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Will Pinot Noir See a Reverse Sideways Effect?

In my first column for this site, I touched on the subject of "wine fashion," and how on certain occasions, the overwhelming popularity of a type of grape, or style of wine, can result in a backlash against that grape or style of wine from knowledgeable wine consumers. In nearly all cases that I can think of (Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.), this stems from what Jancis Robinson has termed the "'big equals bad' phenomenon."

As with any blanket statement philosophy, always assuming that "big equals bad," invariably leads to some missed opportunities, as Robinson illustrated with a story from a recent blind tasting where Gallo Moscato was selected by several Masters of Wine over several more expensive artisanally produced Moscatos. However, in general, the wine public has rebelled against large scale wine production because it represents wine that is made for the sake of profit, and generally eschews small scale wine making techniques that bestow quality and character on wine. One of these techniques is the careful sourcing of the grapes. In evaluating the state of Merlot prior to the evisceration of its reputation by the movie Sideways, here is what I wrote about the manner in which the grapes were selected:

As Merlot's popularity increased, countless wineries added Merlot to their repetoire, in the hopes of capitalizing on the growing demand. However, not everyone who attempted to cash in on the increased demand for Merlot was well positioned to do so. The promise of economic gain caused wineries to overlook whether they had the appropriate climate to grow Merlot grapes, and many produced substandard wines as a result of this oversight. The glut of average Merlot that flooded the market, combined with its near universal popularity, led to a backlash against Merlot among the wine conoscenti, and formed the basis for the disparagement of Merlot in the movie Sideways.

It now seems that Pinot Noir may soon encounter a similar situation, judging by this recent article posted by "the drinks business." The article highlights a growing concern among Pinot Noir producers in the Willamette Valley that new plantings of Pinot Noir in climates that are less suited to the production of the grape may lead to the cheapening of its reputation. The article quotes Jason Lett, owner of Eyrie Vineyards, as citing the danger that "people are going to start making [Pinot Noir] cheaper and cheaper.” 

Of particular concern to the Willamette Valley's Pinot Noir producers is that in the rush to cash in on the international popularity of the grape, people are beginning to plant Pinot Noir in areas that are not at all fit to foster the production of good Pinot Noir grapes. Specifically highlighted in the article are areas such as the Willamette Valley floor, where producers identified the soil as being too fertile, and too prone to frost and disease to support Pinot Noir vineyards. Lett also identified parts California, where vineyard owners are "... grafting over Merlot and Petite Sirah with Pinot Noir," and insinuated that they were making a mistake by adding "... it’s the wrong climate.”

The freedoms that are such an integral thread of the fabric of life here in the United States work as a double edged sword when it comes to the wine industry. We have no government regulations that legislate what grapes can be grown in what areas here in the U.S., whereas France and Italy have government agencies (the A.O.C. in France and the D.O.C. in Italy) that oversee grape growing and wine production. The absence of these regulatory bodies provides U.S. wine makers and vineyard owners tremendous flexibility, which can work both to the advantage and disadvantage of the wine consuming public. One one hand, the flexibility afforded to U.S. winemakers and vineyard owners allows them to create new wines that consumers would otherwise never be able to to experience. On the other hand, it allows opportunistic winemakers and vineyard owners to cash in on popular trends in the industry, when they are not realistically well positioned to do so.

Such was the case with Merlot prior to Sideways, and it seems that Pinot Noir may soon face the same issue. The question is, will there be a watershed moment like Sideways that rescues the market from the clutches of substandard, cheap Pinot Noir? The wine industry is quick to realize when a particular grape or style of wine is being overproduced, and subjected to an influx of inexpensive, mass-produced wines that solely seek to cash in on an existing trend. However, there is not always a means of bringing these observations to the public's attention. Due to its overwhelming popularity, and subsequent overproduction, Merlot faced criticism from serious wine drinkers long before Sideways was released. In fact, it was this criticism that Sideways attempted to satire. Instead, it prejudiced a generation of casual wine drinkers against the Merlot grape. As I mentioned in my prior column:

Sales of Merlot based wine experienced a noticeable decline following the movie's release, while sales of Pinot Noir (a grape placed on a pedestal by Sideways) experienced a tremendous boost. The influence that Miles, the fictional writer and wine conneisseur, had on the general public was astonishing. Fox News quoted a 33-year-old New York art director as saying, "I went out for a Pinot Noir after I saw the movie, and I've not had a Merlot since." Sideways brought the conneisseur's critique of Merlot to the public view, and once amateur consumers caught wind of the criticism, few would be caught dead with a Merlot in their hands.

However, the wholesale revolt against Merlot overlooked the fact that while the presence of hastily produced, demand-fueled Merlot on the shelves could not be denied, there was still a plethora of quality Merlot based wines to be had. The grape did not suddenly change character overnight, as evidenced by the fact that sales of top Merlot-based wines from Bordeaux, where grape varietals are rarely identified on the label, were unaffected by the "Sideways Effect." Top Merlot producers in the United States, however, were left scrambling to sell their wines, as the movie's scathing criticism of their featured grape left the word "Merlot" to play the role of a scarlet letter emblazoned on the label. 

As Pinot Noir continues the meteoric rise that was in part fueled by Sideways, it somewhat ironic that it may soon encounter the same problem that lay the groundwork for the demise of the reputation of its cinematic counterpart, Merlot. Yet, it cannot be said that this development is altogether unexpected. The lure of money is strong, and it would be foolish to think that the chance to capitalize on the popularity of Pinot Noir would be universally ignored.

I often like to say that just because a producer can make or grow Pinot Noir doesn't mean that they should make or grow Pinor Noir. However, that assumes a winemaking community where everyone is guided by the moral dictum to make good wine above all else. There will always be mass produced wines, where the promise of profit has taken precedence over good winemaking technique. This doesn't mean that "big always equals bad," although, as far as simple guidelines for choosing a wine, I think that consumers could do worse than to focus on small production wines. What it does mean, in the near term, is that we may have a situation in which the celebrity status of Pinot Noir may be threatened, as wines made from lower quality grapes hit the market.

Whether this situation will actually materialize, and how the market will react, remains to be seen. I'm curious, what have been your experiences with Pinot Noir lately? Is it due for a market correction?

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