California Pinot and “The Sideways Effect”

How the popular 2005 indie film impacted the California wine region for a generation.

Back in 2005, the movie Sideways went from sleeper hit to box office darling and Oscar contender. Starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church as two buddies on a weekend road trip to the Santa Ynez wine region just north of Santa Barbara. Church’s character, Jack, is an actor enjoying his last moments as a bachelor, and Giamitti’s Miles is a wine aficionado with a penchant for pinot.

This fundamental preference—Miles’ love for pinot noir—defines his character through the film. Here he explains this passion to potential love interest Maya, played by Virginia Madsen.

Maya: Why are you so in to Pinot?

Miles Raymond: [laughs softly]

Maya: I mean, it’s like a thing with you.

Miles Raymond: [continues laughing softly]

Miles Raymond: Uh, I don’t know, I don’t know. Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. 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.

Turns out Miles’ obsession and the success of Sideways would translate to a boom for the pinot grape, previously a small player in the California wine game.

According to a story on NPR about what’s known in the industry as “The Sideways Effect,” pinot went from little guy to a cellar mainstay:

“’Pinot noir production in California has increased roughly 170 percent since Sideways was released,’ says wine industry analyst Gabriel Froymovich of Vineyard Financial Associates, noting that total wine production has increased 7 to 8 percent during the same time. ‘I think people who were into wine saw the passion for pinot noir in the movie, decided to explore that variety a bit, and realized how lovely a wine that grape makes.’”

Pinot’s boost from Sideways also meant bad news for merlot. Not as a competitor necessarily, but for this one line Miles screams out in angst over his ex-wife’s preference for the varietal.

Miles Raymond: “No, if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking merlot!”

According to Kristen Kartke for NPR, “That line apparently echoed beyond the cineplex: In a 2009 case study, Steven Cuellar, an economics professor at Sonoma State University, found a measurable decline in merlot sales of about 2 percent from January 2005 (the film was released in October 2004) through 2008. During that same time period, pinot noir sales increased 16 percent—it’s now the second-most-planted varietal in California’s Sonoma County.”

One the bright side, in the 10-plus years since the movie came out, merlot prices have seen a steady rise, surviving any previous damage Miles’s outburst may have caused. But thanks to Sideways and the countless wine devotees it inspired, pinot remains California King.

You can watch the trailer for Sideways here:

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