When Paul Giamatti arrived in the Santa Ynez Valley 11 years ago to portray a pretentious wine aficionado in the dark comedy film Sideways, he relied on his considerably gifted acting chops, because he had little interest in wine.
“I just drank beer at that point,” Giamatti admitted. “I still wouldn’t know that much about [wine], but I enjoy it now more than I did.”
In early August of this year, Giamatti returned to the valley—his first time back since the movie was filmed—to reunite with the crew and celebrate the 10th anniversary of the hit film.
Sideways director and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Alexander Payne—who also directed the critically acclaimed films Nebraska, The Descendants, About Schmidt, and Election—said he comes to Santa Barbara County every year to visit old stomping grounds and discover new ones.
“I tool around, go to the Hitching Post II,” Payne said. “It’s hard to keep up with all the wineries that pop up like wildflowers in springtime.”
But more importantly, Payne cherishes the relationships he formed with some of the more colorful, real-life characters in the valley.
“We made friends, and clearly, it wasn’t just momentary friends, but friends for life, like Frank [Ostini] and Jim [Clendenen] and Richard Sanford,” Payne said with all sincerity. “So, it’s neat. It’s really neat.”
Ostini has palpable admiration for Payne, whom he described as a brilliant filmmaker for the respect he showed Ostini, the region, and the people he worked with before, during, and after production.
“We connected, and that never went away. Alexander says that about his films. He connects with the locations, with the people there, and he never loses that connection. He’s just a wonderful man, and we’re so blessed to be involved,” Ostini said.
Sideways was filmed on location in the Santa Ynez Valley for two and a half months during the fall of 2003. Several scenes take place in Ostini’s Buellton steakhouse, Hitching Post II, where Giamatti’s character Miles falls deeper in love with Santa Barbara County pinot noir and subsequently Maya, a fictional Hitching Post waitress played by actress Virginia Madsen.
“I’m also really good friends with Virginia,” Ostini said. “It’s been amazing. When I have charity things here, they get involved. They agreed to do this.”
Reunited, and it feels so good
In celebration of the film’s 10th anniversary, Ostini and friends organized an August reunion for the film’s cast and crew, including Payne, Giamatti, producer Michael London, an associate producer, an assistant director, an editor, and a set designer.
Because some guests traveled great distances to attend—Giamatti flew in from Brooklyn, for instance—the organizers planned a whole weekend of events around an Aug. 2 dinner as part of an auction that raised $100,000 for Direct Relief, the Goleta-based nonprofit that delivers humanitarian medical aid around the world.
On Aug. 1, a who’s who of Santa Barbara County’s wine industry partied with the Sideways group at winemaker Jim Clendenen’s hilltop Rancho la Cuna in Los Alamos, including Ostini and Gray Hartley (Hitching Post Wines), Bob Lindquist (Qupé), Richard and Thekla Sanford (Alma Rosa), Bryan Babcock (Babcock), Bill Wathen and Dick and Jenny Dore (Foxen), Seth Kunin (Kunin Wines), Kathy Joseph (Fiddlehead), Chad Melville (Melville and Samsara), Gavin Chanin (Chanin and Lutum), and Madison, Suzanne, and Anna Murphy (Presqu’ile), along with select members of the media.
The gathering paired Sideways-era (2001-2005) Hitching Post and Au Bon Climat pinot noir with southern-style, slow-roasted pig barbecue prepared by Alabama’s famed Jim and Nick’s Bar-B-Q.
Santa Barbara County’s wine industry was an unexpected beneficiary of the 2004 film’s box-office success and critical acclaim; the film was nominated for dozens of awards, winning a Golden Globe for Best Picture (musical or comedy) and an Academy Award for adapted screenplay, among other prizes.
It all started with the novel Sideways, written by Rex Pickett.
“Rex discovered wine in our region by coming into my restaurant, and he befriended the bartender and a waitress and wrote them into his book,” Ostini explained. “And when Alexander [Payne] bought the book, he made it a screenplay and he kept us in there.”
The Sideways Effect
Pre-Sideways, Santa Barbara County’s wine industry was well established, growing, and seemed to be on the verge of something greater.
“But Sideways brought international attention, and everyone looked at us differently in the pinot noir business,” Ostini said. “It did wonders for the wine business. It made wine more accessible to people in a way that we had been trying to do forever. They made miracles happen, actually.”
The main character in Sideways, struggling writer/wine enthusiast Miles, has a love affair with pinot noir, and in one moody monologue he opines, “Oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”
Post-Sideways, out-of-towners arrived in the valley to retrace the steps taken by Miles and Jack; locals printed Sideways-inspired wine tasting tour maps; new Hitching Post customers expected waitress Maya to take their order; and bottles of Santa Barbara County pinot noir sold like, well, proverbial hotcakes.
The Wine Institute reported that U.S. supermarket sales of pinot noir jumped 18 percent between Oct. 24, 2004, and July of 2005, compared with the same period the previous year. The movie was released on Oct. 22, 2004.
The film helped generate significant interest and move the needle regarding wine style preferences not only in the United States, but internationally, too, said Santa Barbara Vintners Executive Director Morgen McLaughlin.
“As a specific example, when we travel to Asia promoting Santa Barbara County wines, consumers may not know much about the region, but when we mention Sideways, we get many head nods and smiling faces. The movie is a cult classic, and will continue to resonate with people for many years,” McLaughlin wrote in an email to the Sun.
In addition to giving the region public visibility, the direction the industry grew over the last decade seems to be attributable to the film.
“We haven’t commissioned any research studies to specifically look at the movie’s impacts, but looking at the grape acreage report, the change in crop value is very significant,” McLaughlin said.
The county’s 2013 crop report shows that wine grapes experienced a 44 percent increase in value over 2012. The crop was valued at $163 million in 2013 and $91 million in 2012. Santa Barbara County’s wineries add another $534 million in value to wine grapes by producing wine.
Today, there are more than 200 wineries in Santa Barbara County, and about 125 of them have tasting rooms.
California agriculture statistics show that pinot noir plantings in the state have risen substantially—from 23,950 acres in 2003 to 41,301 acres in 2013.
On the flip side, about 52,000 acres of merlot were planted in California in 2003. Ten years later, merlot acreage has dropped to 45,296 acres. There are some who attribute merlot’s dip in popularity to Sideways: Miles has an extreme aversion to that particular red wine variety.
In one of the most famous Sideways scenes, filmed outside a restaurant in Los Olivos, Miles has a tantrum, shouting, “If anybody orders merlot, I’m leaving! I am not drinking any fucking merlot!”
When asked by the Sun about the “Sideways effect” on merlot, director Payne replied with a cinematic comparison: “Isn’t that funny? In 1934, Clark Gable removed his shirt in It Happened One Night, and he wasn’t wearing an undershirt, and sales of undershirts plummeted. You never know when something like that can happen from a movie. And apparently it did for merlot (down) and pinot noir (up). It was just a joke—the merlot line. I like merlot. It’s just a joke in the film. You can never predict what’s gonna somehow get traction in popular culture.”
Popular culture, pinot noir plantings, and sales aside, thanks to Sideways, friendships blossomed in Santa Barbara County and are continuing to bloom.
And Ostini, for one, is eternally grateful, “They gave us so much. And to have them come back and celebrate 10 years and let us say thank you to them … .”
Payne said he’s not surprised that people would want to gather and reminisce a decade later, “because we had a really good time making the movie.”
For Giamatti, reuniting was pleasantly unexpected.
“I would never imagine this for any movie I’d ever done. This would be just about the only one, because I had such a nice time doing it,” Giamatti said.
After two nights of partying at Rancho la Cuna and a round of golf at La Purisima, Sideways guests and the barbecue crew met for Sunday brunch at Avant Tapas and Wine at Terravant Winery in Buellton, where Ostini and Hartley make their Hitching Post wines.
There, they agreed another reunion was a must.
“As I was saying bye to Alexander Payne at our Sunday brunch, I said, ‘Let’s do this again for the 20th,’” Ostini said. “And Alexander responded with, ‘We should do it in five years.’”
Contributing writer Wendy Thies Sell covers the Santa Barbara County wine industry for the Sun, writing the weekly Eats column.