IT’S BEEN A decade since a seemingly nondescript film lit up theaters across the nation, crashed the Oscars party and turned the American wine industry on its corkscrew.
And while it has mostly been relegated to a footnote in movie history and dusty DVD collections, “Sideways” continues to haunt merlot lovers and leave a lasting impression on a Southern California wine region.
Depending on your perspective, “Sideways” was either a buddy movie about two guys going wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, or it was about men behaving badly. The simple plot was that Miles (played by Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) head north from L.A. for a week of wine, golf and fun before Jack’s nuptials. Miles is a depressed, unsuccessful writer reeling from a failed marriage, and Jack is a scoundrel looking to have as much sex as possible. Pinot noir is praised, merlot is besmirched, and hilarity ensues.
The film was nominated for best picture and won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Interest in merlot fell, pinot noir sales soared, and Americans began drinking more wine.
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The movie was filmed in and around the communities of Buellton, Solvang, Los Olivos and Ballard. This is gorgeous country where you are never far from the Pacific coastline or the San Rafael Mountains.
After “Sideways” came out in 2004, the highways, hotels, restaurants and — especially — tasting rooms of the valley were crowded.
“It was a firestorm for a good two years,” says Christine Forsyth, general manager of the Ballard Inn, where “Sideways” author Rex Pickett stayed during filming.
The inn, a B&B and top-rated restaurant in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, saw an influx of visitors from across America and around the world after the film gained box-office momentum. To this day, Forsyth doesn’t offer “Sideways” in her DVD collection because guests keep stealing it.
The inn’s wine list is heavy on pinot noir and — you guessed it — light on merlot. In fact, in an industry tasting of about 60 wines from the five viticultural regions of Santa Barbara County, not a single merlot was presented.
Though fervor over the film has quieted through the years, signs of “Sideways” remain. The Windmill Inn in Buellton where Miles and Jack stayed is a Days Inn, and fans still make the mile-long trek along the highway to the Hitching Post II restaurant, where the characters ate. The Solvang Restaurant booth where they had breakfast is frequently requested, and the Los Olivos Café — where Miles impugned merlot — is a popular stop on the “Sideways” trail.
If you come here for your interest in the film, you’ll stay for the wines, which are among the best in California (sorry Napa and Sonoma, but it’s true). You’ll find plenty of pinot noir, syrah, cab and grenache — and even the occasional merlot.
Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.