IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A year since ‘Sideways,’ the state of pinot envy

After movie madness pushes sales up by 45 percent, pinot noir producers take stock at a West Coast fest. Jon Bonné feels the pinot pulse.

How has pinot noir endured its year of fame?

Twelve months ago, it was a grape appreciated by the more geeky among wine lovers (plus the French and a handful of Californians and Oregonians with a penchant for masochism).

All that changed after Alexander Payne unleashed his road-trip buddy movie “Sideways” on the American public.

Payne’s schlubby protagonist Miles bottled up his love for others, but as you might recall, he freely let flow his affection for pinot noir. Its flavors, he said, were “the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”

Not a bad sales pitch, eh? Miles’ (occasionally excessive) on-screen pinot love literally translated into pinot pandemonium in the wine aisle. Restaurants breathlessly described their pinot supplies being drained. Wine shops described customers dashing in and demanding pinot of any sort, price tag be damned. It was the wine world’s biggest coup since “60 Minutes” described the so-called “French Paradox” in 1991. (You remember — how the fat-filled French diet is reportedly reduced in risk by consumption of red wine.)

Pinot noir sales have spiked by nearly 45 percent since July 2004, according to ACNielsen. That’s just a drop in the overall wine bucket (a mere 1.6 percent of all table wine sold), but for a once obscure variety and the winemakers who devote themselves to the grape’s finicky nature, it has been a rare moment in the limelight. 

“I’ve been making pinot since 1980, so I’ve been waiting for this train to come for some time,” says Tony Soter, who makes pinot noir in both California and Oregon.

Behind the hype, though, lies a more complicated story, borne out by the mixed messages emanating from this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration, held last month in McMinnville, Ore.

By all accounts, or at least those of the 50 domestic pinot noir vintners in attendance, 2005 has been a breathless year.  But, says Frank Ostini of The Hitching Post II in Buellton, Calif., “You can’t take the last six months and extrapolate that out for the next 10 years.”

Few winemakers can match the impact Ostini has felt from “Sideways,” which used his restaurant (and his Highliner pinot noirs) as its centerpiece. (Miles’ object of desire, Maya, waitresses at the Hitching Post.) With California’s Santa Barbara region basking in a huge tourism boom, the Hitching Post is continually thronged by diners looking to concoct their own “Sideways” experience. Ostini’s wines have sold out as soon as he can get them into a bottle; within weeks of bottling 1,400 cases of his 2004 flagship wine, he had already sold 900.

Yet pinot’s boom actually began long before it hit the big screen. As Ostini points out, vineyard managers had begun planting new pinot vines years before Alexander Payne optioned Rex Pickett’s novel. In 2002, California had 23,879 acres of pinot noir planted, up from just 9,261 a decade earlier.  In fact, pinot producers, like all winemakers, fretted about a grape glut.

Hastily-made pinot at bargain prices under $12 appeared on the market well before Payne’s film pointed novice drinkers toward Pinot World. Sadly, for many drinkers these cheap wines have been a point of entry into a grape that is maddeningly complex.  Ostini recalls sitting down at a restaurant bar for a glass of second-string pinot: “I tasted it and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s merlot disguised as pinot noir.’”

Though a handful of inexpensive pinots do offer decent quality, most are a bête noire for experienced fans, who can be a persnickety bunch. This year’s pinot celebration in Oregon witnessed palpable disgruntlement by some fervent pinot partisans (“the deepest end of the pinot noir club,” says Au Bon Climat winemaker Jim Clendenen) who expressed frustration that the masses uncovered their little secret. 

And many winemakers have concluded the “Sideways” boom will be short-lived. “I still think if that’s the only reason they’re out drinking pinot noir, they’re probably not going to stick with it,” says Steve Doerner of Cristom Vineyards in Salem, Ore. “I feel like it’s already starting to wane.”

Here’s the catch: Pinot noir is a notoriously difficult wine, both to make and to savor. And reality is less romantic than Miles’ on-screen rhapsody. In great vintages, like 2002 in Oregon or Burgundy, pinot is powerful and yet elegant, full of seductive, earthy flavors. In poor vintages, it can be thin, jarring and hard to love. The pinot lover’s eternal torture is that the bad so often outpaces the good.

If Cabernet is the domain of the hedonist, pinot is for the intellectual. “It’s a very cult sort of wine,” says British wine expert Michael Broadbent, former head of the wine department at London auction house Christie’s.

A shifting global market adds yet another piece to the pinot puzzle. America’s pinot boom has embraced imported versions — sales of which are up 22.4 percent, according to ACNielsen. And pinot envy has hit other markets: New Zealand wine expert Bob Campbell says Australian pinot sales in have doubled, and vintners in New Zealand (the other major New World region for pinot) have seen their U.S. sales take off in the past 12 months.

Yet American pinot noir remains a strikingly expensive proposition overseas. “I’m sorry to say that Australia and Chile and New Zealand are much more dominant in the British market,” Broadbent says. “For $50-80, you can get a jolly good Burgundy and a very good Bordeaux.”

The “Sideways” effect is also a distant echo in France’s Burgundy region, pinot noir’s motherland. Wineries there have for centuries bottled some of the best (and most expensive) pinot in the world, yet they remain almost totally unaffected by America’s sudden pinot craze. For one thing, the Burgundians make miniscule amounts of wine, and sell it at steep prices. But deep-pocketed drinkers in markets like in New York and Las Vegas aren’t blinking at big price tags on pinot. So perhaps Burgundy’s bigger challenge is that it is unwelcome territory for the novice; vintners label their wines by village and vineyard name, not grape variety. You can more easily find a $50 bottle of Vosne-Romanée from Domaine Bizot than a bottle simply of Burgundy willing to call itself pinot noir.

“The people who know wine can appreciate this wine,” says Domaine Bizot’s Jean-Yves Bizot, who produces just 800 cases of wine annually.

Wines, like movies, are ultimately about trends. Tastes evolve. Merlot and action flicks are huge one summer; pinot noir and indie dramas sizzle the next. Consider this: Pinot vines may have more than doubled, but California had over 52,000 acres of merlot planted in 2002 — with fivefold growth in just a decade.

Even director Payne has distanced himself from his “Sideways” turn. He cancelled an appearance in Oregon and declined an interview request for this piece. (“I think he’s done with the wine thing,” says Ostini.)

Perhaps that’s best for pinot noir. Its brush with fame won it a handful of new devotees, but the fair-weather fans will fade soon enough.  True believers have been singing its praises all along. Says Phil Pratt, wine and beverage director of the 21 Club in New York: “We are a pinot restaurant. We push the hell out of it, with or without movies.”

TASTING NOTESWith so many label-hounds hunting the wines featured in “Sideways,” I’ve adopted a different pinot strategy. To my knowledge, none of these wines have appeared in a feature film.

O’Reilly’s 2004 Oregon pinot noir ($13)Perfumed red cherry, blueberry and a hint of cola dominate. Light and pliable in the mouth, with good texture to match with a meal and more power than it shows at first blush. Another impressive effort for the price from wine maestro David O’Reilly.

Iris Hill 2002 Oregon pinot noir ($18)Terrific bargain from a relatively new producer who sits on the southern edge of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Bright raspberry, cocoa and floral scents, with bright, full fruit that leaps forward and a glossy texture.

Pavelot 2003 Savigny-les-Beaune Premier Cru Aux Gravains ($30)Earthy, foresty and brooding, in perfect form, with slightly candied fruit in the middle and a fine, supple finish.  Expressive and gorgeous.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2002 pinot noir ($40)The domestic offshoot of the Burgundy house of Joseph Drouhin continues to set a standard for Oregon. Bright red, heavily perfumed with candied strawberry notes, a perfect structure bolstered by a solid core of fruit, with fine tannins at the end.

Cristom 2002 Louise Vineyard pinot noir ($40)
Steve Doerner takes a notably French approach to winemaking, and this wine shows off the fruit from his oldest estate vines. Opens quietly, with anise, red fruits and loamy aromas. A complex herbal note dominates the middle, with brown spices, all the better to match food. Sizable, but elegant.

Domaine Marc Roy 2003 Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Prieur* (The Miller Portfolio)Rich animal scents, with bright red and candied black fruit and butterscotch. Profound depth. Fine tannins bolster the finish. It’s sublime, the sort of wine that creates a lifelong bond to Burgundy.

Maison Alex Gambal 2003 Volnay Les Santenots ($48, multiple importers)Concentrated candied fruit and cocoa, with great acidity in the middle and a fine, full tanninc finish. Gorgeous, if young; ready to grow for years.

Au Bon Climat 2001 Isabelle Morgan pinot noir ($50)A nice rust-colored edge shows the age on Jim Clendenen’s top pinot. Rich, fecund and foresty, with well-developed notes of licorice and brown spice, followed by mellow fruit in back. It’s slightly funky up front, but with great texture and focus.

*Not yet on the U.S. market.