By Rick Riozza

Sideways is probably the ultimate wine tasting movie and one of the funniest wine films around. It’s also a hard-hitting one to watch at times, as it portrays a couple of the 50 ways to leave your lover. But an intelligent, fun, and moving wine movie it is, as it takes you through the beautiful and often bucolic Santa Barbara wine country. It’s also one of those movies you watch every two years or so with a great meal and bottle.

Ten years ago, as in the movie, one could get around quite easy to the local restaurants, wine haunts and wineries in and out of Buelton, Solvang, and Los Olivoswith such places as The Hitching Post, Foxen, Root 246, Los Olivos Café, Kalyra and Firestone Wineries.

So it’s been a decade since cinema & wine lovers were treated to the two characters, Miles and his soon-to-marry friend Jack, mix it up with wine, women, and song. And by the way—the soundtrack is some stellar up-beat jazz that I continue to play during down-time and is a perfect background at dinner gatherings. The movie won numerous international film awards, however the soundtrack got snubbed by the Oscar; the movie did win one (Best Adapted Screenplay) and the actors were nominated. Robin E. Simmons, that’s your cue…


But boy did the movie make waves in the wine consumption business. Out of the blue, wine nerd Miles apparently gleaned “real” wine gravitas when his praise for Pinot Noir caused sales to soar, while his disparaging rants against Merlot stopped lower-end Merlot dead in their tracks. Napa wine writer, Dan Berger, wrote: “and every winemaker who made merlot at the time probably had acid reflux for a month.”

It’s forever been referred to as the “Sideways effect” when Pinot Noir producers saw the demand and understandably raised their prices—and they’re relatively still up there. Merlot, the darling of the new vinophiles of the 80’s and 90’s, found mud on its face and the fans stopped ordering it, drinking instead Pinot Noir—forever speaking French by not pronouncing the“t” but inexplicably allowing a heavy “r”.

If any of you readers remember my “The Allure of Pinot Noir” and the “The Magic of Merlot” articles, we vino lovers are surely secure with the quaffs of our favorite varietals—no matter what the world is clanging for.

The economic truth however is that the movie did increase American red wine consumption. When examined by price, we saw that the negative effects of Merlot were confined mostly to the lower priced segment, under $10 per bottle, while the effects on Pinot Noir were positive across price-points, with the largest impact being on the highest price point of $20-$40 per bottle. (And truth be told, back then there was a lot of medium-to-low priced Merlot getting a little flabby, which has since been improved on!)

As the wine steward of Pavilions at Rancho Mirage, I witness the “effect” still on-going: the clientele never complain about this-or-that Pinot Noir they’re seeking at $25 to $35. Merlot is popular under the $12 mark but we do hear qualms when it gets over that $25 hump. Those delectable premium Merlots (over $30) however never seemed to be impacted—then or now.

Of course trying to compare Pinot Noir to Merlot beyond economics is somewhat to comparing apples to oranges—or Burgundy wine to that of Bordeaux. Indeed, Pinot Noir is the red grape of Burgundy that’s rarely blended with any other grape; Merlot, on the other hand, is one of the five blending grapes in Bordeaux that is often the predominant grape in the Bordeaux mix.

Lots of people—and every wine lover—will remember one the most memorable lines in Sideways. The scene was of Miles and Jack going to a restaurant to meet-up with their female prey. Jack doesn’t want Miles spoiling the evening with his odd antics and tells Miles to just chill. But Miles rants: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing Merlot!” In another scene, Miles also snubs another Bordeaux blending grape—Cabernet Franc.

For you wine aficionados, you caught the clever irony and inside joke of the movie (and this really isn’t a spoiler-type of info, if you’ve yet to catch the film): Miles’ favorite wine that he’s been waiting for that special occasion to open is his 1961 Château Cheval Blanc .

Well, Château Cheval Blanc, a “ right bank ” Bordeaux in Saint-Émilion, is a blend of Merlot with a high percentage of Cabernet Franc , which has always made for a very distinctive wine. Will Miles find that “special occasion” to enjoy this great wine? See the movie!

Interestingly, in the animated hit Ratatouille, feared critic Anton Ego visits Gusteau’s, the restaurant in which the movie is set, and orders a bottle of 1947 Château Cheval Blanc to go with his meal. That’s because the ’47 Cheval is probably the most celebrated wine of the 20th century. A fun foodie movie with a wink to wine lovers.

All this narrative has me thirsting for some tasty wine. Opening my wine bin, I’m spying out a good Merlot.

My favorite line in Sideways , spoken by Virginia Madsen’s character, Maya , is wine advice for the ages. When Miles said he was waiting for that special occasion to open his ’61 Cheval, Maya matter-of-factly states: You know, the day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc… that’s the special occasion.

Time to fit your collectible in that quote: Amen to that! Cheers! Contact Rick at