Do you recall the movie Sideways that was popular in 2004? For those who didn’t see it, Sideways is the story of two middle-aged friends, Miles and Jack, who set out on a final week of fun before Jack gets married. They drive north from Los Angeles to the wine region around Santa Barbara in Miles’ sporty little convertible. Jack is a less-than-successful actor just looking for a good time, but Miles is all about the wine, fancying himself as something of a connoisseur. They visit a number of wineries where Miles says things like “the estate chardonnay is quaffable but far from transcendent” and “the cab franc is hollow, flabby and overripe”.

Later at dinner with some women they’ve managed to meet, Miles, in full snob mode, says "If anyone orders Merlot I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any #@!% merlot." In contrast, Miles frequently waxes poetic about the wonders of Pinot Noir. So now you’re thinking, great movie review, but what does this have to do with anything? Well, it turns out that this simple little movie has had a profound effect on the wine industry. So much so that its impact has become known as the “Sideways Effect”. People who had never heard of Pinot Noir began drinking it in abundance and people who thought they were chic drinking Merlot suddenly wanted nothing to do with it. The California Highway Patrol reported a jump in highway incidents in Santa Barbara County, saying the movie led to a virtual stampede to the Santa Barbara wine country, causing a rash of drunk driving arrests and crashes. The area has 90 tasting rooms.

Analyzing Pinot Noir and Merlot sales between 1999 and 2008, a recent study showed the "Sideways Effect" has had a negative impact on the consumption of Merlot, while increasing the consumption of Pinot Noir. However, the effect was not proportional; helping Pinot Noir more than it hurt Merlot. In addition, the price of Merlot has fallen while the price of Pinot Noir has increased. The downward price pressure on Merlot is mostly at the lower price points, while the positive price effect on Pinot Noir have been across all price-points.

Pinot Noir is the grape of red French Burgundy’s and Blanc de Noir sparkling wines. In the United States, northern California, New York and Oregon are known for Pinot Noir. Not surprising these areas share the same latitude as the Burgundy region of France. Generally speaking, Pinot Noir from these latitudes are light in color, low in alcohol, low in tannins and high in acidity. In contrast, Pinot Noir from the sunnier central coast counties of California are dark in color, higher in alcohol, low in tannins and low in acidity. In many cases comparing Pinot Noir from these contrasting regions is like comparing wines made from two different grapes. It is of course personal preference, but I prefer the central coast style of Pinot Noir.

We should also mention that like Mark Twain, the reports of Merlot’s death are premature. In some respects Merlot deserved Sideways, having become a victim of its own success. During this time you could put practically anything in a bottle labeled Merlot and sell it; and some wine makers did just that. The resulting deterioration in the quality of the product contributed to falling price and sales as Jump forward to the present. The quality of Merlot has improved while the price has remained low, creating good value for Merlot drinkers and a proliferation of new labels.