Sideways, the film that changed Santa Barbara County, California wine region
A view of the vineyards. Photo: Supplied A scene from Sideways. Photo: Supplied
A scene from Sideways. Photo: Supplied
A scene from Sideways. Photo: Supplied
A scene from Sideways. Photo: Supplied
A spectral fog has engulfed the city of Santa Barbara, shrouding its coastline in early-summer gloom and tempering the robust Californian sun. Fortunately, I’m not here for surfing or lying on the beach; I’m headed north into the mountains, where the funnel of dank air is considered a blessing, not a curse.
Thanks to cool ocean breezes, an unusual east-west trajectory and rich, ancient soils, the Santa Ynez Valley provides the perfect microclimate for grape-growing, making it one of the most celebrated wine regions of North America. Although many varietals are grown here, it is particularly famous for a highly prized and fickle fruit – the pinot grape.
“The reason why this region is so good for pinot is that the cold air off the Pacific flows in at night and it just cools down the berries,” wine buffs Miles tells his mate Jack in the movieSideways. “Pinot is a very thin-skinned grape, it doesn’t like constant heat or humidity, it’s very delicate.”
It’s now 10 years since Sideways, written and directed by Alexander Payne and starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as two friends road-tripping through Santa Barbara’s wine country, took Hollywood – and the wine-drinking community – by storm. This low-budget comedy was a sleeper hit, beloved by audiences, praised by critics and the winner of several awards, including two Golden Globes and the Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2004 Academy Awards.
It also effectively killed the merlot industry and sent sales of pinot noir through the roof.
“Why do you like pinot so much?” asks Maya, played by dreamy, soft-focused Virginia Madsen. “It’s a hard grape to grow,” replies Miles, an aspiring writer and wine aficionado in what is clearly an analogy of his own fragile, artistic sensibilities. “It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like cabernet. Pinot needs constant care and attention.”
As a love letter to Bacchus, no other movie captures the allure and joy of imbibing quite so poetically; as a result, it has developed a cult following amongst oenophiles. And from being the mere “third wine region” of California, languishing in the shadow of the flashier Napa and Sonoma valleys, Santa Barbara County’s wine region has flourished in Sideways’ wake, with fans flocking to its vineyards to replicate the adventures of Miles and Jack.
To capitalise on the surge in wine tourism, Santa Barbara’s Visitor’s Bureau produces a free, self-guided Sideways trail map, listing 18 wineries, restaurants and attractions featured in the film. And with this in hand, I head north from Santa Barbara on Highway 101, taking the Santa Rosa Road exit to begin my tour at the same place as the movie heroes – Sanford Winery. In the words of Jack, “sounds good to me, I need a drink!”
Owned by the “father of Santa Barbara pinot noir”, Richard Sanford, this vineyard – now named Alma Rosa – produces, according to Miles, “top-notch pinot and chardonnay, one of the best producers in Santa Barbara County”. Sanford, the first farmer to plant the pinot grape in 1970, is considered a visionary in organic and sustainable agriculture, producing delicate, handcrafted cool climate wines including a watermelon-coloured pinot noir vin gris (or rose).
As Miles instructs Jack in the art of wine tasting, he describes the 2003 vintage (long since sold out) as “a little citrus, maybe some strawberry, passionfruit … and the faintest soupcon of asparagus and a flutter of a nutty, Edam cheese”. Overseeing the session is real-life head taster, Chris Burroughs, whose cowboy-hatted cameo gave him a taste of fame and notoriety when the film was released.
At the Kalyra Winery, Miles and Jack meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a sassy pourer who becomes Jack’s lover. Owned by Australian Mike Brown, Kalyra wines – including a line of Australian-grown wines sold under the M. Brown label – are made in “typically aggressive Aussie winemaking style”. Kalyra – an Aboriginal word meaning “wild and pleasant place” – has capitalised on its starring role by displaying cast photos and a movie poster on the beach-themed tasting room wall. It also features an annual screening of the movie in an outdoor amphitheatre to celebrate October’s Harvest Festival.
Not all of the Santa Ynez wineries were as kindly treated by the movie, however. The much-derided Frass Canyon – with its bus tours of pensioners, merchandising, faux-Italian guitar music and wine described as Miles as “tasting like the back of an LA school bus” – is, in real life, the lavish Fess Parker Winery, established by the actor best known for playing TVs Davy Crockett, Fess Parker. The winery – where Miles infamously drank the spit bucket after receiving news that his novel had been rejected – has humorously distanced itself from its fictional depiction with a T-shirt stating, “You bet your (image of a donkey’s posterior) we’re not Frass.”
Since Sideways’ release, business has been brisk at the Days Inn, Buellton – simply called The Windmill in the movie. Although just a humble roadside inn, Jack and Miles’ room, No. 234, is constantly booked by fans keen to sleep in the stars’ beds.
Just down the road is The Hitching Post II, the restaurant where Miles meets the waitress Maya and a favourite stop for Sideways fans. The bar still proudly serves its own Highliner Pinot Noir – a wine so superior that Miles orders a bottle rather than a glass. Apparently after the movie was released, production of this wine went from 200 cases to 2000. “In 100 years, people will watch that movie,” bar owner Frank Ostini said in 2013. “What we did will live forever in that movie. That was a gift to us. They captured something. It’s pretty special.”
Producers of merlot, however, forever rue the day that Sideways became a cult hit. I end my tour at the delightful Los Olivos Cafe & Wine Merchants, where Jack and Miles share a romantic dinner with Stephanie and Maya. Before entering the restaurant, Miles has a complete dummy spit, vowing “if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f–*$%^ merlot!”
My wine drinking habits have been forever changed.
The writer was a guest of Visit Santa Barbara and United Airways.FIVE OTHER GREAT SIDEWAYS MOMENTS
1 Miles, Jack, Stephanie and Maya take a romantic walk through the barrel room at Firestone Winery – perhaps the coolest place ever to make out. As an aside, Firestone’s co-owner is TVs very first Bachelor, Andrew Firestone, heir to the tyre empire.
2 Miles and Maya walk through the Lompoc Farmer’s Market. Just one of Santa Barbara County’s famed growers markets, this delightful outdoor gathering is held every Friday in the village of Lompoc from 2-6pm.
3 OstrichLand USA. During a five-mile nudie run as he escapes from a tryst with a married woman, Jack has a close encounter with the farm’s feathery occupants. “Those f—ers are mean!” he states.
4 Jack and Miles play golf at River Course at the Alisal, a spectacular links overlooking the vineyards near the town of Solvang.
5 The biggest star of Sideways is the scenery of the Santa Ynez Valley. Drive through the wine country, stopping off at one of more than 60 tasting rooms. TRIP NOTESMORE INFORMATION
Free Sideways trail maps are available from the Santa Barbara tourist offices or see santabarbaraca上海龙凤论坛mGETTING THERE
United Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles, visit united上海龙凤论坛m.
Santa Barbara is a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, with the wine country about an hour north. Car rental via driveaway上海龙凤论坛m.auSTAYING THERE
Accommodation at the Days Inn Buellton, featured in the film, starts from $US60 a night. In Santa Barbara, a room at the Fess Parker – A Doubletree by Hilton Resort starts from $US199. fessparkersantabarbarahotel上海龙凤论坛m