Sideways: ten years old and still aging well


written by Michael Oudyn

2014 is the 10th anniversary of the release of Sideways, undisputed most influential wine movie ever.  Credited with singlehandedly changing American wine-drinking habits, causing “pinot noir to fly off the shelves while merlot sales plummeted,” Sideways was largely filmed on location in Santa Barbara County, around Buellton.  It seems altogether fitting then that the American Wine Bloggers will hold their 2014 convention in Buellton, Santa Barbara County.  What better time to visit Buellton and revisit “the best wine film ever made?”

The so-called “Sideways effect” has been much studied and discussed.  Protagonist anti-hero Miles clearly “lauded pinot noir as the expense of merlot.“  But did his caustic dictums actually cause a “debacle on merlot sales” or a jump in price for his super-expensive personal favorite 1961 Cheval Blanc.  A bit exaggerated according to Stephen Cuellar, PhD. whose scholarly study “The Sideways Effect: A Test for Changes in the Demand for merlot and pinot noir wines”,  analyzes the volume of merlot and pinot sold before and after Sideways. Cuellar concludes that the film helped pinot a lot and dampened “lower-end softer merlot” a bit.  But it was not actually “devastating” to those easy-drinking merlots, so popular at the time.  And Sideways did give a little bump to wine consumption in general.  

In any case, not bad for a low-budget flick.  It seems strange that the fictional Miles, of all people, would wield such influence, especially among entry-level drinkers.  Moralistic, self-righteous, and long-winded  this “an out-of-control epicurean”  seems to epitomize everything the common man claims to detest in the wine snob. He seems to justify his obvious alcoholism to himself because “he is an oenophile.”  As the film opens Miles has the early-morning shakes because there was a “tasting” last night, a tasting not a booze-up like low-rent merlot-swillers might go to.  A self-proclaimed loser, Miles is the nerd who should never end up with the most beautiful girl in the place.  Reviewers saw something “detestably enjoyable” in Miles and talked his “neurotic humanity.”  Maybe, but in any case, a strange trend setter for entry-level wine drinkers.

A surprise international hit, Sideways won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, and was even named  “one of the top films of the decade.”  This wine blogger really enjoyed it the second time around; like a fine wine it has aged well.  It has all the necessary complexity, balance, and structure.  In all wine movies some character will, sooner or later,  be compared to a certain grape or wine in general. In lesser flicks these scenes can be gratuitous, even cringe-worthy.  In Sideways wine metaphor, plot, and character are effortlessly integrated.  When Miles says that he is “so into pinot” because “it is thin skinned and temperamental…not a survivor grape” and only the “most patient and nurturing growers can…coax into its fullest potential” he is talking truth about pinot, being consistent with his own verbal gifts, and perhaps subconsciously using pinot as a metaphor for himself.  On some level he is pleading for understanding,

Miles and Mayapatience, nurturing, and possibly love from beautiful enophile Maya, whom he has just met. When she counters that Miles should drink his sainted Cheval Blanc 1961 ASAP before it “goes into its steady inevitable decline” she is talking truth about wine in general while exposing a bit of her own anxious soul with a subtle, possibly subconscious, wine metaphor; she is approaching that age when, like the Cheval Blanc, her own decline will be steady and inevitable.  Her “any day you open a 1961 Cheval Blanc is a special occasion” might be her own unconscious carpe diem appeal for love, right here and now, while there is still time. 

Sideways has aged well, but is it flawless?  Opinion differs.  Consider the following. Miles famously proclaims:  “If anybody orders merlot I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking merlot.” And “I do not expect greatness from cabernet franc”.  Yet his perfect wine is Cheval Blanc 1961.  And this Bordeaux icon is a blend of the despised merlot and the dismissed cab franc.  So, what’s happening here? Is this, as some critics claim, a monumental flaw in the movie?  Is it an ironic wink, insider to insider?  Or a subtle way of exposing wine snobs as frauds? Personally I prefer to see it as a mystery which adds another layer to the film’s satisfying complexity. 

Cheval blanc

P.S. Considering following Maya‘s sage advice and liberating yourself  by popping cork on a Cheval Blanc 1961?  Be warned.  The average price online is $4471.  

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