SF Wine Blog

Exploring wine in and around San Francisco.

Ramblings: The Sideways Effect Reconsidered


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.

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.

Moreover, since the movie’s release, the price for Pinot has steadily risen.  This data from PinotFile is dated, but informative:

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.

13 thoughts on “Ramblings: The Sideways Effect Reconsidered

  1. The worst aspect of the Sideways effect is that Miles actually DIDN’T hate merlot at all. At the end of the movie, he was drinking Cheval Blanc in the burger joint – and the reason he resented merlot (a dominant grape in right-bank wines like Cheval Blanc, of course) so much is that it represented his former relationship with his ex-wife. They bought it together, and planned to drink it together someday. After he chugged down the Cheval Blanc, then he was ready to move on.
    Unfortunately, not enough people catch the Cheval Blanc label and what it signifies.

    • Actually, Cheval Blanc’s dominant grape is Cabernet Franc, with merlot second, so it’s not quite the irony. I do agree that the movie helped to make pinot noir the new “merlot”

  2. Heard rumor that the Merlot quote was not in the orignal screen play, but was ad libbed after Mr. Giamatta was put through many takes that were not quite right. Honestly, I have not done much research into the matter.

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  5. Andy – Correction on the Cheval Blanc front – it is predominantly Cabernet Franc, Merlot is secondary in most vintages.

    • Tim/Zen, thanks for the correction. You guys are absolutely right that Cheval Blanc is unique among right bank wines in that it has a high proportion of cab franc. The more you think you know about wine, the more there is to learn . . . .
      But it does seem that many vintages include a significant proportion of merlot. According to this article, the 1961 Cheval Blanc that Miles drank is 50% merlot and 50% cab franc: http://www.starchefs.com/wine/features/html/merlot_kidding/html/index.shtml
      In any case, if you do want to take Miles at his word, why was he not drinking some trophy burg at the end of the movie?

  6. While I cannot argue the articles position on what the “Sideways Effect” may have been for California, I do believe that it has been a profound positive for Oregon.

    It opened the worlds eyes up to reality of working with the tempermental, fickle grape and the cerebral and misunderstood wines it produces. One of the key differences is that Oregon IS on of those “specific, little, tucked away corners of the world”.

    Here, in the Willamette Valley anyways, we are forced to respect climate and as result you won’t see us jumping on a bandwagon and overplanting Merlot.

  7. Thank you all for your comments, and I hope you enjoyed the article!

  8. I liked the film and book tremendously. I think I’ve met more folks that hated it for its main character than I’ve found enjoyed the movie for its humor, sense of real life, and show of mid-California wine country. I love it though. I think you’re right about the effect on Pinot but I think this will be a short lived boom like most booms are… And we will go on to the next big thing, Pinot will still be great though, and so will Sideways. Bordeaux blends and Merlots, they’re will be great ones too. I think Pinot was already getting big though. Sideways wasn’t the only catalyst, just the most mainstream.

  9. I’ve been saying this for several years, now…..calling the re-focus on making quality Merlot “The Other Sideways Effect”. It is, in fact, on par with (I disagree with the author here) the benefits of the expansion of interest in (California) Pinot Noir.

  10. To further complicate matters, you are not really drinking Pinot, you are drinking California Pinot plumped with up to 25% Syrah, which, of course is not on the label. Give me any Pinot other than one made in California.

  11. You may be right on the mark looking at what Sideways has done to Pinot Noir and Merlot over the years – In other words, Sideways made Pinot into Merlot (or at least what Merlot used to be?).

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