buzz: When everybody likes something, it goes bad. Sounds like the horses I bet on.
Marnie: When a grape gets too fashionable, it creates an incentive for people to exploit it for profit. Merlot growers were tempted to overcrop their vineyards to cash in on its fame, and many vines were planted in regions where they couldn't make great wine.
So, just as merlot prices were peaking because of supply and demand, quality was falling off and people were discovering new sexy grapes - like Shiraz, malbec and tempranillo. Luckily, merlot has been in the doghouse long enough now that the tables have turned - the prices are much more reasonable.
Buzz: Thanks for the down low on merlot, Marnie.
Marnie Old is Philadelphia's highest-profile sommelier. Her latest book, Wine Simplified, is a crash course for the wine-curious for the iPad and iPhone, available via the iTunes App Store. For more: marnieold.com. Buzz's musings are interpreted by Daily News Assistant Managing Editor Gar Joseph.