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Sideways is ten years old!

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Can it really have been ten years since Sideways came out?

Yup. It was in 2004 that the movie hit the big screen. I remember going to see it–if there was ever a “must-see” film for a wine critic, Sideways was it. To tell you the truth, I didn’t care all that much for it at the time. I was a bit peeved that it made the Miles character such an a-hole; since he was “the wine guy,” I identified with him, and I thought he made people who were passionate about wine seem neurotic, even petulant and infantile. (Maybe we are.)

But with the passage of time I’ve come to think more highly of Sideways. I recently saw it again and thought that it really is quite a pleasant flick. But I still admire and respect it more for its historical import than for its filmic values.

Did Sideways prove to be the impetus behind Pinot Noir’s startling rise to fame? On the “yes” side is the testimony of Santa Barbara County vintners who say they saw their sales soar in the months following the movie’s release. Tourists allegedly flocked to the Santa Rita Hills in droves, buying Pinot like there was no tomorrow.

On the “no” side, though, is ample evidence that Pinot Noir already was happening in America, and it was only a matter of time before it achieved superstardom. Maybe it would have taken a few years longer without Sideways, but Pinot was well on its way. Plantings were increasing in all the vital coastal appellations, from Santa Rita Hills up through the Central Coast to Sonoma County and into Anderson Valley. Critics–those who were paying attention–already had taken notice of Pinot’s charms. It was obvious to me: Well before Sideways, going back to the 1990s, I’d given extremely high scores to the likes of Belle Glos, Fiddlehead, Lynmar, Dutton-Goldfield, Patz & Hall, Goldeneye, Talley, Laetitia, Lazy Creek, Acacia, Testarossa, Gary Farrell, Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Merry Edwards, Fort Ross Vineyard, Hanzell, Longoria, Ancien, Tandem (miss them), Iron Horse, MacRostie, Mondavi Reserve and many others.

Has Pinot Noir changed in the last ten years? I don’t think all that much, not at the high end. The invasion of the Dijon clones already had occurred, bringing in that purity of fruit. There may be a slight tendency lately to consciously strive for lower alcohol [i.e. below 14%], but that may also partly be due to the 2010 and 2011 vintages being cool ones. Certainly the wines today seem cleaner and more focused; I hardly ever detect brett anymore (not the worst thing anyway, in small doses). And the best wineries remain rigorous in sorting out bad berries and bunches.

What has changed, though, is that the mosaic of individual wineries, working at great distances from each other (Anderson Valley is 500 miles north of Santa Barbara) is turning into a clearer image of coastal terroir. It’s amazing, when you think about it, that Burgundy is such a concentrated place; it’s only 75 miles from Dijon to Macon. Whereas we have in California that 500 mile stretch–and if you add Oregon to the equation (also a coastal winegrowing area) it’s more like a thousand mile stretch, of superb Pinot Noir terroir. Surely that must be unique in the world of wine.

The excitement of that post-Sideways moment has died down, probably a good thing, as it had become a bit of a fad to drink Pinot Noir, and fads always are eventually replaced by newer fads. Pinot Noir has proven to be no mere fad. The wine has taken its place in the pantheon of great California wines, in fact great world wine. How cool is that. And how interesting that it occurred just at the same moment in the evolution of California’s gastronomic culture as did our incorporation of practically every ethnic cuisine in the world (certainly those around the Pacific) into our foods. I don’t think there’s a better red wine anywhere to drink with everything from Vietnamese and Mexican to barbecue, Italian, French, Afghan, Chinese, fusion, modern American, you name it. Cabernet, with its heavier tannins, is not the most versatile red wine. Pinot Noir, pure silk and satin, and brimming with acidity, is.

The next step, one that will take a while, is to determine Pinot Noir’s ageworthiness. The oldest wines from many top wineries are not yet old. We need to see if the 2012s, which haven’t even started appearing yet in serious quantities, are 10 year wines, 15 year wines, 25 years wines, or even older. There’s no reason why some of them shouldn’t be. But I’ll leave it to a future generation of wine writers to figure that out!

  1. Steve,

    I recall, pre-Sideways, I would drive down to the Sta. Rita Hills on a Saturday to check the grapes from Clos Pepe and Cargasacchi Vineyards on a Sunday morning. I’d stay at the Best Western in Buellton, usually without a reservation, and then meet Wes and Peter at the Hitching Post, getting a table pretty easily. After Sideways? The Best Western has a two-night minimum on weekends, at close to $200 a night. And you almost have to know someone to get into the Hitching Post. So….things definitely changed for me.

    On a more serious note, I thought it interesting that Sideways was released in October 2014 (as the 2003 vintage was just starting to be released, followed by 2004). Those two vintages were the hottest vintages I have ever experienced. The Pinot brix levels at harvest were higher in 2004 than in any year before or since in Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara/SLO. Those newcomers who decided to check out Pinot then got those wines and grew to expect bigger, richer, higher alcohol wines. —

    I often wonder what would have happened had Sideways been released when 2011 was the predominant vintage in the marketplace.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Oops, I mean released in October 2004….sorry….

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  3. Adam,
    If the BestWestern is too rich for your blood, you can always join us other bottom-feeders over in Lompoc. That’s always my choice anymore when I’m staying in the SantaYnezVlly, unless I’m staying w/ friends.
    Tom

  4. Indeed, I now often stay in Lompoc. And you will catch me hanging out late at night at either Jaspers or the Wicked Shamrock. Haven’t see you yet, Tom, at either one of those fine establishments, but would be happy to show them to you if our visits coincide!

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  5. I discovered wine in 2005, and remember the “sideways effect” not by pinot noir, but by the way it affected merlot. Retailers couldn’t give the stuff away, and I was finding 10-year old bottles of Napa Valley Merlot for $20!
    While I’m sure it is still being grown in Napa, I’ve noticed a lot fewer bottles being labeled as Merlot (probably being mixed into cabs or meritages).

  6. I recall reading an article in the NYTimes about the Disco Fever not being created at all by “Saturday Night Fever”, that in fact the craze pretty much had come and gone, when the movie reignited it, albeit on much bigger level.

    See ““Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” in the June 7, l976, issue of New York Magazine, which is where the story came from. In the article the author talks about seeing the archetype for Tony Manero (Travolta’s character) “dressed in “flared, crimson pants and a black body shirt,” coolly watching the action from the club doorway”

    So perhaps Rex Pickett (author of Sideways) saw one of you guys lurking in some tasting room doorway too!

  7. doug wilder says:

    Eric Hall said “So perhaps Rex Pickett (author of Sideways) saw one of you guys lurking in some tasting room doorway too!”

    That would have been an entirely different movie, based on ‘The Usual Suspects’!

  8. Regarding the age ability of California Pinot Noir. No question about it. In the last week I have drunk 2004 Littorai One Acre Anderson Valley, 1993 Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast, and 1995 Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. All were superb, fresh and alive. The Littorai and Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard wines aren’t even near the down slope and will easily last another 5-10 years. In the right hands, and if properly cellared, California Pinot Noir can age very well.

    A couple of little-known facts about Sideways:
    *Sandra Oh learned to ride a motorcycle for the film
    *Director Alex Payne selected the film’s wine list
    *George Clooney was offered the role of Miles
    *The movie on television in Miles and Jack’s motel room is The Grapes of Wrath
    *Most of the wine used in the movie was non-alcoholic and actors drank so much of it, they got nauseated. They had to periodically switch to the real thing to clear their palates
    *Payne had to pay Firestone not to pick two rows of grapes so they could film a scene among the vines

  9. Not to be overlooked is that elder statesman of California Pinot Noir: Hanzell.

    Recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal:

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304549504579318840310372478

    A bottle of 1973 Hanzell, 1973 Beaulieu Vineyard “Burgundy” (sic), 1976 Rutherfod Hill, 1979 Robert Mondavi and possibly an old Martin Ray Pinot Noir await my drinking group and me when we revisit 1970s decade California Pinot Noirs next month.

    B.V.’s André Tchelistcheff‎ was very proud of his infrequently made Pinot Noirs.

    Backgrounder:

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/1994-04-14/food/fo-45648_1_andre-tchelistcheff

    http://www.cellartracker.com/wine.asp?iWine=367745

    http://www.tastings.com/past_features/feature5.html

    http://www.schoolhousevineyard.com/Right.htm

    http://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/08/dining/wine-talk-burgundy-meets-its-match-american-pinot-noir.html?pagewanted=print

  10. I remember clearly the evening that we went to the Stonestown Theater in S.F. to watch Sideways. It was November 10, 2004. I needed a diversion because the next morning I was scheduled for an ablation procedure to fix my atril fib problem. In early October of 2004 we took a trip to Santa Barbara wine country. We stopped in at the Sanford winery and met Chris Burroughs. He told us about his “huge” part in the upcoming movie. I think he may have spoken one sentence in his scene. It is one of my all time favorite movies and not just because it was about wine. Cheers to Sideways and its upcoming tenth anniversary. A true classic!

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