Inspired by 'Sideways,' wine drinkers are finding a soft spot for pinot noir
By Alison Arnett
Customers who come into Best Buy wine store in Brookline's Coolidge Corner lately have been asking, "Have you seen 'Sideways'?" Invariably, says manager Kate Stamps, the next question is: "Do you carry pinot noir?"
"Sideways," the independent film about two friends' escapades while wine tasting along California's Central Coast, jumped from a niche film to a hit over the last few months. As the film's popularity rose by word of mouth, interest in wine, and especially in pinot noir, is also gaining momentum.
The quirky movie directed by Alexander Payne is up for seven Golden Globe awards; winners will be announced Sunday. Beyond its unexpected success, "Sideways" may make history as the first film to use a grape to explore character development. The hero Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, tells the woman he's trying to seduce that he likes pinot because it's sensitive, a little temperamental, subtle, sometimes great, and sometimes a flop. "Only the most patient and faithful and caring growers can do it, can access pinot's fragile, delicate qualities," he says. As the story progresses and the two men sniff and swirl their way from winery to winery, it becomes apparent that Miles is really describing himself.
Miles isn't alone in his enthusiasm. "I love pinot noir," says Len Rothenberg, who owns Federal Wine & Spirits near Downtown Crossing. Rothenberg saw the movie recently and says he thought "the parts that came out of Miles's mouth were right on. When pinot is good, it's sublime. When it's bad, it's mediocre in the worst sense." Pinot noir has a built-in sense of mystery. Americans, or at least those not well versed in wine, tend to associate pinot noir with California or maybe Oregon, says Rothenberg; they don't realize that French Burgundies are 100 percent pinot noir.
When you drink a great pinot from Burgundy, says the wine merchant, "you appreciate it the same way you do a work of art." He chuckles at how much he sounds like the movie character. The wine's greatness is in its balance, integrating the qualities that show the soil of the growing region and the plot with the pleasurable elements of the flavors. "With Burgundy, you can actually taste different flavors from soils, different vineyards," Rothenberg says.
American pinots aren't the same as French, mostly because our West Coast climate tends to be warmer than Burgundy. As Giamatti muses in the film, American wines can be great or disappointing, and price isn't always the clearest indication. Finding good pinot often requires conversations with others who are interested in the wines.
Has the film made a difference at Federal's cash register? Pinots have been disappearing from the shelves at a more rapid rate than before the movie, says Rothenberg. "At one point after Christmas, we looked up and said, 'We haven't got any pinot noir left.' "
Carri Wroblewski, an owner of the year-old Brix wine shop in the South End, also recently saw the film and liked Miles's character. "We're a pretty big pinot noir store," she says. Oregon pinots are especially treasured by Wroblewski and co-owner Klaudia Mally, who search out smaller producers, such as Patricia Green, Sineann, and Owen Roe, for distinctive wines that Wroblewski says are "fruit-forward." They enjoy discussing pinots with customers, she says, and keep small amounts in the back of the shop for those who are ready to "step up a price point." The store also carries French Burgundies, usually higher in price. American pinots don't have to be expensive, she says, mentioning a range between $32 and $42 a bottle.
Even merchants who have not seen "Sideways," like Chris Minervino, an owner of Lower Falls Wine Company in Newton, are hearing about it from customers. It's "creating a wine buzz," Minervino says — and that has to be good. To Stamps of Best Buy, which is near the Coolidge Corner Theatre, where "Sideways" had been playing for weeks, the movie has "been fun for us because people are asking questions they would never have asked before." She thinks the film gently pokes fun at the pretentiousness of some wine lovers but also glorifies wine without taking it too seriously.
Customers at one establishment in town all mention the film. At Troquet, a serious wine restaurant near the Theater District, "everybody brings it up," says co-owner Chris Campbell. Although the restaurant's biggest sellers have always been red Burgundies, Campbell is noticing more interest in California and Oregon pinot noirs. Campbell agrees with Rothenberg, the Boston wine merchant, that American wines are very different from French, but several recent vintages — 2001, 2002, and 2003 — have been good in California as well, says Campbell. He thinks that pinots from Oregon, where the latitude is almost the same as Burgundy, can be more distinctive, but those from California are usually more consistent.
Campbell also agrees that price isn't a clear indicator of quality. Wine buyers should be "very selective," says Rothenberg, since distinctive pinot noir "can often be priced at the same level as mediocre."
Some shops are capitalizing on the film, especially with the Golden Globes coming up this weekend. That's when BRIX's regular wine tastings will include pinot noir, says Wroblewski. And the window will feature a display of wines that the film's sensitive guy might like.
Wines mentioned in "Sideways" are from real vineyards, says Rothenberg. And though he's amused by the interest in pinot and particularly likes the wines, he doesn't see the commotion as long-term.
"This will be a flash in the pan," he predicts.
We asked wine experts what pinot noir they like to share with friends. Here are their choices:
BRIX Wine Shop owners, Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally, like the 2002 Patricia Green Cellars "Shea Vineyard" pinot noir from Yamhill County, Oregon ($36.99). "Patty Green has a knack for making pinots that are approachable when you pop the cork," says Wroblewski, "as well as having the ability to age well. We love the Shea Vineyard pinot for its lush, delicious, black cherry fruit balanced with layers of earthiness."