“Even when the weather isn't good it's still wonderful. I grew up in San Diego. Every day is the same. Blue skies, no clouds, little rain, slightly colder (but not much) in the winter; blue skies, no clouds, little rain, slightly warmer (but not much) in the summer. There are no seasons. It is meteorologically monochromatic in every way, and some people like that, I guess, I prefer it here.”
Rex Pickett is describing to me, from a Central Otago Pinot Noir vineyard, where he is staying, the weather where he grew up and how he prefers the more dramatic weather in New Zealand.
Rex is genuinely in love with Pinot Noir. “I fell in love with Pinot Noir, I have never ever cheated on Pinot Noir, I still love Pinot Noir.”
He is in New Zealand on a very exciting adventure and has just finished the first draft of his new novel, Sideways NZ: The Road Back, due out in 2023.
Rex Pickett is an author and filmmaker and wrote the acclaimed 2004 novel Sideways. The novel is the story of two friends, Miles and Jack, who take a road trip to the Santa Ynez Valley, California a week before Jack plans to marry. Miles is a recently divorced wine aficionado who struggles to publish his novels. Jack is a charismatic television director who is determined to engage in a short affair before his marriage.
Rex's other novels include, Vertical (2010), Sideways 3 Chile (2015) and The Archivist (2021)
Rex often describes Miles as his alter-ego.
The novel was made into a film, Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne and released in October 2004. The film became one of the most critically acclaimed and highest-grossing comedy films in Hollywood history. The movie was nominated for five Oscars (winning Best Adapted Screenplay) and seven Golden Globe Awards (winning Best Screenplay and Best Picture).
Sideways is a balance of comedy, tragedy, conflict, and love with Miles and Jack being opposites but good friends. They journey into wine country together with very different objectives for the road trip. Miles shares his views on wine which are both forceful and informed. The movie has captured the imagination of people even vaguely interested in wine.
“No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” is one of the most famous quotes from Miles. This is the film which reputably led to the decline in Merlot popularity and the rise in popularity of Pinot Noir in the USA and beyond.
What Miles said about Pinot Noir is often quoted and as anyone working with Pinot Noir knows, it is true. “So, it’s thin skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s you know, it’s not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive, even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. And then, I mean, oh, it’s flavours, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”
Sideways upended the wine industry in the USA, and beyond. Sideways changed perceptions and preference. It depressed Merlot sales for a decade and created demand for Pinot Noir.
The increase in sales of Pinot Noir and slow down in Merlot sales following the film’s release has become known as the Sideways Effect and has been well studied. Demand for Pinot Noir jumped although there was not enough planted to meet demand and what had been significant growth in Merlot stalled. The research shows that both Merlot and Chardonnay sales stalled but it seems this cannot be attributed totally to what Miles said about Merlot in the film. Merlot and Chardonnay were the most popular red and white wines at the time and it appears consumers were already waning. Much of the wine being produced was not very exciting, it was easy drinking, slightly sweet and cheap, because that is what consumers wanted. Sideways and Miles made people stop and think, maybe I should learn something about wine and its okay to say some wine is not good.
In the late 2000’s California wineries increased Pinot Noir plantings. Often planted on sites in California which are hotter than the coastal areas where Sideways was based. The production per hectare was higher and cheaper. When consumers said the Pinot Noir tasted watery, wineries could add Syrah/Shiraz to make the wines bigger and darker and some did. (In the USA 25% of another variety can be added and if the wine is 75% Pinot Noir it can be labelled as Pinot Noir). This confused the market and what Pinot Noir should taste like.
Good quality Pinot grown in the coastal valleys north of Santa Barbara, CA, where Sideways was based, are selling for USD 80-100 per bottle. Similar quality NZ Pinots and Central Otago Pinot Noir sell for USD 40. New Zealand Pinot Noir are different but just as good and substantially better value.
Sideways NZ: The Road Back is going to be something special.
Rex Pickett and Sideways now have a strong global following. In addition, the backing behind his latest novel is stronger than ever through Blackstone Publishing. The inevitable interest from Blackstone will be in backing a movie based on the book. New Zealand’s vineyards, scenery and film industry are waiting for this.
Rex has been absorbed in NZ over the winter and I sense, after touring NZ in a campervan, he developed the characters and storyline based on his experiences which then flowed into words and the first draft.
We can speculate how this will develop over the next few years. Sideways became a cult classic soon after it was released. The Sideways Effect from the first novel and film lasted a decade and maybe beyond. The flow on effect of a movie Sideways NZ: The Road Back is potentially a very big deal for us here in NZ.
This movie is not going to be about the big international companies that produce most of NZ’s sauvignon blanc where taste is commoditised and exported to the USA. “That is not what wine is about. Wine is about being different, wine is about a circadian rhythm of a wonderful season of hardship and suffering. It’s not like beer if you get a bad batch, you just make another one. It’s about a year, that’s the poetry and romance of wine and they are taking it away from us” Rex Pickett says.
I think USA wine consumers are going to become very aware that there is more to the NZ wine industry than a small number of large companies selling sauvignon blanc to the USA. And that NZ is a very special place. This will be especially good for NZ Pinot Noir and Central Otago Pinot Noir, if Rex is speaking for Miles or vice versa.
Rex will be joining us as a special guest at the Alexandra Basin Winegrowers New Release tasting this Sunday. An annual event in Clyde celebrating the small wineries in the Alexandra sub-region and our distinctive Central Otago Pinot Noir.
You can follow Rex Pickett on instagram and twitter at: @rexpickett
Sources for this blog include:
ON THE ROAD with MR CA WINE podcast
Slate.com/podcasts/decoder-ring The Sideways Effect.