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Rumor has it that the American wine market has recently undergone one of the most dramatic shifts since middle America discovered pink wine. Whether it’s a temporary blip or a long-term trend, Miles Raymond’s trashing of the merlot grape and his exalted praise of pinot noir in the movie “Sideways” has created its own movement. Now, savvy wine drinkers stick to pinot and use merlot for sangria. In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, the wine-obsessed Miles (played by actor Paul Giamatti) proclaims on his way to dinner with two beautiful women that he is “not drinking any fucking merlot.” In another scene, he extols the virtues of pinot noir in terms generally used by poets and reserved for their dearly departed children. I’ve heard that in the wake of “Sideways,” wine distributors in New York can’t even get in the restaurant door if they’re peddling merlot, but they’re selling pinot by the bucketful. So in the interest of science, my girlfriend and I decided to put Miles’ advice to the test. We scrupulously selected five merlots and five pinots ranging from $10 to $65 per bottle. In the interest of consistency, all the wines came from U.S. West Coast wineries and were purchased at a local wine store � MacArthur Beverages. The wines were decanted one hour prior to the double-blind tasting. Unlike the wines, very little thought went into selecting the tasters. We simply rounded up some friends who were willing (1) to drink liquids we guaranteed were wine and (2) to report back on their likes and dislikes. For the purpose of this, and future, columns, they will simply be referred to as “the normals.” (“The snobs” will be introduced in a later column.) We asked the normals to rank the wines one through 10 and jot down some notes on their flavors. Spitting was permitted, but unlikely, given the lack of spittoons, the abundance of beige carpeting, and the fact that it was Friday night after all. Following rounds of very scientific tests and scrupulous swirling and swishing, we determined that the normals agreed with both Miles’ words and actions. As Miles would have guessed, four out of the top five wines were pinot noirs. Interestingly, however, the normals’ rankings tended to be inversely proportional to the wines’ prices. The highest-ranked pinot was a humble $10 bottle produced by Cartlidge & Browne. The 2003 wine, produced from grapes grown in various parts of California, was described as “buttery,” “creamy,” and “smooth,” although one taster noted that it smelled and tasted “like a bunch of previously consumed wines” (not tasted and spat out, mind you, but actually consumed). Another California pinot, a 2002 Sebastiani from the Sonoma Coast priced at $15, was ranked third and described as “refreshing,” with a “strong raspberry bouquet” and a hint of “habanero.” Coming in fourth among the pinots, and fifth overall, was the $65 2000 Beaux Freres from Oregon. Clearly, the normals didn’t know that wine critic Robert Parker is a part-owner of the winery or that the Wine Spectator had rated the wine an impressive 92 points. When the wines and prices were revealed, they were all shocked at their utter lack of taste. Given the group, I was not as surprised. In further agreeing with what Miles said, the normals didn’t care much for the bleeping merlot. They found the generally reliable Chateau St. Michelle, from Washington state, to be “overly tannic,” “fishy-thin-gross,” and to taste “like something a senile grandma would open at Christmas.” The 2002 Pride Mountain merlot, an not-inexpensive wine at $50, fared somewhat better. It received a middling ranking of sixth and was described as “consistent but not spectacular” and “fruity,” but was overly sweet for most of the normals’ palates. But the normals also agreed with what Miles actually did as well as said. A dirty little secret of “Sideways” is that the bottle of wine that Miles most cherishes, a 1961 Cheval Blanc, contains more than one-third derided merlot (and no pinot noir). The normals, like Miles, enjoyed a good merlot. In fact, the No. 1 ranked wine of the entire tasting was a 1999 Truchard merlot, made from grapes grown in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. The normals found it “gorgeous,” “jammy,” “awesome,” and just plain “yum.” The clear-cut lesson of the tasting was that there was no clear-cut lesson. The wines preferred by the normals ran the gamut of price and style. Miles may have been right about pinot and merlot in general, but personal preference and the quality of any particular wine appears paramount. So when taking wine advice from Hollywood (or anyone), do so with a grain of salt. Or better yet, some cheese and crackers. Phillip Dub� is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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