Sideways changed the US wine industry, fueling pinot noir sales : The Indicator from Planet Money The Academy Award-winning film, Sideways, is often credited with decimating sales for merlot and elevating taste for pinot noir. Some economists tried to prove it.

How Hollywood changed the US wine industry

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

Stories drive the economy. Even the idea of money itself is a story. Like, the dollar isn't backed by gold. We are all telling ourselves this story that it's worth something. That story keeps the wheels of the economy turning.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Yeah, don't ask too many questions (laughter).

WOODS: It's worth something, I promise (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: And a lot of markets are changed or even permanently shaped by stories. Take the wine market. It was deeply affected by this story, which, for our purposes, starts in the mid-'90s.

This man, Rex Pickett, was a writer living in Los Angeles, and he was having a really, really hard time in his life. His divorce was just the start of it.

REX PICKETT: My dad died tragically. My mother had a stroke after that, and she survived, and I had to take control of her care. I was broke. I was very lonely.

WOODS: Oh, wow.

PICKETT: It was a brutal time.

WOODS: And in the middle of all this, one day, Rex goes to pick up some wine from a local wine shop, and he sees that the staff are holding something in the corner - a wine tasting.

PICKETT: And I realized in talking to these people that there was a whole vast, bottomless world of mystery to wine.

VANEK SMITH: This visit to this wine shop on this one day ended up sparking a passion for wine that would be at the center of Rex's writing, eventually leading to an Academy Award-winning movie - a movie that would send shockwaves through the wine industry that, in fact, Darian, are still being felt to this day.

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. The wine industry has suspected for years that the movie "Sideways" has dramatically fueled demand for pinot noir, but that's kind of just been a hunch until now, when the economists crunched the numbers.

VANEK SMITH: I feel like we should get some wine ready, Darian - no merlot allowed (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: Rex Pickett's novel gets adapted into a Hollywood film called "Sideways" in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDEWAYS")

PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Miles Raymond) It's a hard grape to grow, as you know, right?

VANEK SMITH: I love this part of the movie. So in this moment in the movie - which I just feel my heart beating a little faster - Paul Giamatti, who plays Miles, who in this movie is a version of Rex himself - and Miles, like Rex, is a down-on-his-luck kind of depressed writer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDEWAYS")

GIAMATTI: (As Miles Raymond) So it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early.

PICKETT: You're talking to Miles right now, and he needed something to be passionate about. He doesn't have a woman in his life.

VANEK SMITH: And for Miles, like it was for his creator, that passion was pinot noir.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDEWAYS")

GIAMATTI: (As Miles Raymond) It's - you know, it's not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, so good.

PICKETT: It just became almost, like, a love story between him and pinot noir.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDEWAYS")

GIAMATTI: (As Miles Raymond) No, pinot needs constant care and attention, you know? And in fact, it can only grow in these really specific little tucked-away corners of the world.

WOODS: Miles loved pinot noir. Another type of wine that he did not like, though, was merlot. So just like the writer, we see in the movie the hero having some strong feelings about merlot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDEWAYS")

THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: (As Jack Cole) And if they want to drink merlot, we're drinking merlot.

GIAMATTI: (As Miles Raymond) Oh, no. If anybody orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f****** merlot.

CHURCH: (As Jack Cole) OK, OK, relax, Miles.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIDEWAYS")

CHURCH: (As Jack Cole) Jesus. No merlot.

VANEK SMITH: I feel like this line still comes into my head whenever I'm ordering wine. And full confession here, Darian - I like merlot. I like ordering it. But I feel a small amount of shame. Like, it just exposes a certain weakness or inner failure I have that I like merlot. And I still think about it. It's, like, 15 years later.

WOODS: And you're not the only one. I mean, before the movie came out in 2004, merlot was really popular. California vineyards would make enough grapes for two and a half bottles of merlot for every household in America. There was much less pinot noir grapes being crushed.

VANEK SMITH: I can only imagine that may have changed after "Sideways."

WOODS: So a lot of people bought a bottle of pinot noir straight after the movie finished.

VANEK SMITH: I did. I did (laughter).

WOODS: You did? (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I did. Yes, yes. I did. Of course.

WOODS: Those kind of stories drew the attention of winemakers all over America, like Theopolis Vineyards in California.

THEODORA LEE: My name is Theodora Lee. I am known as Theopatra, queen of the vineyards, in the wine business.

VANEK SMITH: And Theodora loved "Sideways." And she could see that demand for pinot was increasing year after year.

LEE: And I said, I've got to capitalize on this opportunity.

VANEK SMITH: Theodora says she's just always had this knack for knowing, like, what to do to make money.

LEE: Let's put it this way - I take care of my 95-year-old mother in Dallas, Texas, and she will tell you that I've always been a capitalist pig, ever since I was a little girl. I had a little red wagon.

WOODS: (Laughter).

LEE: And I went around from door to door selling newspapers.

WOODS: So Theodora ordered some pinot noir grapes and started bottling her own.

LEE: It wasn't my preferred variety, but it's the preferred variety of consumers, and I own being a capitalist pig (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: So Rex Pickett, the "Sideways" writer, would hear stories like this all over the place - winegrowers moving over to pinot noir, pinot noir sales going through the roof because of his movie. But when challenged about whether his writing, like, really increased pinot noir sales, he said he did not have the evidence to support that. He couldn't actually say that as a fact.

WOODS: One other explanation about what could have been going on is that there was this maybe existing trend. As consumers were getting more and more sophisticated, they shifted towards the more subtle flavors of pinot noir. Rex Pickett might have been caught up in this trend in the '90s and the early 2000s, and that's why Miles in the movie might have been praising pinot noir. In other words, correlation didn't necessarily mean causation.

VANEK SMITH: I feel like economists say this all the time - the correlation, causation line. Yes.

WOODS: Yeah, it's almost, like, cliche, but it's true.

TRAVIS LYBBERT: In economics, we're sort of very sensitive to kind of the possibility of spurious relationships.

VANEK SMITH: This is Travis Lybbert, an economist at the University of California, Davis.

LYBBERT: You can find all kinds of crazy correlations out there that are not tied to any particular mechanism. And so a lot of what we do is trying to kind of better understand causal relationships.

VANEK SMITH: So Travis decided he was going to just take on this "Sideways" question with his students. So he got the students in his master's program to kind of tease out whether the movie "Sideways" did actually cause pinot noir sales to increase. And he knew the effects wouldn't be overnight, right? I mean, growing grapes, making wine - it's a very long process.

WOODS: First, the nurseries have to propagate vine cuttings, and that can take three or four years. Then the vines have to grow in the vineyard, then harvesting and bottling.

LYBBERT: So all told, probably close to, you know, six years plus between the decision to grow a new variety and when you actually are crushing grapes.

WOODS: And so when they put pen to paper, the team took into account the existing trends in wine consumption. And then they would compare what was happening with pinot noir compared to other varietals in the years after the movie was released.

LYBBERT: We're pretty confident that it did have an effect. You know, the growers in the years following the release are actually expanding quite rapidly their acreage of pinot, and we don't see anything like that in merlot. If there was something else other than - you know, that really changed in the year 2004, 5, other than the film, we couldn't find it.

VANEK SMITH: The "Sideways" effect is real, Darian. It's real.

WOODS: The "Sideways" effect is real.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

WOODS: Yeah - proven by economics.

VANEK SMITH: Thank you, economics. In fact, pinot noir grape growing in California actually went up 75%, and merlot decreased. Pinot noir wines now outsell merlot, which is a reversal of what the market was before the movie. And a lot of that is likely due to the movie.

WOODS: Now, there is an irony here. Pinot grapes love cool climates, but all that increase in pinot demand has meant more and more grapes have spread to less ideal, hotter land. That's probably not great for the quality of the average bottle of pinot.

But just stepping back, it is kind of incredible how a few lines and a novel that Rex Pickett wrote in the late 1990s had this remarkable influence on the wine industry. So we asked Rex what he thought of Travis' paper.

PICKETT: I was happy to see the study. It said that the book and the movie - let's say the movie - it changed the wine world. I didn't write it to have that, you know, be the end result or the consequence. But the fact that it is - I'm proud of that, Darian. I really am.

WOODS: Now, some merlot growers might be a little less enthusiastic about Rex's influence.

VANEK SMITH: And merlot drinkers.

WOODS: (Laughter) Yeah - secretly coughing in the corner. But, you know, the overall market for wine has just grown and grown and grown since "Sideways" came out, so that's something to clink your glass to.

VANEK SMITH: How can you not want to drink wine after you watch that movie?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: The show was produced by senior producer Viet Le with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Corey Bridges. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR as a production of NPR.

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