Sideways Sends Pinot-Noir Sky-High

In the wake of Alexander Payne’s movie, Pinot Noir sales in the U.S. have jumped. If the movie wins the Academy Award for Best Picture, will Pinot sales rise even higher?

Like no other media, movies and television have the power to shape popular culture. It’s a phenomenon as old as movies themselves, but to cite just a few recent examples: Wayfarer sunglasses flew off the shelves when The Blues Brothers made them fashionable. Women all over the world asked their stylists to make their hair more like Jennifer Aniston’s in Friends. Sales of Reese’s Pieces went sky-high when E.T. displayed his sweet tooth.

And now Pinot Noir has benefited from the popularity of Alexander Payne’s movie, Sideways. Most of you have probably seen it, but just for the record: In Sideways, the main character, Miles, is a Pinot Noir fanatic. He samples many California bottlings, and speaks of Pinot Noir often, and eloquently. “Its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet,” he says at one point.

Official sales figures are not due for some time, but retailers from California, New York, Ohio and elsewhere are reporting a 15 percent increase in sales of Pinot Noir in the wake of the movie. Pinot Noir sales have been growing in this country at a rate of about 2 percent for the past several years, so this is quite a dramatic jump. The rise has been helped, no doubt, by the introduction of $10 to $15 Pinots from California and Oregon, but no question, it’s a movie marketing blip.

I have to admit: This surging popularity for Pinot Noir vexes me just a little, because like many Pinot-philes, against all reason, I liked to think it is our little secret: Pinot’s elusive magic in the glass, and its fabulous versatility with food. Yes, the wines of Burgundy are a legend to long-time wine enthusiasts, but for newcomers, French wines—Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône—are confusing. (The French have a serious problem marketing to U.S. consumers; for more, see our December 2004 cover story, “France Fights Back.”) And the fact that top-quality Pinot, whether from France or the U.S., is expensive kept it to cult-like status.

And should we spare a moment to mourn Merlot? Poor Merlot, a whipping boy among some wine enthusiasts for the last several years, gets an angry dismissal from Miles in the course of the film. There is a perception that in light of the ascendancy of Zinfandel and Syrah, the world no longer has need of Merlot. It’s not true, of course; Merlot is still a huge bestseller, worldwide. I wonder if there is a Merlot fanatic somewhere who’s quietly relishing the world’s diminishing interest in that variety, just as I’m mourning its growing interest in Pinot Noir.

One area where Pinot is in very good hands is the Santa Lucia Highlands, a North Central Coast haven of top-notch winegrowers and winemakers. This area has turned away from the Bordeaux varieties everyone expected would be the area’s backbone. As Steve Heimoff reports, in addition to world-class Pinots, the winemakers there are beginning to have good success with Syrah.

Also in this issue, Senior Editor Daryna Tobey pays a visit to McLaren Vale, a wine region in South Australia that, Tobey feels, is on the verge of making a big impact in Australia, and on the world’s wine scene in general. Shiraz is still the star there, but what winemakers here are trying to get the world to see is that their climate and soil are ideal for growing Grenache. Look for big things from McLaren Vale in the near future.

A classic wine and a popular spirit are undergoing classification makeovers, and our European Editor, Roger Voss, and Spirits Tasting Director, Paul Pacult, are there to report. First, the authorities in Portugal have created a new classification for Ports, Reserve Ports, in order to clear up the confusion of vintage character. And whisky enthusiasts, who had blended whiskies on the one hand, and single malts on the other, can join hands to welcome blended single malt whiskies.

People who enjoy sipping Port and whisky are in it for the long haul. They, like seasoned wine enthusiasts, are not subject to these whims and fashions. If there’s a good Merlot available, we’ll try it, and no jokes or social pressure will deter us. At the same time, we welcome the people responsible for this 15 percent spike in Pinot Noir sales. Whether it’s a movie that induces you to dig deeper into the wine world, or you order a wine because you simply like the way it sounds…whatever reasons have you drinking and enjoying wine, and talking about it and sharing it with friends… we’re glad you’re with us.


Published on March 1, 2005