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PREMIUM

A drink with… Rex Pickett

Twenty years after the Academy Award-winning film Sideways released, and its Pinot Noir-loving protagonist Miles Raymond uttered his now-infamous line – ‘I am not drinking any f***ing Merlot!’ – the author of the then-unpublished manuscript optioned for the film by director Alexander Payne reflects on the film’s impact.

‘The Sideways effect’, as it was dubbed, led to increased American Pinot Noir plantings and decreased consumption of value-priced Merlot wines. Pickett’s book was published by St Martin’s Press months before the movie debuted. In 2018, his stage adaptation of Sideways opened. And Blackstone Publishing has just published Sideways: New Zealand, with further releases to follow.

‘I was venturing north to the Santa Ynez Valley to play golf with a friend named Roy. I was a golf prodigy from age eight to 13, but then I quit dead cold. I picked up a club in my 30s because I needed a way to get out of my head as a broke writer living in Los Angeles. Eventually, I started staying over in Buellton at the Windmill Inn – now the Sideways Inn – and I’d go to The Hitching Post. It looked like a biker bar, but inside, people were talking about wine.

‘At the same time, I was getting into wine, spending my Saturdays in LA at a place called Epicurus. But I couldn’t afford to bring expensive bottles to the after-parties that spilt out after the wine tastings. I felt excluded.

‘But in Santa Ynez, it was casual and fun. Roy encouraged me to write a screenplay about our trips. The screenplay didn’t work, so I wrote it as a novel instead titled Two Guys on Wine. My agent didn’t like the title. He said it sounded too much like a non-fiction travelogue. So I’m re-reading my book, and ‘Sideways’ is in the dialogue. Jack says to Miles in the opening scene, ‘Give me the keys, brother, you’re sideways.’ It’s rare British slang for drunk. With the movie, the critics had a field day. ‘They’re going sideways in life!’

‘I distinctly remember, in huge screenings – most notably the closing night of the New York Film Festival at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center – how hard people laughed at the Merlot line and how, at first, I didn’t get why they thought it was so funny. I still don’t. But I love that they love it.

‘I remember running into many people who told me that after they came out of the theatre from seeing the film, they immediately drove to the nearest wine shop and said, ‘Do you have any Pinot Noir?’ Miles’s passion for Pinot Noir is outsized, exaggerated, but romanticised, lyricised.

‘I wanted Miles to believe in something. I love Pinot Noir, and so I hyperbolised my passion. That love, though, was genuine. And it’s obvious it carried over to people who saw the movie and loved it. They just had to know what this Pinot Noir obsession was all about. I wrote the infamous line, Payne directed it, but Giamatti delivered it.

‘When they were making the film, no one had absolutely any idea it would have this impact on the wine world.

‘The production was very careful not to show the entire screenplay adaptation to people in the Santa Ynez Valley because of its R-rated material. Well, two weeks before the film was to begin principal photography, Frank Ostini, the owner of The Hitching Post restaurant and bar that featured in it, somehow got a hold of the entire script. He was appalled. He called an emergency session of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. He told them the script romanticised alcohol abuse and it was going to be terrible for their emerging wine region and recommended they move to shut the production down! Chaos ensued.

‘They wanted changes. Payne wasn’t going to change anything, especially with notes from a restaurateur, and especially not two weeks before shooting.

‘There was fallout. Some wineries – much to their regret now – dropped out from being a location. The scene where they meet Sandra Oh was to be at Foxen’s tasting room on the Foxen Canyon Trail, an old tool shed. Dick Doré, the owner, freaked out, and dropped out, and they moved the scene to Kalyra, arguably the worst winery in the entire Santa Ynez Valley, and they made millions post-film release.

‘Fess Parker was going to give the production his location for free in exchange for showing his signage. Now, after Ostini’s overreaction, they wanted the name changed and a fee for the location. Payne changed it to Frass Canyon. Frass is the excrement of leaf-eating insects. But, in the end, Ostini had to be placated because his restaurant had had weeks of art department work done on it to prepare for shooting. They wanted me to intervene. I called him up. I said, “Frank, you’re not in the mineral water business. People get drunk up there. Don’t be a hypocrite.” But in the end, Payne had a heart-to-heart with Frank and talked him out of the tree, and the rest is history.

‘The impact it had on the Santa Ynez Valley was, and is to this day, immense. The movie made wine tasting hip. I started seeing Pinot Noir under ‘Reds’ on wine lists in restaurants when it never was before. All of the wine industry benefitted from the movie, Pinot Noir, the locations and the wineries in the movie the most. Kathy Joseph, in one example, with just a 10-second exchange between Miles and Maya about her Sauvignon Blanc, grew 300% in gross from 2004 to 2005. A 10-second conversation.

‘Now, 20 years later, I’m living in Napa, and I’m looking down the road, and Miles is due for an anniversary trip to Santa Ynez. He’s got old scores to settle from his wounded wayward days.’


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