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The Power of the Press (May 11, 2005)

When I was writing the wine column for The Toronto Star, readers would complain that every time I mentioned a wine in print it would disappear from LCBO shelves.

There is no doubt that the printed word is powerful when it comes to influencing consumers' purchasing habits – but not as powerful, it seems, as the effect of the visual media: television and the movies. Two cases in point: The 60 Minutes piece on "The French Paradox" and the recent Oscar-winning movie Sideways.

On November 17, 1991, CBS correspondent Morley Safer introduced a segment of 60 Minutes suggesting that the reason why the French enjoy longer lives and are less prone to heart disease than North Americans – in spite of their preferred diet of artery-clogging amounts of butter, cream, cheese and foie gras – is because they have a steady intake of red wine. A compound called resveratrol in the skins of grapes was hailed as the reason. Resveratrol acts as a scrubbing brush in your veins and arteries, flushing out low-density lipoproteins, the bad part of cholesterol. Within a month of the program, red wine sales in U.S. supermarkets shot up 44 per cent over the previous year's figures for the same period. And there was spill-over effect for table wines in general, as total wine sales rose by 11 per cent.

But the information about the beneficial effects of wine had already been well documented in the medical literature. Seventeen years before the 60 Minutes segment, a study of over 5,000 men and women in Framingham, Massachusetts, found that the moderate consumption of alcohol produced a significant reduction in the incidence of heart disease. And in 1979 the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet carried a study that corroborated these findings and suggested an increased use of alcohol could reduce the risk of death from coronary heart disease. But it took a television program to capture the imagination of the public-at-large.

Then came the movie Sideways, the story of two hapless guys – Miles, a failed writer and Pinot Noir freak, and Jack, a failed actor who will drink anything. The two friends spend a week driving through California wine country. They're on a buddy trip, a final fling before Jack's wedding. For Miles it's a quest for Pinot Noir, and he uses his passion for this capricious grape to woo a waitress. As a result of the movie, Pinot Noir has become the flavour of the month in the US. Sales of Pinot Noir wines were up 22 per cent in the four weeks following the movie's release. Blackstone Pinot Noir from California jumped a staggering 147 per cent in the 12 weeks following the movie's debut on October 22.

Not even the combined efforts of Robert Parker, The Wine Spectator, Decanter Magazine and Tidings could have that galvanizing effect on wine sales. And on the flip side, the derogatory remarks that Miles makes about Merlot has had, and will have, a negative effect on sales of that grape.

On a recent tour of Sonoma I tasted some eighty different Pinot Noirs from the Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Carneros regions. I took as my guide a new book by John Winthrop Haeger, North American Pinot Noir, in which he quotes the late André Tchelistcheff, the acknowledged father of modern Californian winegrowing: "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir." This speaks to the grape that is notoriously difficult to grow and even harder to make into fine wine.

In every tasting room I stopped at they told me the same story: people who come in ask to taste Pinot Noir. Trader Joe's, the retail chain that sells "Two Buck Chuck," offers this wine in five varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – but not in Pinot Noir because it's just too costly a grape (as much as US$8,000 a ton for the most cherished vineyards) and demand is outstripping supply.

How long the Sideways syndrome will last is anyone's guess, but if it turns consumers on to one of the world's great wines, that's fine in my book. As long as newly minted œnophiles don't emulate Miles' behaviour in the tasting room when he was refused a glass of wine because he was drunk. I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that he lifted the dump bucket and chugged down the lot. Every wine lover in the audience clutched their stomach.




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