Paul Giamatti's wine-snob character Miles in Sideways detested Merlot. Actually, Miles' disdain for Merlot was limited to New World versions and was likely something of an in-joke, anyway. The bottle of wine he kept for the special occasion that never came -- the famed 1961 Ch. Cheval Blanc that he ultimately guzzled in a burger joint -- is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, another grape he maligned in the film with the subtly ironic statement, "I have come never to expect greatness from a Cabernet Franc."
There's nothing wrong with Merlot.
With its soft character and plush, caramel fruit, Merlot can be an easy wine to like. But, in fact, its star has faded over the past decades. In the 1980s, strong sales of Merlot led vintners to plant the grape everywhere -- regardless of whether the site was well suited to the varietal. As a result, cheap, under-ripe Merlot flooded the market by the early '90s, leading all Merlot to gain a bad reputation among some wine drinkers. So while good Merlot (as Miles undoubtedly knew) can certainly be found, one must be choosier in the selection process.
Wine needs to breathe before you drink it. This is not necessarily true. While many red wines (and some whites), particularly younger, bigger wines, can open up significantly with aeration, most "everyday" wine drinks fine without decanting -- especially whites. And aeration can actually hurt some wines -- especially older, more-fragile reds like fine Bordeaux. If decanted for a significant amount of time, such wines can lose all their fruit and complexity, becoming dead and lifeless in the glass.
Swirling and sniffing are best left to the wine snobs. Wrong! Swirling wine releases esters, the compounds that make up a wine's multi-faceted aromas. Your nose can detect a thousand or more of these chemical compounds. Noticing and appreciating them is absolutely key to appreciating wine, since your tongue can detect a mere half-dozen or so basic flavors (salty, sweet, bitter, etc.). I encourage you to vigorously swirl and sniff --and let those who would judge you for it be damned!
CONTACT MICHAEL SCHIAPERELLI: michael(at)cincinnatuswine.com