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.

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.

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.


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.

11 responses

  1. The funny thing about “Sideways”, is that when it came out people began coming into places asking about Pinot Noir, but few if any of them had ever tasted Pinot. I think the irony is that most of the people didn’t actually want a wine like Pinot, they really like bigger flavored wines. But they had either read or heard (nothing like local TV news doing a 25 second story on wine with little to no content) that Pinot Noir was the hot new thing. Yes Pinot sales picked up, but from such a small base that the real gain in sales was pretty small.
    Probably because I’m in the business and I wasn’t that interested in the movie, It took me 2 years to finally rent the movie and see it. It was an OK movie, with very little to do about wine. But that’s typical of Hollywood, they did the same with “Bottle Shock” by putting in characters that didn’t even exist to make the story more interesting.

    • Thanks for commenting!
      I agree that the small base of Pinot buyers (then and now) magnified the Sideways Effect.
      Bottle Shock annoyed me because many of my friends assumed that it was a true account of the Judgment of Paris, which it certainly was not! But it was a fun movie.

    • I’ve already watched the film, Blake, so it is too late to help me, but others will benefit from reading your blog post. Thanks!
      (P.S. One of my students used a clip from the film as the basis for a popular culture presentation to her Japanese class.)

  2. I saw an enormous change in pinot noir in San Francisco. I was repping at the time and a wholesale case of excellent napa merlot went from $360 to $144 and I still could not move it. but I could move an unbalanced pinot from ventura with out them tasting it or trusting my word that they ‘needed’ to taste it. The entire market changed here and I see it in Pittsburgh, Pa (Wine Mecca) in each and every restaurant including friends in the state run wine industry. I think it still has a profound effect today. I too did not run out to see the movie; friends rented it and forced me to watch it – and it was entertaining even though it had little to do with wine.

  3. Mike, did you actually read “Sideways,” the novel? It was poorly written, for a number of reasons I won’t detail here. Director Alexander Payne saw the seed of something bigger and more profound in the book and then he took those themes to a more coherent and interesting level. I suspect “Vertical” is more of the same, only more profane and then switched to different venues for the sake of variety.

    • I agree with your assessment, Dennis. I focused on the film because that’s what set off the phenomenon. I suspect that people will buy the new book based on their experience with the film, not the original novel.

  4. in the new movie, will the relationship with Miles and Maya ‘bloom’?
    the scene where Miles gets the phone message from Maya, and his subsequent trip to her garage apartment and the knock on the door leaves so many hopeful possibilities

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