Ray Isle weighs in on how the film affected the overall quality of Pinot Noir and Merlot.
It’s been over a dozen years since the movie Sideways hauled in five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, leading up to the 2005 Academy Awards. The film about fear and loathing in Southern California wine country only walked away with one award – the slightly less coveted Best Adapted Screenplay – but the impact it had on the wine industry might actually be its biggest legacy.
For those unfamiliar with the flick – cough, millennials, cough – Sideways follows a trip through the Santa Barbara wine region by two buddies, a handsome soon-to-be-married actor Jack Cole, played by Thomas Haden Church, and a down-on-his-luck divorcee Miles Raymond, remarkably performed by Paul Giamatti. Two of Giamatti’s most memorable scenes are, one, a passionate explanation of his love of Pinot Noir, and two, screaming the line “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!”
As NPR recently pointed out, to this day, Pinot Noir has exploded in California while Merlot has had to fight to regain its image. “Pinot Noir production in California has increased roughly 170 percent since Sideways was released,” wine industry analyst Gabriel Froymovich told NPR. Astonishingly, California wine grape production in general is only up about 7 to 8 percent over that same period. Meanwhile, in the three years after Sideways came out, Merlot sales dropped about 2 percent, according to one study, which also found that Pinot Noir sales jumped 16 percent over that same period.
But though Sideways and Merlot will be forever linked, as our own Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle points out, there’s a reason Merlot made for an easy target at the time. “Merlot’s a wonderful grape but if you plant it in the wrong places and overcrop it, you get lots of crappy Merlot, which is basically what was going on around the time of Sideways,” he explains. The irony is that though Pinot Noir is now far more abundant in California than it used to be, all those additional Pinots also mean you’re more likely to stumble upon some uninspired bottles. “If you get a movie that boosts the rep of Pinot Noir and everyone goes nuts about it, and you then get a lot of people planting Pinot in the wrong places and overcropping it…” Isle continues. “Well, you get the idea.”
Regardless, Froymovich dug into the numbers, and he believes Raymond’s most detested grape is doing just fine again. “Merlot prices have recovered partially and are now somewhere around the prices predicted by the long-term trend,” he told NPR. Some people even suggest that the hit Merlot took has turned the varietal into a great value wine. So in actuality, is it possible that in the long run Sideways actually helped Merlot and hurt Pinot? It’s the stuff sequels are made of!