Sideways in Santa Ynez
"Can I try the Vin Gris?" I ask the guy behind the counter.
"Sold out," he says. "Because of that movie."
I am in the tasting room of the Sanford Winery, just outside Buellton, California. I want to sample Sanford's 2003 Pinot Noir-Vin Gris. "That movie," which is denying me my wine, is Sideways, the surprise hit that has transformed life at Sanford and everywhere else in the Santa Ynez Valley.
"I was skeptical when they were filming," says Frank Ostini, owner of the Hitching Post, the valley restaurant that plays a large role in the movie. "I didn't think much would come of it."
But much did. Sideways, which has garnered a passel of awards, tells the story of two middle-aged pals, Miles and Jack, attempting one last bachelor bacchanal before Jack gets married. Miles is a failed husband, failed novelist, and wine snob. Jack is a fading actor with the indestructible optimism of the formerly handsome. Over five days in the valley, they golf, argue, meet the gorgeous Virginia Madsen and the gorgeous Sandra Oh, and drink a lot of excellent wine.
The movie has become such a phenomenon, you can build your vacation around it. At Solvang's Wine Valley Inn, you can reserve, as I did, its Sideways Movie Package, which includes wine, wineglasses, and the official movie map to the wineries Miles and Jack toured.
When you follow their route, you discover that most local winemakers are happy about Sideways. The filmmakers treated them with respect, they say. At Kalyra winery, winemaker Mike Brown tells me, the set designer finished a new tasting room for him so that Sandra Oh's Stephanie would have a place to flirt with Jack.
At the Los Olivos Cafe, owner Sam Marmorstein shows me where Miles, Jack, Stephanie, and Virginia Madsen's Maya had their wine-fueled dinner. "It's paradise here," he says of the Santa Ynez Valley. And to me, much of the movie's appeal is the way it catches the coloration of this paradise: the sunlight tinged with Pacific mist, the ripe, rolling vineyards, and all that wine.
"I like to think about the life of wine," Maya tells Miles, "how it's a living thing. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle, it's going to taste different than if I had opened it any other day. And it tastes so [expletive deleted] good."
In the film, Maya is a waitress at Frank Ostini's Hitching Post. Over dinner, Ostini talks fondly about Virginia Madsen―"a wonderful person"―and says he likes Sideways, which he has seen four times.
The movie has benefited Ostini. The Hitching Post is booming; sales of his signature Pinot Noir, the Highliner, have risen 100 percent. Still, he worries that the verging-on-alcoholic Miles is no role model for oenophiles. After reading the Sideways script, he wrote to director Alexander Payne, imploring him to tone down Miles's drinking. "I said how important the wine was to us," Ostini explains. "We take it very personally."
Toward the end of Sideways, the world explodes. Stephanie dumps Jack and he goes home to begin a bad marriage. Miles swills fine wine in a cheap restaurant. He's on a downhill skid. Or maybe not. In the film's final minutes, he hears from Maya. She loves his manuscript, she says. He returns to the Santa Ynez Valley and knocks on her door.
You don't know what will happen. But I know, I tell Ostini as I sit nursing my glass of Highliner. Miles is coming out of it. He's going to get a second chance. Ostini looks dubious.
Here in paradise, I insist, anything can happen. Your novel can get published, somebody perfect will answer the door. You can enjoy your wine, knowing that, like life, it changes and evolves and gains complexity. And that it tastes so ... great.