Wine Geek Chic

Jerry Lasco, owner of the Tasting Room, says Pinot Noir sales have doubled in the past month.
Daniel Kramer

Sideways, the sleeper hit movie about love among California wine geeks, seems to be changing America's taste in wine. Nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay, the film has sent sales of Pinot Noir wines soaring.

Set in the Santa Ynez Valley, an area that's become known for approachable Pinot Noir wines, the film features actor Paul Giamatti as Miles, a failed novelist and wine geek who rhapsodizes about the vulnerability of the delicate Pinot Noir grape. He also uses Pinot Noir banter to woo the waitress character played by Virginia Madsen.

"In the last few weeks, since the movie has gone into wider distribution, our Pinot Noir sales have gone up around 20 percent," reports Bear Dalton, the fine-wine buyer at Spec's.

Richard's Liquors and Fine Wines reports a similar increase. "I'm not sure that is attributable to Sideways. I think people are just starting to get into softer, more accessible wines," says John Cooper of Richard's. "But a lot of people mention Sideways when they come in the store. It's a nice way to relate to wine people."

"Our Pinot Noir sales have doubled in the last month," says Jerry Lasco, owner of the Tasting Room, a wine bar that sells fine wine by the glass. "People who know wine are more fond of Pinot [wine geeks tend to drop the "Noir"] than novices, so our typical patron drinks a lot of Pinot to begin with. Our employees love Pinot too, so we've always pushed it. Cabernet is still our best seller; Merlot used to be second, but Merlot sales are falling." Merlot, which many wine geeks consider a flabby wine for novices, is the brunt of a funny one-liner in the movie.

"We've been talking about how to capitalize on the success of Sideways -- showing the movie, serving the wines from the movie -- the entire wine industry is talking about it," Lasco says., the Web site of the city closest to the wine region in the movie, is offering the "Miles and Jack wine map" to show visitors how to get to the places featured in the movie. Wine tourists are reported to be flocking to the wineries Giamatti's character liked and to the Hitching Post II restaurant where Madsen's character worked. But the movie also has sparked a new interest in wine tourism closer to home.

Venues that cater to Houston wine enthusiasts are busier than usual, and expansion is under way for some, including the Tasting Room. "Our sales are fantastic. We doubled our sales estimate for 2004," says Lasco. "We have two new Tasting Rooms opening, one in Midtown Square at 114 Gray, and another on Shepherd, which we're building from scratch."

In Sugar Land, winemakers David and Helen Stacy have recently opened a winery called Circle S Vineyards, which is improbably located in a strip center at the corner of Dairy Ashford and Highway 90. They use grapes from their vineyard in Centerville, as well as varieties they import from vineyards as far away as Italy.

"When it was located in Centerville, the winery got very few tourists," Helen Stacy noted. "So we thought, why not put the winery where the people are?" The couple chose Sugar Land because that's where they live. Circle S Vineyards has a finished retail space and a balcony lounge where wine tastings are held. The back of the store is equipped with fermentation tanks and bottling equipment that can produce around 3,000 cases a year.

"Lately, we have a lot of people coming in talking about Sideways and wanting to taste our Pinot Noir," says Helen Stacy at Circle S Ranch.

Houstonians eager to participate in the new "wine geek chic" can find a full-blown vineyard tour and tasting at Messina Hof Winery in Bryan, a 90-mile drive. The winery offers a talk and tour every few hours on weekends and pours some of the state's best wines. Because of state laws, tastings aren't free, but a $5 charge entitles you to sample four wines of your choice. There's also a restaurant and inn on the premises.

"We've seen about a 5 percent increase in traffic at the winery since the release of the movie," says Amber Bagwell, marketing director at Messina Hof. "Pinot Noir sales in our tasting room are up 8.4 percent since the beginning of February." The figures are even more impressive considering movie houses in Bryan-College Station weren't even showing Sideways until a few weeks ago.

While Messina Hof's Pinot Noir is passable, the winery is better known for an elegant, slightly sweet wine called Muscat Cannelli that's often served as an aperitif. Messina Hof's Riesling is also an excellent, spicy white wine that's garnered several prestigious awards lately. Both are priced under $10.

The oddest thing about the Sideways phenomenon, in the opinion of wine-industry insiders, is that Miles, the movie's wine geek, is not presented in a favorable light. Though he knows a lot about wine, his pose as a connoisseur does little to disguise his desperate need to get drunk.

But Jerry Lasco at the Tasting Room thinks this pathetic image of a "cork dork" is exactly what's bringing a wider audience into his wine bar. "Mocking the seriousness of the wine world ends up demystifying wine," says Lasco.

Some in the industry find it a little difficult to laugh along when the movie pokes fun of their arcane and pretentious vocabulary. As Bear Dalton observes, "The wine geek language hits painfully close to home."

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