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Lessons from the Movie Sideways: Ten Years Later

by  Greg B. C. Shaw on May 31, 2014
Lessons from the Movie Sideways: Ten Years Later

In June 2004, a book was quietly published called "Sideways."  Written by a relatively unknown California director, screen writer and author, Rex Pickett, the unpublished book sat idle from 1999 until 2004 when Hollywood director, Alexander Payne happened upon it. He took the project on (actually being the one responsible for getting the book published) and by September of 2004 the film was released and would go on to win over 30 awards and completely change the way we drink wine in the United States. To say the film had an impact on American wine is an understatement and it is perhaps the most significant work of American popular culture in wine's recent history.

What Sideways Taught Us

So what have we learned about wine on this tenth anniversary of "Sideways?"  By some measures, the movie taught us quite a lot. The movie opened our eyes to how women perceive wine. Virginia Madsen's character, Maya, has a complex understanding of wine and relates to the view the "life of wine." It's an inspirational scene that still gives viewers goose bumps as she talks about what she thinks of as she drinks a glass of wine. The movie showcased Santa Barbara County wines, specifically those from the Santa Ynez Valley. Before Sideways, wine consumption and wine tourism in Santa Ynez was making-a-living. After Sideways, wine tourism exploded and turned the sleepy valley into a continuous line of cars and wine geeks following the "Sideways Trail" to all of the wineries featured in the film.

From Kalyra, to Firestone, to Foxen, to Sanford (not to mention the obligatory lunch or dinner at Los Olivos Café), the film highlighted the winery tasting rooms and wine tourism in general. Miles (expertly played by Paul Giamatti) drags his wine-novice buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church) around to some of the region's best tasting rooms. In some scenes the actual winery owners play the part of the tasting room host, and through Jack's need for explanation, the viewer learned tasting room protocols, the language of wine tasting and the subtleties of Santa Ynez wines.

Chardonnay? The film introduced the mass public to malolactic fermentation and chardonnay manipulation – and while the effects on point noir and merlot are what the film is most known for, in no small way, the shift from heavily oaked, buttery chardonnay to the more streamlined, stainless steel style can also be partially attributed to this movie.

Merlot Quip Still Resonates

Most importantly, though, the movie also opened up America to pinot noir, the favorite grape of Miles, a role Paul Giamatti might never completely shake. In fact, even with all of the success he's had since, whether playing John Adams to acclaim, or an American playboy on PBS's excellent, "Downton Abbey,"  you still think of Miles as soon as his face pops on the screen. For better or for worse, his line, "I am not drinking any [explicative] merlot!" is what still most resonates from the film.

Seemingly overnight, merlot sales in restaurants dropped. It disappeared from wine lists, and grocery stores moved less of the varietal. Wineries began pulling up merlot vines and planting more pinot noir. The effect on the industry was from vineyard all the way to the glass sitting on your dinner table. Winemakers didn't want to be caught making it and wine lovers didn't want to be caught drinking it. Wine and Spirit Magazine's twenty-fifth annual poll of New York City's restaurant wine lists (which helps set standards for the country), has shown again for every year since 2004, merlot sales have slipped as a top wine in restaurants, accounting for only 2.4% in 2013 (compared to 17% for cabernet sauvignon, 14.5% for pinot noir, and 11.4%  percent for chardonnay).

What American Still Needs to Learn

The decreasing sales are a big part of what America has still not learned, even ten years later. Merlot is an amazing grape that can produce extraordinary wines in France, California, Chile and Argentina. The flavors are bright, berry-ful and lively. There's an earthiness to merlot that grounds it and keeps it from being "simple." Merlot was so good that it had become the choice for in-the-know Americans when ordering a bottle of wine. Just a few years before Sideways, Michael Richards's character, Kramer, on Seinfeld exclaimed, "I live for merlot!" And we did. America loved the grape and couldn't get enough. The problem was, as the popularity increased, everyone wanted to make it. Merlot was grown where it didn't do best and was produced by winemakers that didn't understand the grape. Even successful producers began to make their merlots more bland, to please a broader and broader audience. Merlot was primed for a decline and Sideways simply fired the first shot.

Problem was, the real joke was on the American wine consumer. Ten years and several summaries and articles later, many wine consumers still haven't learned the true identity of the 1961 Cheval Blanc Miles covets throughout the film. Cheval Blanc is one of Bordeaux's most celebrated "right bank" wineries. Right bank refers to the Gironde River, and Bordeaux's major regions are referred to as right or left bank. The two main red grapes grown there are cabernet sauvignon and merlot. All of the wines are blended, and the left bank leans more heavily to cabernet sauvignon, while the right bank leans more heavily to merlot. By now you see the irony. Cheval Blanc is a merlot-heavy blend (the other grape in Cheval Blanc's belnd is cabernet franc, the parent of cabernet sauvignon).

So why the extremely negative (and comedic) line in the film? It should first be noted that the actual book contained a much softer line, but regardless, both the book and the film refer to Mile's being depressed over his recent divorce. The wine he'd saved for his now ex-wife and himself was the Cheval Blanc and talking about merlot makes him depressed. Like Kramer, Miles actually lives for merlot.

If you've turned your nose up at merlot for the past ten years because of "Sideways," give this amazing grape another chance. Yes, there is still some of that watery, bland, useless merlot floating around, but many of the recent vintages from California have that red/blue/black fruit nose and front palate, combined with the gentle earthy muscle of a truly classic red wine grape. It'll make you fall in love all over again.

Three to try:

2011 Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot $90

2011 Gundlach Bundschu Sonoma Valley Merlot $30

2012 Bogle California Merlot $10

Enjoy!

If you have wine-related questions, please send them to Greg Shaw (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.), Subject Line: Cuisine Noir - The Pairing Weekly

Greg B. C. Shaw

Greg B. C. Shaw

Dr. Greg Shaw is an assistant professor with the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration at California State University, Sacramento, and the co-author of a book chapter, Tourism in A Bottle: The California Winescape. full bio

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