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Film (Pinot) Noir: New Movie Explores Love, Wine and Love of Wine

Sideways brings Santa Barbara wine country to the big screen.

Nick Fauchald
Posted: November 1, 2004

Baseball fans have The Natural, kung-fu junkies have Enter the Dragon and fly fishermen have A River Runs Through It. Finally, wine geeks are getting their own movie, which hits theaters next week.

Sideways, a new film from director Alexander Payne, whose credits include About Schmidt and Election, puts wine in a leading role. Set in the scenic Santa Ynez Valley, it follows two old college friends, Miles (played by Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a weeklong tasting tour through California's Santa Barbara County, best known for its Pinot Noir and Syrah.

Part Hope-Crosby road trip, part dark comedy, part love story, the movie is based on the novel of the same name by Rex Pickett. It centers on Miles, a failed novelist and wine fanatic whose woebegone spirit is boosted only when drinking wine or waxing poetic on the allure of his favorite grape, the elusive, capricious Pinot Noir. Miles brings his buddy Jack, a doltish B-list actor and wine ignoramus (who sees no harm in chewing gum while tasting), to the valley for a crash course in wine during Jack's last few days of bachelorhood.

But as soon as the first bottle is uncorked, their innocent road trip encounters a few sharp turns. Miles is forced to face his failures in love and writing. Jack -- who only wants to eat, drink and be married -- realizes his acting skills can't help him feign maturity.

Wine plays several character types throughout the film: the muse, the security blanket, the comedic foil, even the villain. It's also the punch line of the movie's funniest moments (such as when Miles throws a tantrum at the prospect of drinking Merlot), though the humor might escape many wine novices. But wine's best role is as matchmaker for Miles and his love-interest, Maya (Pinot Noir is but one of Miles' inamoratas), played by Virginia Madsen, as they mask their feelings behind their favorite varietals.

Several Santa Barbara County wineries and brands -- such as Au Bon Climat, Foxen, Sanford and Sea Smoke -- also make an appearance, as does the local winemaker hangout the Hitching Post, which also produces its own Pinot Noir under the Highliner label.

Pickett said he set his novel in the Santa Ynez Valley because the area has been his therapeutic getaway for years. "I wrote Sideways out of a really desperate point in my life," he said. "I used to go up there on weekends to escape and play golf, and then I started visiting wineries and really got to know a lot of the winemakers. I'm in another world up there."

Payne, also a wine lover, hadn't visited the valley before accepting the project, but he immersed himself in the local culture by moving into the area during the summer, before filming, and tasting his way around the local wineries. "As much as the movie is a story," Payne said, "I also wanted it to be a postcard to Santa Barbara wine country and the wonderful experience I had living there."

Like his main character, Pickett is a self-professed Pinotphile; he said Sideways pays homage to the "frustrating grape" and its devotees. And as with Miles, it's not always clear if Pickett's just talking about the grape or something much larger. "Sometimes she's not always like you think she's gonna be, and other times she can be so transcendent," he said. "There's just something mysterious about her, something seductive about her."

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