"Visitors Are Flocking To Wine Country — But Not for Wine —
Movie 'Sideways' Has Tourists Reciting Favorite Lines; 'If Anyone Orders Merlot...'"


by Kate Kelly and Merissa Marr, Wall Street Journal, 17 February 2005

BUELLTON, Calif. — Having polished off her steak and potatoes, Mary Marcus leaned forward and fixed her eyes on the Hitching Post bartender. "I'll take a Barely Legal," she told him. "The new issue."

It might seem out of place to ask for a pornographic magazine at a cozy restaurant in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country. But Ms. Marcus was aping a line first uttered by actor Paul Giamatti in the movie "Sideways," an upmarket buddy picture about two friends' misadventures on a oenophile bender near Santa Barbara. And she isn't the first to blurt out this seemingly bawdy request here.

The movie, which is nominated for five Academy Awards at next week's Oscar ceremony in Hollywood, has inspired a cult-like following in recent months, with out-of-town visitors flocking to the region's bars and restaurants. The movie's combination of wine-country touring, comic camaraderie and late-night soul-searching has resonated with a discerning adult audience. The most ardent fans are not just here visiting; they are also re-creating scenes from the movie and invoking lines from the script.

The craze is like a grown-up version of what grew out of the 1975 camp musical "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which ever since has had moviegoers dressing and talking like the characters. The 1980 John Travolta picture "Urban Cowboy" made a mecca of Gilley's, the Pasadena, Texas, bar famous for two-step dancing and mechanical-bull riding.

Now "Sideways" is drawing a new crowd to the Santa Barbara wine county, which has long played third fiddle to Napa and Sonoma. And for the moment, the movie is rivaling the attention nearby resident Michael Jackson is getting.

By far the most frequently mimicked moment is one in which Mr. Giamatti's character, an incorrigible wine snob named Miles, declares "If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f- merlot." All day long, tourists traipse through local wineries and restaurants featured in the movie, repeating Mr. Giamatti's colorful outburst and casting aspersions on one of the country's most popular varietals.

People repeat the line "every time we pour the merlot," says Kole Knutson, a tasting-room manager at the Kalyra Winery in Santa Ynez, where some scenes in the movie were filmed.

Few places have borne the brunt of this more than the Hitching Post, a restaurant prominently featured in the movie. Cocktail hour at the Hitching Post these days is a mob scene, especially since the movie's Academy Award nominations were announced in late January. Ms. Marcus, a 39-year-old Los Angeles public-radio fund-raiser, recalls how she easily got an 8 o'clock reservation at the restaurant two months ago, only to find a long wait there when she arrived with two girlfriends on a recent Saturday night.

Later the same evening, Julie Iko Caruso jostled into the bar with a group of five friends. "We've been taking turns saying the lines," said Ms. Iko Caruso, as she and her friends in unison repeated the merlot rant. Ms. Iko Caruso had come up for the weekend from Manhattan Beach, in the Los Angeles area, and was sipping a Cosmopolitan rather than the pinot noir that is touted as nearly life-changing in "Sideways." Later in the evening, her husband, Tony, mimicked the feline sexual growl of the movie's womanizing character, Jack, played by Oscar-nominee Thomas Haden Church.

"Our bar used to be a quiet place, and now it's a hangout," says Hitching Post co-owner Frank Ostini, who held court on a recent Saturday night in a Hawaiian shirt dotted with wine bottles. "People call their friends on the East Coast from the bar and say, 'Guess where I am?' "

Locals are doing their best to cope. Unable to face the restaurant crowds, Santa Ynez resident Pamela Harris, whose small vineyard produces the Rhone Valley varietal Viognier, has given up on having Monday-night hamburgers with her girlfriends. Jenny Williamson Dor´┐Ż, co-owner of the Foxen Winery, avoids driving Highway 101 on Sunday afternoons because of all the traffic.

The owners of Kalyra Winery have displayed snapshots of the movie actors on set and are selling T-shirts with the "Sideways" wine-bottle logo on them. Still, frequent questions on the whereabouts of Stephanie, the sexy single mother played by Sandra Oh, are annoying. "If you went to New Zealand, would you be asking where Bilbo Baggins lives?" asked wine-tasting manager Andrew Daigle on a recent Sunday, referring to the familiar Hobbit character.

Not everyone is enchanted with the "Sideways" phenomenon. Last weekend, engaged couple Theresa Wede and Brew Johnson drove to the wine region from their home in Irvine to scope out possible places to have their wedding. Having grown up nearby, they were turned off by the presence of so many movie fans, who had booked up all the local bed-and-breakfasts. After turning down a smoking room at the highway Days Inn — where Messrs. Giamatti and Church stay in the movie — they bunked for the night at a Comfort Inn.

"The Sideways thing" made them decide to hold their wedding elsewhere, Mr. Johnson said.

Some locals gripe privately about the way their community was depicted in the movie, given that Stephanie beds Jack after their first date and smokes marijuana while her young daughter is asleep, and given that Miles is always drinking too much and at one point staggers back to his motel room in the wee hours of the morning.

"People are, like, 'It made the women look cheap, and the guys look like drunks,' " said Kalyra's co-owner Martin Brown. Adds David Nuell, a television producer who moved to the region in the 1990s "The movie was good for business, but it didn't show the valley in its best light."

The movie's images of drunken revelry are a stark contrast to a normally sedate area that is home to Ronald Reagan's ranch and the horsy set. For "Sideways" producer Michael London, that was the appeal. "Part of the charm of that corner of the world is that it's not crowded, and it's never been very chic," he said.

It was because of that, he said, that some local business owners had to be talked into allowing the film to be shot in their wineries and restaurants. Bar owner Mr. Ostini, for one, wrote a four-page letter to the filmmakers that detailed his concerns about the depiction of alcoholism in "Sideways."

But only one winery in the film wasn't called by its actual name the Fess Parker winery, where a scene in which Miles has an emotional outburst and spills the contents of a spit bucket over his shirtfront was shot.

For now, the movie and wine enthusiasts are continuing to arrive here. Marie Knelange, a 36-year-old former Air Force missile launcher, is planning a "Sideways" theme for her May 15 wedding. The afternoon will include a tour of the Firestone Winery's barrel room. "Our tour guide insists that we go there and make out on the banister, like they do in the movie," she says. "So we just might have to do that."

Her recently printed wedding invitation says "We hope you will open up yours minds, hearts and palates to new wines (even Merlot)."

Write to Kate Kelly at kate.kelly@wsj.com and Merissa Marr at merissa.marr@wsj.com

©2005 Wall Street Journal



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