Los Angeles feels a million miles away as we drive along Santa Rosa Road between Buellton and Lompoc. The sun-dappled grapevines, rolling green hills and pastoral pumpkin patches are a picture-perfect backdrop to the nearly 80 wineries and small farms that populate Santa Barbara County.
They're also the setting for director Alexander Payne's movie Sideways, a comedic, bawdy adventure that gives a starring role to local wines.
Based on Rex Pickett's book of the same name, Sideways has inspired a wave of tourism. Critical acclaim for the film, coupled with some prescient marketing by local business boosters, is broadening the scope of visitors to tasting rooms. They come to experience this intersection of Hollywood and wine, where the latest discovery isn't an ingenue, but a ready-made getaway, complete with gorgeous scenery, laid-back locals and some great artisanal wines, particularly the regional favorite, Pinot Noir.
On a recent sunny Friday, Gary and Ana Marie Fulton of Scottsdale, Ariz., drive down a sloping gravel driveway to the Sanford Winery tasting room, a neatly rustic shed clad with rough timber and roofed-in tin. Between golf games at the nearby Sandpiper and La Purisima courses, they go wine tasting.
"I heard an interview with the author [Pickett] on NPR before we came," says Ana Marie, who persuaded her husband to make a side trip to visit some of the places featured in the movie. "We were trying to find one of the Pinots they mentioned, but I couldn't write and drive."
No problem. They find an expert in tasting-room manager Chris Burroughs, the kind of larger-than-life guy who spouts such screenplay-perfect dialogue as: "It's about time to quit tastin' and start drinkin'." Burroughs knows the movie well: He plays himself in an early scene and has been pouring Sanford wines for 10 years.
"There is starting to be a pretty heavy recognition factor now," he tells us. "This past Saturday in here was hilarious. Almost everyone in here had seen the movie the night before or they were going to."
Indeed, Sideways is the hot topic of conversation at the Sanford tasting room, where visitors hail from Santa Barbara, Lompoc, L.A. and Los Olivos. Sipping a La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir, as the characters did in the film, locals glow with pride about how Sideways shows off the easy-to-navigate region.
Zip down Highway 246, past a pen of ostriches, and you realize you're at Ostrich Land, a memorable setting in the film. Recognizing a banal Chevy dealership sign, also in the movie, seems a bit like a celebrity sighting.
Pickett based his novel on his adventures in the tasting rooms of Santa Barbara County, back when tasting was free and wine was considered an elitist's pursuit. The book and the movie follow Jack, a washed-up actor, and his friend Miles, a struggling writer and wine connoisseur, on a cork-popping road trip to celebrate Jack's last days as a bachelor. By week's end, Jack comes to appreciate the crushing realities of his middle-aged life.
Weeks ahead of the movie's release late last year, the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau and Film Commission aimed to capitalize on hoped-for buzz. With the blessings of Fox Searchlight Pictures, the commission created "Sideways, the Map," which traces the movie's key scenes at 19 local attractions, including Sanford Winery's tasting room, the Hitching Post II restaurant and the "Windmill Inn." In real life, the motel is the Windmill Days Inn, where its recent brush with Hollywood makes the towels seem less thin and the smoke-scented rooms less stale.
Other map and movie highlights include the Solvang Restaurant, the Los Olivos Cafe & Wine Merchant and the bucolic Santa Rosa Road. Oddly, the steward of the Solvang visitors' center was completely unaware of the movie on a recent visit. That may change now that the map is in its second printing. The first 10,000 copies were snapped up weeks before the movie opened nationwide.
The Sideways movie and novel arrive at a time when interest is growing in California wine and in movie tourism. David Echols, director of Personal Tours Ltd. in Santa Barbara, says his company and others are capitalizing on the new interest.
Though Personal Tours has offered winery trips for 12 years, the latest spin is a customizable Sideways tour that hits the highlights of the film. Santa Barbara's American International Transportation Services Inc. advertises a $79 "snob-free" wine-tasting tour that includes locations from Sideways. The tour company's Web site offers a link to the movie's Web site, which lists tips for wine tasting and food pairing.
Even a self-guided winery tour can give visitors a personal introduction to wine and its makers. While we are visiting Babcock Winery & Vineyards in Lompoc, Bryan Babcock pops into the tasting room and discusses the movie and its impact at length.
Babcock quotes from a scene in which actors Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen discuss the allure of wine and how it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. "That scene," Babcock says, "captures what wine is about."
Many locals think the movie authentically portrays the region's character.
"There is a lot more to California wine than just the Napa Valley," Burroughs tells us. "And maybe this movie will crack that open."
Though Fox Searchlight has resisted gimmicky tie-ins such as wine bottle-shaped crackers, the marketing gurus are busy building momentum in other ways. This month, they're working with New Market Press on a book called The Sideways Guide to Wine and Life, a tongue-in-cheek guide for tasting wine that pairs it with food and living the good life.
Last month, wine guru Robert Parker published his prediction that California's Central Coast wines "will rule America," and "take their place alongside the hallowed bottlings of Napa and Sonoma valleys." Of particular note, he said, are Santa Barbara's Burgundian varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Though Santa Barbara's wineries include such top names as Byron, Sanford and Babcock, the tasting rooms and wine shops are full of dozens of lesser-known artisanal wines.
Most locals are glad for the overdue recognition. Still, some longtime fans of the area lament that the exposure will lead to the tasting rooms being overrun with gum-chewing, unappreciative novices.
"It might be a double-edged sword," says Burroughs, "or it might be a shot in the arm. We're in the business of selling wine. As long as we don't get crazy mobbed, it's going to be a good thing."
©2005 Los Angeles Times