If that sentence sounds familiar to you then you’ve probably seen the 2004 — now classic — Alexander Payne movie, Sideways. The Oscar nominated film starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church is a favourite of mine. It’s a poignant yet wacky ride of a movie set against a backdrop of picturesque vineyards in California.
It tells the story of two best friends in their 40’s on a week long wine tour through Santa Barbara County. Miles (Paul Giamatti), a failed writer and wine enthusiast, tries to show Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), a has-been soap opera star and womanizer soon to be married, a relaxing time before his impending nuptials. But instead of golf, tastings and good meals, Jack would rather get in a last hurrah, with a sexual conquest before finding himself tied down forever. Thus ensues a brouhaha in wine country. And what a brouhaha it is!
I won’t give too much away but the infamous scene where Miles, a huge pinot noir fan, refuses to drink merlot, is one of the funniest moments in the film. In an effort to get laid, Jack arranges an evening with Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), two locals living and working in wine country. Before entering the restaurant where they’re all to meet, Jack reminds Miles “not to go to the dark side”, not to drink too much and not to get mad if somebody wants to drink merlot. Miles agrees to lay off the juice, be less intense and relax a little but he firmly lays down the law at drinking what he considers to be a low-brow wine and screams, I am not drinking merlot!
I say infamous because that moment in the film halted merlot’s journey on the avenue of green lights it had previously enjoyed… An easy seller, it was and still is accessibly priced, and for the most part, tasty. Merlot had never been too punchy, too big, too small, too tangy or too anything for that matter! But after that sentence was uttered, sales plummeted resulting in the crash being called the “Sideways Effect”.
I have to admit, I fell victim to this Sideways Effect. When the film first came out I was just getting into wine. I’d been working at a few restaurants and had developed a talent for knowing my ripassos from my shirazs. My friends often called on me to pick the wine at the table or to bring the wine to the dinner party. I got to understand preparation, learnt about certain regions and even favoured particular grapes. On a personal note, I was gravitating towards big complicated wines. They were brassier, punchy types that resembled the hard to know paths, men and aspirations I tended to be drawn to in life… Hmm. Amarones, barolos and even Californian pinot noirs were in my wheelhouse, and by way of their complexity, merlot was out of the running because merlot was anything but complicated. In fact, it had mostly been the amicable sidekick, who seemed to get along with just about everybody, and to add the icing on the cake, merlot never demanded too much from us.
But this was exactly what infuriated the character Miles in Sideways. He valued the complexity of some grapes and the craftsmanship of growers who could nurture that complexity. It spoke volumes on how that taste would eventually pay off. Or did it? There’s something so fantastically fun about turning up your nose at something that you deem less than and my bourgeois stance on wine was making me feel like I had tasting cred. But the truth is we often view roads less traveled as the roads to take. We prefer to bang on closed doors than to walk through wide open ones and maybe complicated, bold and brassy are just distractions from the peace and ease we could find.
By the time I started working at what would be my final bar gig, one of my favourite wine bars in the city — Sotto Voce — merlot by the glass was a top seller. The Californian merlot, known as Bogle, was a staff favourite. A few wine sellers throughout the city were raving about it and curiosity was killing this cat, as I was beginning to wanna debunk the Sideways Effect. I found a couple of interesting things to note. Fact one: Miles hated merlot because it was his ex wife’s favourite wine not because he thought it sucked. Fact two: In the movie he talked about a vintage wine he had been holding onto, a bottle aged for well over 20 years, which he hadn’t yet found the occasion to drink. This wine — wouldn’t you know it — was a merlot and it ended up playing a special part in his redemption. These are not necessarily hidden story points in the film, but all the yelling “I’m not drinking merlot” was all most of us heard — myself included.
As it turns out, Sideways had an amazing effect on wine overall. While it did negatively affect the sales of merlot initially, sales of pinot noir and all other wines benefited considerably. In the end it made a whole lot of people — myself included — more interested in wine. I recently visited the Santa Barbara County area where the movie was shot. Many of the locations, now tourist attractions on a map, known as the Sideways tour offer people the opportunity to taste, eat and drink as the characters did. And if we feel so inclined, we too can stand outside that restaurant and yell “I’m not drinking merlot”. That being said, Sotto Voce has a kick-ass merlot that you probably don’t want to miss out on. Just saying…