I am not drinking any f*cking Merlot! Screams the unforgettable quote from Sideways, the Oscar-winning, Alexander Payne-directed film that portrays two middle-aged guys on a hilarious road trip across Santa Barbara’s wine country. It’s Paul Giamatti’s character Miles who makes the declaration; and it’s Thomas Haden Church’s Jack who talks him down before hooking up at dinner with two lovely ladies – Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and Maya (Oscar nominated Virginia Madsen). Both the Los Olivos, California location as well as Pinot Noir winemakers everywhere stand firmly in appreciation of that scene as the hit film (released in 2004 for a cumulative $71.5 million U.S. gross) advanced the then-overlooked locale as a global tourist destination and monumentally impacted the entire wine industry as demand and sales of Pinot Noir grew exponentially.
“You would be hard pressed to find many movies so specific to a location that draw from it so organically,” says Geoff Alexander. As the Santa Barbara County Film Commissioner for the last seven years, he’s experienced Sideways’ staying power and resonance with audiences firsthand. To celebrate the film’s 10th anniversary Blu-ray edition (released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment), the Santa Barbara Convention & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission co-sponsored a series of promotional events, including screening the film at the historic, 2,000+ seat Arlington Theatre, home to the feature’s 2004 U.S. premiere and a prime venue for the annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Alexander credits his predecessor Martine White and her team for laying the groundwork for tie-ins before the film’s initial release by creating “Sideways, The Map” – a guide to 18 of the film’s locations (and using the film’s eye-catching film logo). More than 90,000 copies were distributed by June 2005. The Santa Barbara Convention & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission also went after “tourism gold” with an in-depth “Sideways in Santa Barbara” marketing campaign highlighting the county’s culinary and wine aspects. The decision to launch the effort was influenced by White’s attendance at AFCI’s Cineposium 2003. Research presented at that Cineposium concluded that, on average, a location featured in a successful film could expect to see visitors increase by an average of 54% over the next four years.
Sideways’ avalanche of pilgrims fell in step with film tourism’s growing popularity. “Sideways came out when audiences were just starting to become savvy to what’s behind the curtain in moviemaking,” Alexander contends. The film highlighted the warmth and beauty (one location was described as an “idyllic picnic setting”) of Santa Barbara’s wine producing Santa Ynez Valley region while holding regard for author Rex Pickett’s specific locations. (Payne adapted his unpublished novel). A sense of place is found in all of Alexander Payne’s films and the film utilized almost all practical locations; titles are keyed in over scenes, documentary-style. While the film went on to earn five Oscar nominations, including best picture, the SAG ensemble acting award and six Spirit Awards, during pre-production it was a different story as the filmmakers encountered some resistance to location and wine placement requests.
The Santa Barbara Convention & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission also went after “tourism gold” with an in-depth “Sideways in Santa Barbara” marketing campaign highlighting the county’s culinary and wine aspects.
“There was a healthy degree of uncertainty of what this movie was going to be,” recalls Laura Kath, president of Solvang-based Mariah Marketing, repping tourism entities in Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley. “In the fall of 2003, the actors, the director, were not that well known at that point,” she adds. Frank Ostini, owner of the Hitching Post II (a marquee location closed for three days to accommodate filming) and winemaker for Hitching Post wines (the Highliner Pinot Noir is called out several times) echoes that initial skepticism. “I wasn’t sure the products would be seen in the best light,” he recalls. He wasn’t happy with the principal characters constant drinking; and at that time, he even suggested alternate dialogue and wines to be spotlighted.
Ostini was convinced the film would go straight-to-video, however, at the New York Film Festival screening, when 3,000 people rolled in the aisles with laughter, he knew “it was going somewhere.”
The film’s mix of sophistication and crudeness de-mystified wine connoisseurship and made a star of the Santa Ynez Valley’s restaurants, byways, wineries and the Pinot Noir varietal and provided a windfall of residual income from that exposure. “To this day, I’ve never seen a movie that featured a business as prominently, gave me beyond millions in publicity you can’t buy, and immortality as vintners,” says Ostini. Although the restaurant had been open for 28 years, business surged with the Oscar nominations, and the veteran restaurateur made improvements to oblige the throngs.
The Santa Barbara CVB recognized early on that the film could be “a boon for wine and culinary tourism,” says Kath, and provided an exact road map to follow. Visitors could easily recreate for themselves what the stars did on the silver screen. The “Sideways at 10” promotion extends that relationship and, with the Blu-ray release, renewed interest is
anticipated. Although much changed for the filmmakers and actors, the Santa Ynez Valley remains charming, low-key with wide-open vistas and relatively close to Los Angeles while still completely removed.
Sideways portrayed the complete spectrum of wine making and its social strata; many locals appeared in bit roles. The filmmakers conducted numerous wine tastings and the estate vineyards of Alma Rosa Winery (then Sanford) and Andrew Murray Vineyards (now the Demetria Estate) were featured prominently. “The production designer Jane [Ann] Stewart lived on our property and a lot of the driving scenes were shot on property,” remembers winemaker Andrew Murray who has since moved his winery to a new contemporary-designed facility just off Foxen Canyon Road. Once the film was released, “it was crazy how busy it was up here,” says Murray.
A Russian family came all the way to Buellton to celebrate a birthday because of the movie... Once they start showing it in other galaxies, we’ll get people from there, too. - Ostini
Geoff Alexander says the “Sideways’” effect is still in evidence and “has paid dividends that never could have been anticipated.” In April, a Korean-language romantic comedy shot in the area all because the director is a fan. Frank Ostini welcomes international customers regularly to the Hitching Post II and the winery now has wider distribution both in the U.S. and abroad. “A Russian family came all the way to Buellton to celebrate a birthday because of the movie,” Ostini explains and muses half-jokingly, “Once they start showing it in other galaxies, we’ll get people from there, too.”