One early evening in June, Robert Evans walked into a screening room at the Fox lot in Los Angeles and people started to whisper. Despite not-so-great health, the 74-year-old producer of Chinatown, Urban Cowboy and Marathon Man had made his way to West Pico Boulevard to see Sideways, a movie about a road trip through the Santa Barbara wine country.
Evans's presence wasn't the only sign that Sideways might find an audience besides wine geeks. The film, which is slated to be released nationwide this month, was directed by 43-year-old Alexander Payne, who, with his films Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt, has built a successful career out of taking quirky topics into the mainstream.
Sideways is definitely quirky. The film focuses on Miles, played by American Splendor's Paul Giamatti, a lonely oenophile who takes his handsome, goofy best friend, Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, on a trip to Santa Barbara wine country. Miles hopes to introduce Jack to the subtleties of Pinot Noir. Jack, who is about to get married, just wants to chase a few skirts. Between visiting Santa Barbara's tasting rooms and vineyards, and hanging out at the Hitching Post, a steak house that makes its own Pinot Noir, Miles and Jack become romantically entangled with two wine-obsessed women: Maya, a waitress and horticulture student played by Virginia Madsen, and Stephanie, a tasting-room employee played by Payne's wife, Sandra Oh. A lot of ugly trouble ensues. But the Santa Barbara wine region remains spectacular throughout.
"Is it possible to be unhappy in paradise?" is a traditional California question, and it's one Sideways seems to ask. The characters suffer their romantic pratfalls in surroundings that are, even by California standards, beautiful. While Napa and Sonoma have a genteel feel, the Santa Barbara wine country, a one-and-a-half-hour drive north of Los Angeles, is emblematic of the American West. The hills are a soft dun color. Cattle lounge under gnarled oaks on the area's vast ranches. The occasional eagle crosses the bright blue sky. There's often a cool ocean breeze from the Pacific, 20 miles away. Off Highway 154, along the narrow roads that lead to the 60 vineyards in the county's three appellations—Santa Maria in the north, Santa Rita in the southwest, and, in the southeast, Santa Ynez, the wine country's nexus—it's possible to drive for miles, even on weekends, without encountering another car. It's easy to see how the area could capture a filmmaker's imagination.
Payne was introduced to the wine region when he came across a manuscript for Sideways, then a soon-to-be-published novel by Rex Pickett, the director told me when I met him one afternoon in the Santa Rita Hills for a tour of some of the places in his movie. "What struck me was that the characters were complicated and intelligent. They tried to communicate by talking about wine, something I was passionate about," Payne said. "I knew this was material I wanted to film. I moved to Santa Barbara for eight months to get to know the winemakers and the area, and I fell in love. The place has a very authentic feel."
Payne's passion for wine had, fittingly, started with a romance: "I became seriously interested in 1990. I was dating an Italian girl and we were in Florence having Christmas dinner with her family. We had a 1988 Sassicaia, and I couldn't believe anything could taste so good. It was a revelation."
Payne knew he was hooked when, in 1991, he got the paycheck for a screenplay he'd written for Universal, which would become About Schmidt. "It was the first money I'd made from the film industry. I spent $5,000 of it on wine, mostly Bordeaux from 1988, '89 and '90."
Payne and I were seated at a picnic table at Fiddlestix vineyards, surrounded by rows of Pinot Noir. Fiddlestix is part-owned by Kathy Joseph, winemaker for Fiddlehead Cellars, one of whose wines appears in Sideways. Joseph poured us a dark, juicy 2002 Pinot.
"We haven't been able to come up with a name for this wine," Joseph said. "I'm open to suggestions."
Payne took a sip and waved his fists in the air. "Oomph! Oh, my God, that's good," he said.
"I don't think," said Joseph, "we could fit Oomph! Oh, My God, That's Good! on a label."
Payne likes his movies to stick as close as possible to the truth: "Ninety-five percent of what appears in Sideways is 100 percent accurate. The Hitching Post, where Maya works and where Miles and Jack hang out, is exactly as it is in real life." In fact, rumor has it that Rex Pickett, who used to hang out at the Hitching Post years ago, based his novel on a bartender at the restaurant who fell in love with one of the waitresses.
"When Stephanie says, 'I'm drinking a Sauvignon Blanc. Fiddlehead Cellars. Aged twelve months in oak,' that's because Fiddlehead makes a Sauvignon Blanc aged twelve months in oak, which is unusual for a Sauvignon Blanc," Payne continues. "When Maya and Miles try to connect by discussing a 1988 Sassicaia, it's because I know how much that wine changed my life."
After our meeting with Joseph, Payne took me to the Los Olivos Café, a Mediterranean-style restaurant a few miles from Fiddlestix in the town of Los Olivos, the Santa Ynez Valley's center. It was at this café that Payne shot the dreamy, wine-drenched dinner that pulls Sideways' characters intimately together over a bottle of Sea Smoke Cellars Pinot Noir. Inside, 3,000 bottles of wine line the western wall. Local winemakers come here to peruse the wine list and talk shop.
After coffee, Payne and I wandered around Los Olivos. The small town's many tasting rooms make it a hub for visitors to the area. Its Prairie-style Victorian buildings house art galleries and laid-back cafés. Imagine a Mayberry where you can reliably get a decent cappuccino and where the locals all know the difference between French- and American-oak wine barrels. The aroma of barbecue filled the air. One of the town's stores, Los Olivos Grocery, had set up a big grill where a brawny guy tended tri-tip roasts. A block away, outside Patrick's Sidestreet Cafe, owner Patrick Rand stood before a grill on which ribs sizzled.
We wandered up the street to the Andrew Murray Vineyards tasting room, where we tried the Roasted Slope Syrah, whose name is a play on that of the French vineyard Côte-Rôtie ("roasted hill"). Murray prides himself on making wines that have the pizzazz of Australian wines and the polish of French ones. The Syrah had rich, dark berry flavors and hints of black pepper.
"In the movie, when Miles and Maya are trying to express their feelings about each other, they drink an Andrew Murray wine, and Maya says, 'The alcohol overshadows the fruit,'" Payne reminded me. "After filming, I called Andrew Murray and asked if that was a fair thing to say. He said, 'Of course—that's an accurate description of our wines.'"
Payne and his staff had an epiphany while filming Sideways: "An interesting thing happened to us. We lost interest in European wines. We came to prefer these young, forward Californian wines. We liked them for exactly the same reasons that some people criticize them: 'too much oak,' 'too much alcohol.'"
After I left Payne, I headed to the Hitching Post, the family-style steak house where Miles first meets Maya. Family-style steak houses, as we generally conceive of them, neither make nor serve opulent house wines. The Hitching Post does. I ordered some lamb chops and a glass of one of the restaurant's highly rated wines, St. Rita's Earth. Its caramel and ripe cherry flavors were a perfect match for the juicy lamb. If the St. Rita's Earth hadn't pleased me, I could have chosen another wine from the eighty others on the Hitching Post's list, which is dominated by Santa Barbara Pinot, Syrah and Sangiovese. The staff isn't biased. Ask for something less well known than a Hitching Post Pinot, something new and surprising, and they might suggest a wine from Clos Pepe or Babcock, both in the Santa Rita Hills.
Because I'd spied a bottle of the cult Pinot Tantara in the background during the Los Olivos Café dinner scene, and because the name hinted at sensual mystery, I spent the next day tracking down Tantara's winemakers, Bill Cates and Jeff Fink. In April and October, Tantara holds open houses for the public at its winery in Santa Maria. Tantara doesn't have a tasting room, but throughout the year, Cates is happy to meet visitors. ("Folks just have to call ahead and let me know when they're coming," he told me.) I found myself sitting at a table beside his pool. A shy mongrel that Cates and his wife Gwen had rescued nuzzled our knees, while Cates poured glasses of Tantara's Solomon Hills Pinot Noir. Unlike other California Pinots that taste like cherry and oak, Solomon Hills has layers of plum, new leather and something difficult to define, almost bacony. I could swear I smelled something like incense—was it myrrh?—in my glass. I said I'd heard rumors that Tantara was poised for big-time success. Bill studied his glass. Jeff Fink, who was visiting the Cateses, sort of smiled. Bill murmured, "I don't think any of us are interested in fame or big-time success."
That afternoon I zipped past Lake Cachuma, heading home to San Diego on Highway 154. Although I'd seen it before, the mirrorlike lake dazzled me. I felt a twinge of regret; my stay had been too brief. Santa Barbara wine country doesn't seem likely to maintain its out-of-the way serenity for long. Like Miles at the end of Sideways, I felt I had to hurry back quickly for one last visit, before everything changed forever.
Abe Opincar, the author of Fried Butter: A Food Memoir, is a San Diego-based writer.