The Sideways offensive: Will Merlot sales ever recover?

The scene lasts no longer than a few moments.

Thomas Haden Church’s character, frustrated and looking to get laid, tells Paul Giamatti’s character that if the two women they’re about to meet want to drink Merlot, they’re all drinking Merlot. “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving,” Giamatti responds. “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!”

The scene is humorous but fleeting, yet after the movie Sideways was met with both critical and popular success, news organizations began reporting Merlot’s demise. Sales within the industry dropped as casual, uninformed wine drinkers turned up their noses at the drink. And wine afficionados weren’t all sad to see the grape’s downfall.

“In the previous decade, cheap Merlot had become the red wine of choice for many folks who wanted something easy to drink,” said Alder Yarrow. “If it was 1992 and you were putting on an opening at an art gallery and you wanted to serve wine, it would have been Chardonnay and Merlot. So I guess some shallow wine lovers might have decided over time that such common affinity was a turn-off.”

Yarrow, 33, writes for Vinography.com, a wine review website that receives over 10,000 unique visitors a day. In addition to his thoughts on wine, he offers sake reviews, restaurant reviews and notes on food. He lives in California with his wife and runs a consulting firm by day.
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The wine lover said that though there were anecdotal stories of diminishing Merlot sales, he didn’t know of any wineries that went out of business. There was an immediate media counter offensive against the movie, pointing out that the wine loved by the main character has a significant percentage of Merlot in it. Paloma Vineyards and Swanson Vineyards, both of which specialize in Merlot, sponsored a Merlot publicity tour to overturn the public conception.

What surprised Yarrow was that such a simple, short-lasting scene could have such direct repercussions.

“I never would have guessed the movie would have had such an effect on the U.S. wine industry. Not in a million years,” he said. “Mostly because Americans famously drink so little wine and because I didn’t think that there was a huge overlap between serious wine drinkers and the general Hollywood moviegoing public. I was clearly very wrong.”

But Mary Baker, owner of Dover Canyon Winery, thought that not all movie viewers came away from Sideways with a bad taste for Merlot.

“[I]n the movie, Miles (Giamatti’s character) isn’t really protesting about Merlot, the grape. What he’s protesting against is the tooty-fruity, bland Merlot styles that are often found on restaurant wine lists,” Baker said. “There’s also a misconception, among men mostly, that women prefer white wine and Merlots. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Women, as Miles was about to find out, like gentle men and strong wines…you didn’t hear Miles complaining once he was captivated by two stunning, assertive, wine-savvy women. There are a lot of layers of humor in both the book and the movie.”

Dover Canyon is located on the west side of Paso Robles. Baker and her co-owner, Dan Panico, worked for large wineries before opening their own place that produces limited productions from small, elite vineyards. They have limited editions of mountain-grown Merlot, and she said that their sales weren’t affected at all.

“It’s interesting that no one wants to be the ‘geeky Miles,’” she explained. “Miles apparently hated Merlot, and that made people curious about Merlot because no one wants to come across as such a navel-lint-gazing wine snob. But Miles adored Pinot Noir, (and who wouldn’t after Maia’s beautiful speech?) and so people want to be cool . . . they want to be into Pinot Noir.”
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California isn’t the only place where the grape is widely grown. It’s also planted in both France and Italy, among other places. Andrew Barrow, a UK resident who writes for Spittoon, a wine blog that receives 2,000 visitors a day, said that the film didn’t influence oversees Merlot sales.

“We have the most extensive wine range available in the world in the UK but Sideways was viewed as little more than a fun film,” he said. “A good film but insignificant to the world’s wine centre in terms of influence on sales.”

Of course, Merlot isn’t much of a UK wine, but there hasn’t been any significant evidence that Sideways was able to cross over the language barrier enough to negatively affect wine sales in France and Italy.

In addition to the Merlot offensive, many wineries in the US found other ways to adapt to changing popular tastes.

“I know of one good Merlot vineyard that grafted over to other varietals,” said Jeff Stai. “But I couldn’t even tell you if it was a direct reaction or multiple factors.”

Stai owns Twisted Oak Winery, which is located in Calaveras County, CA, what he likes to call “the best wine region you’ve never heard of.” His winery doesn’t make Merlot, so most his commentary was anecdotal, but he asserted that the movie had its positive effects.

“If the movie had an effect, it got people thinking about alternatives to Merlot – which is good for people making Tempranillo!” Stai said. “But maybe even more importantly it brought wine back into popular culture again, and that will help us all, even the Merlot producers.”

But, in the end, the question remains: Will Merlot sales ever recover? Sideways debuted in 2004, surely the bad PR ripples must have subsided.

“American consumers are a fickle lot, but I would say that Merlot did not suffer so much in sales that any wineries went out of business,” said Fredric Koeppel, who wrote a national weekly print wine column for The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis and the Scripps Howard News Service from 1984 to 2004. “The proper response to Sideways would have been to make better, more distinctive Merlot and Pinot Noir, but, honestly, I don’t know of any producers that got into a snit because of the Sideways situation; trends come and go.”

Most wine experts seemed to agree with this opinion.

“If every time a cheap version of a varietal got popular in the US, we scorned the grape completely, we’d all be drinking Mourvedre,” said Yarrow, the Vinography writer. “Which, come to think of it wouldn’t be that bad.”

2 Comments

  1. Bill Jonas Says:

    The movie really did leave a bad taste in people’s mouthes for Merlot. We carry over 50 Red Wines by-the-glass; 6 of them are great Merlots. We still have guests coming in requesting, “Give me anything Red except for a Merlot”. Toyingly, we usually poor them a taste of one of the Merlots – and they have the epiphany that Merlot can be really, really good!

    The trend is starting to subside – We’re adding a Merlot flight – and will continue to serve great wine, no matter it’s variety or color (BTW, we’re having a great year with PINK WINES!).

    Bill

  2. Marcia Amaral Says:

    Hello Simon,

    There is no question about the impact of the film in the wine market. Furthermore, this is a trend that had influenced just a segment in the business.
    For those who have changed their preferences considering the comment in the film, they are very likely to change their mind again for any other reason. However, Pinot Noir is a lovely variety, which deserves very much to be appreciated. So, where the film drove the market to… is not that bad.

    By the way, good luck in your new job.
    Regards,
    Marcia


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