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Sideways Puts Pinot Noir in a Starring Role

Why this finicky grape is--and should be--a hot commodity

James Laube
Posted: February 25, 2005

Maybe, just maybe, Sideways did trigger a surge in Pinot Noir sales.

Winemakers say it's true, and they should know. This clever, upscale buddy-film, set in Santa Barbara's wine country, has been a genuine box office hit and won critical acclaim. On Sunday night, it could garner a few more awards at the Oscar fest in Hollywood.

Still, I'd like to think that the brilliant 2002 vintage--the best in California history--provided the impetus for the newfound uptick in Pinot's popularity.

The notion that Miles, the depressed, borderline alcoholic Pinot-freak, is inspiring the masses to try Pinot is a bit unnerving.

It's all the more odd given that he took a potshot at one of the country's most popular varietals. In one comic scene outside a restaurant, he warns: "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f---ing Merlot." (And yet, ironically, he confesses that his most-prized wine is Château Cheval-Blanc 1961, a Bordeaux from St.-Emilion that's a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc--a variety of which is he almost equally dismissive.) Word on the street now is that Miles' trashing of Merlot has put a torpedo in Merlot waters, and that sales are sinking.

But even though Miles is quirkier than most Pinots, there's no doubt that the wines from California of late have been rich and exciting. Indeed, 2002 is a big step up from any previous vintage, making believers out of doubters and skeptics who never thought this grape would click in the Golden State.

It not only clicks, but in many areas it looks like a match made in wine heaven.

This is despite the fact that Pinot is perhaps the most idiosyncratic of wines. Tough to grow, it can be similarly challenging to vinify. But the biggest hurdle to its wider acceptance is that Pinot is, for the most part, an acquired taste. It's not a populist wine that holds broad allure for consumers.

One reason is that the measure of greatness for Pinot is red Burgundy--and buying Burgundy can be as tricky as walking through a minefield wearing a blindfold.

Burgundies are rare, expensive and beyond the means of most. They are often inconsistent: Quality varies significantly from producer to producer and from vintage to vintage.

When compared with California's recent interpretations of Pinot, Burgundies are lighter in color and more delicate on the palate. As one of my friends suggests, the difference is like comparing two paintings--one a watercolor (Burgundy), the other a richer, oil composition (California).

Don't get me wrong. I love great Burgundy, and when you encounter a grand bottle, there is no finer wine or wine-drinking experience. I simply can't afford to buy or drink the elite on a regular basis. And despite the generosity of my collector friends, who willingly provide me with an occasional fix, Burgundy is just not on my radar screen.

Because of Burgundy's cool climate, its great vintages are the warm ones. In warmer California, during the past decade or so, vintners have been marching to plant Pinot in cooler coastal sites. This decision has been paying handsome dividends.

Miles clearly understands that Pinot Noir is happening, and because he's willing to share his insights and passion for the wines, people are apparently giving them a well-deserved try. The timing couldn't be better.

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