For some reason, I’ve recently had multiple conversations about the 2004 film Sideways. I know a bunch of people who love the Academy Award winnning movie, but I’ve never warmed up to it. I find the main character, Miles, irritating, and I would hate to be the poor tasting room employee who had to deal with him.
What can’t be denied is that Sideways has had an impact on U.S. wine culture. Many observers point to Miles’ famous line — “I’m not drinking any f*cking Merlot!” — as the catalyst for a market backlash against the variety. Others note that Merlot was already on a downswing in 2004, having flooded the market with mass produced, overpriced plonk.
A Los Angeles Confidential article about the recent upsurge in Merlot sales got me thinking about the movie’s long term impact.
In a “survival of the fittest” twist, the “Sideways effect” ushered in a return to the well-produced wines that made Merlot so popular in the past. “The result is that [the movie] restored value to Merlot,” says [Clos du Bois Director of Winemaking Gary] Sitton. “It self-selected or removed Merlots being grown in poor regions or not being produced in good quality.”
While “the Sideways effect” may have forced Merlot producers to identify the best areas to grow the grape and increase the overall quality of Merlot-based wines, it may have had a detrimental impact on Pinot. In 2003, there were 58,185 tons of Pinot crushed in California. By 2011, that number had shot up to 170,449 tons. Data from USDA’s Grape Crush Reports. See also Steve Heimoff, “Is there too much Pinot Noir growing in California?” Even Miles would agree that this near-three-fold increase may be problematic. As he said in the film, “[Pinot] can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world.” I’d venture to guess that not all of that 170k+ tons of grapes were sourced from little tucked away corners.
The cost of Pinot Noir continues to rise. The average price among my top rated Pinot Noirs was $51 in 2008 and $55.50 in 2009. The annual Wine & Spirits Restaurant Poll for 2008 published in April 2009 indicated the average Pinot Noir price in restaurants rose from $45 in 1995 to $73 in 2008.
Sideways may have increased Pinot’s popularity, but ultimately may have had a negative impact on the variety. It turned Pinot into an overplanted and overpriced grape. In other words, Sideways made Pinot into Merlot.
And maybe that’s another reason for me to dislike the movie.