"If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!" That is, of course, what that twit Miles is remembered for saying in the film Sideways. What Miles (Paul Giamatti) is passionate about though, are those California Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, and Chardonnays -- as long as they don’t include, as Miles said, “too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation.”
So what does this all mean? And why is Sideways, set near Santa Barbara, sometimes remembered as “the Pinot Noir movie?” Well, the Pacific Ocean does offer night breezes that cool the grapes down, making Santa Barbara County’s unique micro climate suitable for growing Pinot Noir. To find out more, you could book yourself a trip to Santa Barbara to take the “Sideways Tour.”
The film Sideways takes place in the Central Coast AVA, Santa Barbara County. (A very common misunderstanding is that the film takes place in the Napa Valley.) The Central Coast is actually the first American wine region I ever visited, when I was 22. One of my best friends, Joe, had invited me to visit his dad with him in Montecito, California for spring break during college. Having spent two years in France with my family (from age 17-19), I had actually never tasted any California wine prior to my first trip to the Central Coast. As a young, skeptical French-speaking American, I was convinced that California wines would not compete with the French darlings I’d been raised on. Rick, Joe’s dad, had spent time studying in France, and he too was not initially convinced of the quality of this California juice called wine when he first moved out there.
“Paul, I love France, but I assure you, the best California wine is every bit as good as the best French wine,” Rick told me.
Perhaps -- depending on what you like. But he was right in part: the wines I tried then and there were exceptionally good. And this was in early 2004, prior to the film’s release date of September of that year.
I can remember driving through the mountainous, vineyard-filled orchards, visiting the wineries Babcock, Sanford, Fire Stone, and Curtis (two of which were featured in Sideways). Two years later, a second visit would take us to lunch in Los Olivos (the town where the Sideways foursome had their first dinner together), and yet I still hadn’t even seen the film. During a third visit, I recall visiting Bridlewood Winery. But it was a fourth visit that really sticks out.
In 2008 I was in L.A. for work with a colleague (a French friend, who was also feeling snobbish about California wine). By then I'd seen the film, and as soon as we had a day off, we shot up the 101 for a night in wine country. I had booked us a cheap room at a Days Inn, which, upon arrival, I discovered was “The Windmill Inn,” where Miles and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) had shacked up in the film. Upon checking in, we were handed a “Sideways Tour Map”: a map routing out all the destinations that Miles and Jack visited on their trip. Now I was seeing the effects of the film. And I noticed this time that the tasting rooms and restaurants were far more packed than during my previous visits.
“Tourism here sky rocketed after Sideways,’’ the tasting room manager at Presideo Winery in the Danish colony-town of Solvang told me.
After tasting all day, Julien and I watched our beloved Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup at the hotel bar, the same one where Jack confessed to Miles that he thought he might be in love with Stephanie (Sandra Oh). We then walked down the road to the Hitching Post II, for dinner. It was here that I first tried a sparkling wine from Gruet of New Mexico (a producer now on our list at Brooklyn Winery and nearly 5,000 others throughout the country), and tried ostrich, though I discovered it was not from the ostrich farm down the street, as featured in the film.
Throughout my life as a wine drinker, I can’t think of anything that has boosted the awareness of wine in the U.S. more so than Sideways, save perhaps the wine critic Robert Parker’s influential ratings from his journal, The Wine Advocate. And that has played a part in Central Coast AVA tourism as well.
Anthony Wilson, a California jazz guitarist (known for his playing with Diana Krall) and music and wine blogger, told me, “You know the interesting thing about that region (Santa Barbara) is that before that movie the wines were really restrained and cool, and after the movie the wines got bigger and lost some of their acid. Wine making styles began to change. Some winemakers chased points, and the least principled ones just went with the style of the time.”
Now, if you’re not able to take an impromptu trip to Sideways country any time soon, then come to class at Brooklyn Winery this Wednesday, February 1, to taste two Pinot Noirs featured in the film, as well as one made by a wine maker who is considered to be one of the best producers of Pinot in all of California; one who has not changed his style in the post-Sideways wine world.