In his latest movie, Sideways, scheduled to open in theaters in October, director Alexander Payne (Election; About Schmidt) explores the tragicomedy of midlife set against the striking backdrop of Santa Ynez Valley in California's Santa Barbara County. Based on the novel by Rex Pickett, the film follows two buddies—Miles (played by Paul Giamatti), a struggling writer and Pinot Noir fanatic, and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a has-been actor and wine ignoramus—through a weeklong wine-tasting trip, a last hurrah before Jack gets married. The movie features well-known wineries such as Au Bon Climat, Foxen, Sanford and Sea Smoke. Payne, a newly converted fan of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, was interviewed by Wine Spectator Online assistant editor Nick Fauchald.
Wine Spectator: How did you first get interested in wine?
Alexander Payne: In the early '90s, before I made my first feature, one of my creative outlets was cooking. The more I cooked, the more I found out about pairing wine with food. Then, when I got the check for my very first movie deal, I dedicated about $5,000 to buying wine. I bought a lot of '88, '89 and '90 Bordeaux and '85, '87 and '88 California Cabernet. The specific bottle that turned me on to wine was an '88 Sassicaia. When I tasted it, I said, "I didn't know wine could do this." I actually used that wine in the film: It's the same bottle that turns Virginia Madsen's character on to wine. When I cast her for the role, I gave her a bottle so she could experience it for herself.
WS: Did working on the film give you the Pinot Noir bug?
AP: Curiously, I hadn't approached Pinot Noir much before the film, but I moved to Santa Ynez Valley during the summer before filming to scout locations and tasted at almost every winery in Santa Barbara County. I came to really enjoy the Pinot Noir and Syrah, especially the younger wines.
WS: What perception did you get of Santa Barbara while scouting locations?
AP: Santa Barbara County isn't quite like Napa or Sonoma, where each winery aspires to some type of grandeur. There's a wide range of wineries there, from the smaller ones like Foxen and Sanford to larger, more touristy wineries like Firestone and Fess Parker. As much as the movie is a story, I also wanted it to be a postcard of Santa Barbara wine country.
WS: Are there any challenges unique to filming in wine country?
AP: The biggest challenge was making sure grapes were still on the vines. We didn't start shooting until late September, and the harvest was early that year. We actually paid Firestone not to pick two rows of grapes so we could film a scene among the vines. The upside is that we got some fantastic footage of pickers working in the vineyards.