Vertical (Not Necessarily Sideways)

I’ve been reading Vertical, Rex Pickett’s sequel to his novel Sideways, which was the basis for the 2004 film Sideways that changed the world of wine. The rise of Pinot Noir in recent years and the slump in Merlot sales is often attributed to the Sideways Effect.

I didn’t read Vertical for pleasure (I’m more of a non-fiction kinda guy) or to evaluate it as a work of literature (my colleagues over in the English department will breathe a sigh of relief). I wanted to see if Pickett would do it again – create a scene or storyline with the potential to connect with wine enthusiasts and change the way they think about wine.

Dump Buckets & Dunk Tanks

What sort of scene would that be? Well Sideways the film had a number of memorable moments. (I’ll focus on the film Sideways here rather than the novel since I think people are more familiar with the film.)  Some are famous for being outrageous, like the scene where Miles has just received bad news about his book project and self-medicates his depression with wine – tipping a dump-bucket full of secondhand wine over his head and face, soaking his clothes and getting a lifetime ban from that particular tasting room. Yuck! If  you’ve seen the movie I guarantee you remember the sequence.

Vertical has its share of outrageous scenes, including a reprise of the dump bucket experience. There are several other scenes with a high Yuck! Factor including one where we learn what happens when you take too many Viagra pills all at once and another, set at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, that features a dunk tank filled with Charles Shaw Merlot and two  over-sexed (there’s a lot of sex in this book), matronly wine lovers determined to get “sideways” with Miles.
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Getting Personal About Wine

I loved the dump bucket in the Sideways film, but that’s not the scene that created the Sideways Effect. It was this one, of Miles and Maya on the back porch, talking while Jack and Stephanie were getting “sideways” in the bedroom.

Miles and Maya are chatting about wine and why they love it and about Pinot in particular, but they are really talking about themselves, don’t you think? They are really talking about who they are and who they want to be and the words they use to talk about wine express something deeper that goes to what it means to be a human being.

Who doesn’t sometimes feel fragile, like Miles, and need a little TLC? Who wouldn’t want to grow and change, as Maya suggests in the concluding part of  the scene (not shown in this brief excerpt), even if it means eventual decline?

Who indeed? It seems to me that almost anyone can identify with the longings expressed here indirectly through wine. And so the Sideways Effect was born as some people projected their longings onto Pinot Noir and others just went along for the ride.

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It’s Not About the Wine

Did I find a similar game-changing scene in Vertical?  Well, no. There are some scenes that make you stop and think, that make you reflect a bit on life, but most of them come late in the book, after a whole lot of sex, drugs and Pinot Noir, and they don’t really have very much to do with wine. I would give away the plot of the book if I told you more, so I will draw a line here.

A Vertical movie, if they make one, will certainly be feature a lot of wine (especially Willamette Valley Pinot Noir), but I don’t think there will be a Vertical Effect on the wine markets to rival the Sideways Effect.

But why did I think there would be? After all, Sideways wasn’t really about wine, it was about people and relationships — as you can plainly see from the movie trailer I’ve inserted here.  Sideways just happened to strike a chord with wine lovers. Pickett builds on that chord in Vertical, as any sequel author does, but it’s not and never really was really about the wine.

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By the way, there is a Japanese version of the film Sideways — have you seen it? It’s set in Napa Valley, not Santa Barbara. Frog’s Leap and Newton are the featured wineries and Cabernet Sauvignon, not Pinot Noir, is the wine obsession.

To the best of my knowledge this film did not produce a Sideways Effect in Japan. Why not? Well, for one thing it focused on wines that were already well-known and popular in Japan, so it was using the wine to sell the film not using the film to change the way people think about wine.

Besides, I think, the Japanese version is even less about the wine and lacks that critical back porch scene. They did keep the dump bucket, however, as you can see in the trailer that I’ve inserted above.

The Bottle Shock Effect

First Sideways, then Bridget Jones.  Now Bottle Shock.  How will the new film about the 1976 Paris tastings affect the wine market?

The Sideways Effect

Sideways (a 2004 film by Alexander Payne) is famous for helping to provoke a global Pinot Noir boom.  A soliloquy (see below) on the thoughtful, fragile glories of Pinot spoken by an equally thoughtful, fragile character named Miles was enough to get thousands of wine enthusiasts to set aside their usual glass of Merlot and pull the cork on a bottle of Pinot Noir.

“Um, it’s a hard grape to grow … it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early … it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention … it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked- away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”

Movie messages matter when it comes to wine, I guess.  This conclusion was recently reinforced by the Bridget Jones effect, noted in Britain, where the film character’s tendency to drown her sorrows in glasses of Aussie Chardonnay caused the market for these wines to tank.  Apparently wine drinkers want to be thoughtful and fragile (Pinot) not pathetic (Chardonnay) and movies are where they pick up their cues. Who knew?

This makes me wonder how a new film called Bottle Shock will affect the wine market.  Bottle Shock is loosely based on Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 Paris tasting of French and California wines, which George M. Taber wrote about so well in his book The Judgment of Paris. Napa Valley wines (Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon) were top rated at the tasting and this surprising result is said to have put California wine on the map.  It is interesting to speculate if Bottle Shock will have as much influence as Sideways.

Bottle Schlock

I have my doubts.  Sideways was actually a pretty good movie (not that I am qualified to judge) whereas Bottle Shock strikes me as a less serious effort.  A fruit bomb of a movie, if you know what I mean, but not a lot of depth or complexity.  It is Merlot to Sideways‘ Pinot Noir.

Alan Rickman is funny in a sort of Terry-Thomas way as Spurrier, but the two main male characters seem to be slightly modified younger versions of the Sideways cast – one is an oversexed surfer dude with a good heart while the other is, well, fragile and thoughtful. Do you see the resemblance? The female love interest is obviously a younger version of the Sideways Maya character. Not much character development here and many of the plot elements are predictable and cartoonish.  This is not necessarily a barrier to commercial success, however.

The movie says that it is based upon a real story (the one that Taber covered for Time magazine), but it takes incredible liberties with the facts.  Most of the nouns (people, places, things) are wrong in some way although some of the numbers are correct (1976 – check – got the right year).

1976 Paris Tasting Scores

Chateau Montelena’s winemaker, Mike Grgich, is left out entirely even though he is a central figure in the true story. Warren Winiarski, the winemaker at Stag’s Leap, is nearly as invisible.  I feel sorry for others, like George Taber and Paul Draper (who made the Ridge Monte Bello), who appear only as crude caricatures. Artistic license, I suppose.

Perhaps the biggest error is the most basic: who won?  Although California wines came out on top in both red and white competitions, they also came dead last (see the actual rankings and judges’ scores at right).  In fact the bottom two Chardonnays were from California (Veedercrest and David Bruce) as were the four (out of 10) bottom Cabs (Heitz, Clos du Val, Mayacamas and Freemark Abbey).

If the Paris tasting was judged as a team competition, France versus California, rather than a rating of individual wines, I think you might reasonably conclude that the whites were a dead heat while the French won the battle for the reds, depending upon how you calculated the team scores.  As you can see here,  however, the variations among the judges was almost as  great as among the wines, so clear winners and losers are difficult to determine. Toss out a couple of judges or bring in some new ones and the rankings could change quite a bit.

The movie didn’t do anything to correct the record in this regard, but that would be asking too much of a simple film. Instead it concludes with the Spurrier character’s prediction (with 20/20 foresight) that soon we’d be drinking wines from all over the world, Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa and so on.  So globalization was the real winner of the competition.

The Bottle Shock Effect?

It is unclear as yet if there will be a Bottle Shock effect in the wine market of any kind, but if there is, what will it be?

One thing that we can predict is that the specific wines featured in the film will experience a boom.  This means Chateau Montelena more than any other wine because it is the focus of the film.  It is hard to say if this effect will extend to the other Paris tasting wines or to quality California wines more generally.  A local wine shop organized a tasting of recent releases of all the California wines in the 1976 competition in celebration of the film, so perhaps Bottle Shock will encourage events like this on various scales and have a broader effect.  Even so, the world of quality California wine extends far beyond the few wines that went to Paris thirty years ago.

Perhaps the best possible result would be if Bottle Shock somehow helped demystify wine, taking it out of the hands of the critics, who do so badly in the film story, and empowering ordinary people to trust their own tastes.  That would make Bottle Shock a really useful film.

But I doubt it will happen — it is hard to break away from our acquired dependency on wine critics.  We tasted the famous California wines “blind” at the Bottle Shock event I attended, for example, which naturally encourages you to think for yourself (a good thing, even if it isn’t my favorite way to taste wine).  But we were also given a set of “expert” tasting notes and challenged to smell and taste the same things the critics did, (as a way to identify wines none of us had previously tasted), which kind of defeats the purpose.

Mark Twain warned his readers to think for themselves and not to get “drunk on the smell of another man’s cork.”  It seems to me that’s the most important message of Bottle Shock.  I hope it gets through.

Sideways meets Bridget Jones

It is easy for wine enthusiasts to get carried away sometimes and to over-think the whole idea of wine. Sure cure for thinking too much: go to a movie.

The Sideways Effect

Most readers will already be familiar with the Sideways effect, named for the 2004 motion picture of the same name. In this film one of the protagonists, Miles, expresses a deep love for Pinot Noir and a complete disdain for Merlot. He loves Pinot because it is so fragile …

“It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. Right? It’s, uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And, in fact, it can only grow in these really specific, little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”

Merlot, by contrast, must be simple, sturdy, unsophisticated, easy. Anyone can make Merlot. Who wants to drink that — loser wine. (Wine geeks will remember that Miles’s most treasured wine — the one that he desperately drinks out of a styrofoam cup in a moment of self-pity — is ironically a mainly Merlot Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux.)

You may love the film or hate it, but its effect on the wine market is well known: it took an emerging Pinot Noir trend and magnified it, making Pinot the hottest grape in the vineyard. And it contributed to the decline in Merlot sales, too. It’s interesting that a movie could so shape the image of these wines as to produce significant market effects.

But that’s here in America. This could never happen in Britain, where wine consumers are more sophisticated.

The Bridget Jones Effect

But wait. It has, according to an article in The Telegraph. Chardonnay sales are slumping in Great Britain and British wine critic Oz Clarke blames it on Bridget Jones, the movie character who drowns her troubles in glass after golden glass of cheap Australian Chard. “Until Bridget Jones, Chardonnay was really sexy. After, people said, ‘God, not in my bar.” according to Clarke. Now, I guess, it’s loser wine like Merlot.

“Bridget Jones goes out on the pull [WineEconomist translation: singles bar scene], fails, goes back to her miserable bedsit, sits down, pours herself an enormous glass of Chardonnay, sits there with mascara running down her cheeks saying, ‘Dear diary, I’ve failed again, I’ve poured an enormous glass of Chardonnay and I’m going to put my head in the oven.’” Clarke writes, “Great marketing aid.”

A retail market analyst estimates that 7.5 million fewer shoppers picked Chardonnary this year in Great Britain. Sales of other white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio have risen.

The biggest direct effect is in Australia, the source of much of Britain’s popularly priced Chardonnary. Foster’s has reportedly announced that it will not pay more than about $300 per ton for bulk-wine Chardonnay grapes next year, a low price and bad news for growers there. That will put the squeeze on them and they must wonder at the strange logic of the wine world where they suffer because Bridget Jones can’t seem to meet the right guy.

Wine and Identity

I haven’t seen the Bridget Jones films but I’ve watched Sideways and it is pretty clear to me that wine is a powerful image in the film because it is so obviously a metaphor for the main characters. Miles is just like the Pinot Noir that he describes — fragile, tragic and perhaps (and only perhaps) worth the effort that it takes to reach him. Jack, his gregarious, promiscuous buddy, really is Merlot. Easy, simple, stupid at times, and very very popular.

The larger lesson to be learned from all this is the power of identity in consumer behavior. Affluent consumers don’t purchase products so much as they construct personal identities. Goods and services are not ends but means. This is true in many product areas (homes, fashion, autos), so why shouldn’t it be true for wine, too.

Although we may like to think that it is the wine that is the focus of our passion, the Sideways and Brenda Jones effects suggest that identity — how wine makes us think and feel about ourselves — may sometimes be more important than the wine itself in shaping the decisions that wine drinkers make.

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