Writer-director Alexander Payne’s quirky film “Sideways” landed on the silver screen about 10 years ago. Merlot was trashed. Pinot noir began its ascendancy. A Saab bit the dust. And as sad sack novelist Miles and his about-to-be-married buddy, Jack, wove their way past country lanes and vineyards, it suddenly dawned on filmgoers that this was not Napa.
“Sideways” put Santa Barbara’s wine country on the map — and won an Oscar, two Golden Globes and American Film Institute movie of the year honors, to boot. So it’s no surprise that the area’s wineries have been celebrating the film’s anniversary all year long with movie screenings, merlot tastings and “Sideways” dinners.
You can join the Sideways Wine Club, follow the #Sideways10 hash tag on Twitter, buy the newly rereleased anniversary edition of the movie or peek at backstage images from the film in wine tasting rooms. Heck, you can even take tours of the “Sideways” sights.
But why would you, when it’s so easy — and fun — to do it yourself?
So, we watched the Blu-ray, downloaded the movie map and uploaded the film’s jazzy soundtrack on Spotify. Then we hit the road, ready to experience just as many of those iconic scenes as we could.
The appealing ones, anyway. Just because Miles coped with literary rejection by guzzling the spit bucket at Fess Parker Winery didn’t mean we had to.
So we snoozed in Solvang, noshed at The Hitching Post, communed with ostriches and sipped our way from winery to winery. And along the way, we learned a few key things: “Sideways” may be 10 years old, but like a fine wine, it has aged exceedingly well. Merlot is fab, no matter what Paul Giamatti’s character says. And using a movie as vacation planning inspiration is, well, inspired.
If you have a full week, by all means explore the entirety of the “Sideways” itinerary, from golf at the Alisal Guest Ranch to sauvignon blanc, chic charcuterie and aboriginal artwork at Kalyra — where Miles and Jack met Stephanie, the flirty tasting room pourer played by Sandra Oh. The movie’s filming locations, which included seven wineries, four bistros and bars, one farmers market and a ranch populated by fuzzy flightless birds, could easily fill a vacation.
Just a weekend? The last decade has seen an explosion of wineries, tasting rooms and wine bars here. So, you could happily stroll and sip the day away and never leave Solvang, where 20 tasting rooms line the oh-so-Danish streets. Stay at the Petersen Village Inn, and you can simply stroll back to that cozy room. Miles and Jack may have stayed at “the Windmill,” the distinctive Days Inn motel in Buellton, but that would involve driving.
Besides, the Petersen is lovely. Breakfast is included — Danishes, of course — and it’s a block away from the Solvang Restaurant, where the “Sideways” duo stopped for breakfast. A takeout window there does a brisk business in jam-drenched, powdered sugar-dusted aebleskiver — ball-shaped Danish pastries — so you can get a post-breakfast sugar rush before planning the rest of your day.
Kalyra lies 3 miles to the east. Charming Los Olivos and its wineries — including Fess Parker or “Frass Canyon,” where Miles drowned his sorrows so memorably — and boutiques lie 5 miles north. And two don’t-miss attractions — OstrichLand and The Hitching Post — sit less than 3 miles to the west.
We weren’t sure what to expect at OstrichLand USA. The fuzzy birds are a passing backdrop in the movie, just one more quirky detail in a quirky film. But it’s not every day that you get to feed ostriches and emus, admission is just $4 and hey, why not? The actual experience is equal parts awe-inspiring and intimidating, hilarious and worrisome.
Ostriches are enormous, for one thing — 350 pounds, 8-9 feet tall and they can run at speeds of 35-45 mph. So, as we walked out on the viewing deck, a bowl of ostrich kibble in our hands, we found ourselves face to face with giant, voraciously hungry birds, standing a mere 3-4 feet below — or racing across the rugged terrain straight at us. And what they wanted was what was in our hands.
We backed up to nervously reread the safety guidelines pinned to the wall, then designated an ostrich feeder (not me) who carefully held out the bowl, retaining a death grip on the long handle. The birds, both the giant ostriches and smaller, fringe-coated emus, were amazing to watch, their faces ridiculously expressive — and they seemed to have mastered the art of the photo bomb, popping up behind someone’s shoulder just as the camera snapped.
Time your foray just right, and you can continue on to The Hitching Post II, which is practically next door. Novelist Rex Pickett hung out in the bar of this classic Santa Maria-style steakhouse while he was writing the book that inspired the movie. And Virginia Madsen, who plays Maya, the Hitching Post waitress, worked in the kitchen and bar before filming began to get the feel of the place, says owner and executive chef Frank Ostini.
It’s the perfect place to end your “Sideways” sojourn, sipping Miles’ favorite pinot noir with a flatiron steak and baked potato — and the full knowledge that you, at least, will not behave badly, lose your wedding ring or (spoiler alert, 10 years late) get your nose broken by Sandra Oh.