Almost exactly ten years ago, on September 13th, 2004, the film Sideways debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. A month later, it made its US debut on four screens, and by the following spring this black comedy made for around $12 million had grossed an unlikely $71 million in the domestic box office, earned five Oscar nominations (including a "Best Adapted Screenplay" win for writers Alexander Paine and Jim Taylor) and provided a wide audience with their first experience of wine tourism.
In the couple of years after the movie's release, Santa Barbara's wine country was inundated with Sideways-loving tourists. This customer bonanza was not an unadulterated positive; many of these visitors were less serious wine buyers than the pre-movie average, and some of the pre-movie regulars were sufficiently turned off by the crowds to explore other regions. We saw many of these refugees in Paso Robles in 2005 and 2006, and were happy to introduce them to our wines. These effects slowed in the late 2000s, and now the "as seen in Sideways" signs that remain outside a few Santa Ynez wineries seem a little wistful.
Ten years after the film's release, we in the wine industry take many of the film's impacts on the American wine market for granted. You don't hear many people talk about the "Sideways effect". But I wanted to take a moment to look back at how dramatic and lasting the effects of Sideways have been -- even for those of us who were not at the movie's epicenter. These include:
- Steeper increases in American wine consumption. In 2003, the American per capita consumption of wine (2.20 gallons per year) was essentially unchanged from what it had been two decades earlier. Per capita consumption declined through the late 1980s and early 1990s before beginning a slow climb. Between 1994 and 2004, per capita wine consumption in the United States increased an average of 2.7% per year. In 2005, the year Sideways saw American theaters, it grew 3.5%: 30% larger than the average annual increase over the previous decade. And that growth has continued essentially uninterrupted since then, through recession and recovery, to its 2012 total of 2.73 gallons per resident.
- Increases in prices of California wine. In 2004, the average case of American wine sold for $68.30, a figure nearly itentical over the previous five years. In 2005, that average price jumped 8% to $73.60. It jumped another 6.5% (to $78.38) the next year, and today sits at $89.44, despite sales volumes 22% higher today than 2003. Put another way, over the last decade, the quantity of California wine sold in the United States has increased 22% and the price per case has increased 31%. Taken together, the value of California wine sold domestically has increased some 60% in the last decade.
- Rapid development of California's (and America's) tasting room culture. Sideways, despite the misanthropic tendencies of its male leads, made it cool to go out and visit wineries. This was not happening in a vacuum, and was part of a longer trend, but I do think it played an important additional role. Industry-wide data about tasting room visits is spotty and unreliable. But at Tablas Creek, we saw a staggering increase in our traffic in 2005, which increased by more than 6000 visitors over the 9200 we saw in 2004 (an increase of 70%). Yes, we were in a period of explosive growth at Tablas Creek and in Paso Robles, but the next year, by comparison, with all the same factors in place, we saw an increase of 4500 (an increase of 29%). That 6000 customer increase is our largest in absolute numbers in our history: larger even than the increase in 2003, our first full year with our tasting room open. And this increase in traffic led to increased sales, which set us up for our first-ever profitable year in 2006. Would our traffic have increased in 2005 had Sideways not come out? Of course. Would it have increased by 6000? It seems unlikely.
- Explosive growth in small wineries. In the decade since 2003, California has seen the number of bonded wineries grow 119%, from 1870 to 4100. Most of these wineries are small; wine production in America has grown over the same period by just 22%, which means that the average California winery now is half the size it was in 2003. These small wineries nearly all subsist on direct sales through their tasting rooms rather than the three-tier system. So, in that way, it is in part thanks to Sideways that many of these wineries have been able to thrive. But I would submit that in its romantic depictions of California wine culture and its focus on the beauty of California's wine country, the idea of becoming a part of this wine community gained appeal.
- Expansion of national recognition of Central Coast. Paso Robles had only a cameo in Sideways, which was set in Santa Barbara's wine country. But nevertheless, the fact that the movie was set in the Central Coast rather than in the better-known Napa and Sonoma valleys played a significant role in helping the American wine consuming public understand that there was elite wine being made here. I remember, in the early 2000's, going out to sell Tablas Creek and having to explain with some frequency that it wasn't in Napa, but was instead in the Central Coast, and then what and where the Central Coast was. When Sideways came out, these conversations were nearly all simplified into "oh, that's Sideways country ... no, not quite, the next region north ... oh, OK". And in the last five years, I've barely had to have this conversation. Of course, Sideways was not the only source of exposure for the Central Coast in the mid-2000s; the area received loads of attention from the wine press, most notably Robert Parker. But voices like Parker's, influential though they are, reach some tens of thousands of readers, mostly already wine-savvy. Sideways reached millions.
- The rise of Pinot Noir and the fall of Merlot. In one of the movie's most famous scenes, Miles uses Merlot as a proxy for an uneducated drinker's red wine of choice. This line sent American sales of Merlot into a tailspin from which they still haven't recovered: I had a wine buyer ask me just last week when I thought Merlot would recover from its Sideways-inflicted wounds. At the same time, Pinot Noir, which Sideways exalts as the intelligent wine lover's drink of choice, saw its fortunes skyrocket. An academic study by researchers at Sonoma State University and published in 2009 in the Journal of Wine Economics demonstrates the power of these effects, although it concludes that "the positive impact on Pinot Noir appears greater than the negative impact on Merlot", especially higher-end Merlot, which is in keeping with the general increased interest in higher-end wines after the movie's release.
It doesn't seem to me like any of these trends (except maybe the antipathy toward Merlot, given America's love for an underdog) are likely to regress any time soon. America has become the largest wine-consuming country in the world, and our relatively slight per capita consumption (compared to countries like France and Italy, at least) gives us room to grow. What's more, the fact that much of the growth California's wine community seen has come in the high-end, winery-direct segment suggests that future growth will support the development of many more smaller, higher-end wineries.
Would this have happened without Sideways? Perhaps. But I think all of us involved in making, selling, or drinking California wine should plan on raising a glass this Saturday to the success of this quirky movie. And if you're feeling subversive, go ahead and make it a Merlot.