It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the start of a major cultural shift. What work of art begins the Italian Renaissance, for instance, or on what day did the Jazz Age start?
But there’s no doubt that October 22, 2004 marked one of the great shifts in the modern wine world. That’s the day that Sideways premiered in the U.S.
Sideways is a road movie that follows Miles (played by Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church). Jack is looking for one final fling before his impending marriage. Miles is looking for good food and drink and invites Jack on a wine tasting tour of California’s then-unknown Santa Ynez Valley. ‘Unknown’ is key here because the region was and is home to one of the world’s greatest grapes that few Americans had heard of – Pinot Noir. That changed on October 22, 2004. In fact, the precise minutes of the shift may be Miles’ description of Pinot Noir wine:
Temperamental, not a survivor, needing constant care and attention… it sounds a lot like my mom’s description of the boys I wasted too much time on as a teenager. But how many people know the lure of being that one patient soul who can see the “haunting, brilliant, thrilling and subtle” qualities in a person that everyone else knows is a pain in the butt? Clearly a lot of people. Overnight, literally, the U.S. fell in love with Pinot Noir. By 2005, sales had increased 16%. By 2017, production had increased 170%, compared to the 7-8% of total grape production. On April 14, 2022, Wine-Searcher reported that Pinot Noir is an annual leader in global production, up 24% year-to-year from 2021.
If the winner of hearts and pocketbooks was temperamental Pinot Noir, the loser was dependable Merlot. Described by winegrowers and consumers alike as easy-going, generous and chummy (what mom wouldn’t love a boy like this?!), pre-Sideways Merlot accounted for 20% of U.S.wine consumption, with vineyardists planting willy-nilly and wherever they could to keep up with demand. As sales skyrocketed, quality sank, leading to the next minutes of winedom’s major shift:
Overnight, literally, California Merlot sales fell and kept falling. Currently Merlot is suffering the worst annual performance of any major grape variety, according to the Wine-Searcher report.
But another shift is – literally – taking root.
If you think of Pinot Noir as a single grape, think again. Ampelography – the identification and classification of grapes – cites Pinot Noir (the black-skinned Pinot) as an original link between wild vines and vitis vinifera, the grape species that allows itself to be tamed. Pinot Noir, only just tameable. With its near-feral genetics, Pinot Noir develops new cultivars, variants and clones like a jackrabbit. Great-great Grandpappy Pinot Noir’s family tree includes Chardonnay, Gamay Noir (almost exclusively the grape of France’s Beaujolais region) Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet), Syrah, Pinot Blanc (white-skinned Pinot), Pinot Gris/Grigio (the grey-skinned Pinot) and more than 1,000 clones. (Cabernet Sauvignon has about 60 clones, Merlot has 12.) In terms of dependability in the vineyard and in the winery, it’s a nightmare. As the Dean of California Wine, Andre Tchelistcheff famously said, “God made Cabernet Sauvignon; the Devil made Pinot Noir.”
Today, as vineyardists plant willy-nilly and wherever they can to keep up with demand, little care and attention is paid to pairing specific clones to advantageous vineyards. Pinot Noir sales are currently sky-rocketing, but is there a Sideways-like shift coming as quality sinks? History tells us, it can happen, literally, overnight.
We will discuss Pinot Noir and the rest of its family (Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc) in our upcoming virtual wine tasting class: The Family Pinot on Thursday, May 26 at 6pm CST. Join us from the comfort of your couch for a fun and informative lesson on wine!