Raise your hand if you saw the movie “Sideways.” You know, the 2004 critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning film about wine? Well, it wasn’t only about wine. It was about relationships and a skosh about struggles with alcoholism, but mostly it was a glorious film about the beautiful subtleties of wine.
If you haven’t seen the film and you love wine, stop reading this column and immediately proceed to iTunes or Netflix. It’s a must-see. Then, read on.
If you have seen it, you know it’s a great story. Based on the novel of the same name by Rex Pickett, which is slightly autobiographical in nature, it follows the character of Miles Raymond (presumably Mr. Pickett?) and his penchant for Central Coast California wines, specifically the elusive, sex-in-a-glass known as pinot noir.
Set in the Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, Miles is in the midst of a tailspin over his recent divorce, flailing/failing writing career and his overindulgence in pricey hooch.
And then it happened. Miles, on his way to dinner, vehemently declares to his friend Jack, “If anyone orders merlot, I am leaving. I am not drinking any f*cking merlot!” And boom! Just like that, the wine industry saw an unprecedented shift in the demand for pinot noir.
But why did an independent film with only a $70 million domestic gross (compared to a $440 million domestic gross to “Shrek 2,” which was also released in 2004) lead to what industry experts call “The Sideways Effect?”
Well, it depends on how you look at it. Simply stated, the sales of merlot did not actually “tank” the way people think they did. In fact, overall sales of merlot only decreased about 2% after the film’s release.
However, in stark contrast, the sales of pinot noir rose 16% in the months after “Sideways,” with sales continuing to increase roughly 9% per year since then.
But why pinot? That’s a good question. Foremost, it’s the star of Burgundy, one of the oldest and most prestigious growing regions, dating back to as early as the second century AD.
And as Miles so aptly puts it, “It’s a hard grape to grow. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. Only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh, its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”
Yes, pinot is delicious, but the key phrase is “patient and nurturing”. As the demand for pinot increased, so did growth and production, which led to a whole lot of questionable pinot noir being produced. You can’t grow or produce pinot on a dime, or even a dollar for that matter, so the question is what are you really drinking?
Now, if you have the cash to buy a Grand Cru Burgundy, bully for you. It’s one of the purest expressions of pinot on the market, and by Burgundian law, it must be 100% pinot noir, so you know it’s legit.
Not so in the United States, specifically California, where a varietal only has to meet a 75% purity standard to have that label on the bottle, which means a LOT of California pinot noirs are a hodge-podge of 75% pinot noir and whatever other grapes they had laying around. It’s not to say that it’s not tasty; it might be delicious, but it’s not really what pinot noir is supposed to taste like.
And as a side note, not all Burgundies are top notch either. France may be staunch with their wine laws, but can’t guarantee what you’ll think of them.
What to look for? One thing I’ll always say about wine, if you like it and you think it tastes good, that’s all that matters. But if you’re looking to elevate your knowledge and palate, you have to look for quality wines and true expressions of varietals, read: how they ought to taste.
So if you can’t shell out $150 for a sexy Burgundy, consider staying right here in the good ol’ USA and focus on California and Oregon pinot noirs to start. Your best bets in Cali regionwise are Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Lucia Highlands.
If you’re looking for a lighter style pinot noir, you might consider Willamette (rhymes with dammit) Valley in Oregon. And remember that good quality pinot noirs generally aren’t bargain wines, so shell out a few extra bucks and get something good.
My personal picks: Sean Minor Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($17.99), Pedroncelli Russian River Pinot Noir ($17.99) and Kokomo Gopher Hill Block, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($44).
In wrapping up, originally this article was meant to talk about how merlot is about to have its heyday again, which is true, but merlot is a lot like a friend you haven’t seen in many years; you can pick up right where you left off and have an amazing time together. And maybe we’ll talk about that next time.
A fun, and final note about “Sideways:” remember the 1961 Cheval Blanc Miles drinks in the styrofoam cup at the very end of the film while chowing down on a juicy burger? Well, Cheval Blanc is one of the most famous Bordeaux wines, and guess what it’s made from? Yep, merlot. Joke’s on you, Miles. Joke’s on you.
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