'Side' Effect

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By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005

A bout halfway through the wine-loving buddy movie "Sideways," the film's main character shows shocking disdain for merlot, America's most popular varietal of red wine.

Heading into a restaurant to meet two women for dinner, the frumpy, neurotic, pinot noir-crazed Miles warns his friend Jack that "if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any [expletive] merlot."

It was a throwaway line that the movie's writers didn't think would generate much reaction from audiences, but now merlot, a drinkable and uncomplicated Everyman's red, is fighting to be cool again. Its sales growth sputtered a bit when the movie came out and it's been the butt of jokes among the wine-savvy.

"I was out to dinner with my friends last week and I ordered a merlot, and they all looked at me and started laughing," said Marc Jonna, national wine buyer for the Whole Foods Market grocery chain.

On the flip side, in the wake of the success of "Sideways," sales of pinot noir jumped 15 percent in the three months ended Jan. 15, according to ACNielsen. Retailers and wineries, pushing pinot with all kinds of "Sideways" tie-ins, say the movie has prompted the biggest buzz in the wine industry since a 1991 "60 Minutes" program touted the health benefits of red wine.

That a movie could make such a powerful difference shows wine and its marketing to be unique among consumer products. The wine industry rarely spends money for such direct exposure -- for instance by advertising. Instead, it has engineered 11 straight years of increased consumption simply by making wine more accessible, with beautiful labels, catchy names and -- gasp -- screw caps. Consumers would drink more wine, the industry discovered, if only they didn't feel so intimidated by it. If it's easier to pronounce and open, they buy it.

Then "Sideways" came along and tackled a more psychological barrier to wine consumption: the notion that you can't drink wine unless you know wine. To be sure, the movie celebrated wine's complexity and romance, but it also showed its appeal for the rest of us. Of the two buddies traveling through Santa Barbara's wine country, only one puckered and sniffed the vanilla notes in his glass. The other, a washed-up actor, had little more to say than, "I like it."

"It showed why wine in and of itself is an okay thing, even if all you do is like it," said John Gillespie, president of the Wine Market Council, an industry nonprofit dedicated to promoting wine.

"Sideways" also did something else, which was unplanned. The independent movie became a cultural phenomenon, seeping into everyday conversations and generating lots of press coverage. It became known even to those who hadn't seen it.

In other words, it did for wine what every marketing professional wants to do for a product. The fact is, though, when something grabs the imagination of the public at large -- so much so that buying habits are affected -- it is almost always an accident. How much "Sideways" will continue to help pinot and hurt merlot can't be predicted or controlled.

And this kind of sudden consumer impact leaves marketers almost awestruck.

"There's two things you know about that," Gillespie said. "You can't create it or buy it. And neither can you stop it."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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