Not long ago, Chris Burroughs heard visitors to his tasting room repeating the same comments. They pondered "thin-skinned pinot noir." "I'm not drinking any bleeping merlot," they muttered.
They were, of course, quoting "Sideways," the wine movie that scored two Golden Globes earlier this week and is now eyeing Oscar.
Burroughs knows these lines ever so well. You know that scene, early in the film, in which Miles (Paul Giamatti) instructs his buddy Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) how to taste wine? Remember the guy in the cowboy hat and vest standing by?
That was Burroughs. He really is the tasting room manager at Sanford Winery, in Buellton, Calif., and that really is his tasting room on screen.
The wine they were trying -- Sanford's vin gris, a rosé made from pinot noir -- is now sold out. And when the recent floods haven't shut down Highway 101, a growing stream of visitors are showing up at Sanford and other wineries that made cameos in the film.
Unlike the wine malls of Napa, most operations in Santa Barbara wine country, some two hours north of Los Angeles, aren't set up to handle hordes of tourists. "If we have more than a dozen or so people in there at one time," Burroughs says, "it gets a little chaotic."
They may have to get used to it. Many movies inspire fans to visit locations they see on screen, but only a small handful -- I'm thinking here of how "Field of Dreams" transformed Dyersville, Iowa, and how "Amélie" magnified the appeal of Paris' Montmartre -- have made the scenery such a compelling, trip-worthy player in the film.
"Sideways" is on that list too. Director Alexander Payne hatched a compelling combination: a road-trip movie that exults in its destinations, and a reliance on real-world locations that already had a following in the wine world. Author Rex Pickett, whose novel was turned into the "Sideways" script, also gets credit. His frequent trips to the Santa Ynez Valley and the rest of Santa Barbara wine country, where over 60 wineries run tasting rooms, resulted in many of the area's most luminous locations woven into his book.
Mapping the movieThe area got another boost when Fox Searchlight Pictures, working with the Santa Barbera Conference & Visitors Bureau, devised a quirky map outlining a sort of "Sideways" wine tour, listing many sites and their appearance in the film -- from the Days Inn Buellton (that windmill hotel) to a farmers' market in nearby Lompoc where Miles and would-be love interest Maya (Virginia Madsen) take a stroll.
About 10,000 copies of the map were printed last October prior to the movie's L.A. premiere. By its national release Thanksgiving weekend, all were gone.
Cars and tour buses have been showing up with increasing frequency ever since. LearnAboutWine, a Santa Monica, Calif., firm that organizes wine tours, has organized a $129 bus tour this weekend -- including a tasting with Burroughs and lunch at the Hitching Post II, the real restaurant where the fictional Maya worked a waitress.
Throughout the valley, the film has boosted bottom lines. Sanford sold 50 percent more pinot noir in December than a year earlier. Business at the Hitching Post is up 20 percent. Even at Fess Parker Winery (which showed up in the film, not charitably, as Frass Canyon), visitors are requesting "Sideways" maps.
"It's a gift from the p.r. gods," says Shannon Turner Brooks, the bureau's communication manager.
'You're still going to get the slobs'The movie's impact on the wine business is being felt well beyond California coast. Retailers nationwide are starting to hear the film referenced in their aisles. Both the New York Times and Boston Globe recently reported on surges in sales of pinot noir, all traced back to "Sideways."
Winebid.com, which auctions rare and hard-to-find bottlings, has begun offering a collection of wines featured in the movie -- from Sea Smoke Cellars 2002 Botella pinot noir to Miles' treasured 1961 Cheval Blanc. (Bids for the Cheval Blanc start at $750.)
If there's a net benefit from all this, says Firestone Winery president Adam Firestone, it will be that the film's dynamic -- finding the balance between a haughty, socially inept wine snob and his type-A, chug-a-lug pal -- resonates with drinkers who want to expand their palates without becoming a pain in the butt.
"We're still going to have our wine geeks who come in here," says Firestone, whose Los Olivos winery appeared in the film. "And you're still going to get the slobs who are dumb to the whole process. But it will build the whole part in the middle that says, 'Hey, this is interesting.'"
That said, a trickle of fame can easily become a torrent. Most area wineries have just a handful of employees. Many realize that a quick rush of publicity from the film may not help come next year's vintage.
"I just tell everybody, 'Let's just keep our feet on the ground. There's just a lot of hype around here right now,'" says Frank Ostini, the Hitching Post's owner and winemaker.
Nutty Edam cheese?Ostini produced just 350 cases of his $48 Highliner pinot noir in 2001 and 2002, but prior to "Sideways," many customers opted for his less expensive single-vineyard wines. Now the top-notch cuvée offering, which Miles orders by name in the film, is flying out of the rack. Ostini won't say what his bottling run will be this year, "but it's going to be more, way more."
Yet Ostini also worried about the film's underside: how Miles' wine fancy serves as a smokescreen for his own alienation and alcoholism. In one scene, Miles essentially closes down the Hitching Post after sucking down a good share of their pinot, then stumbles back toward his motel. (In reality, it's a mile-long walk.) Payne had to convince Ostini the tone didn't reflect poorly on his restaurant -- and it doesn't, if you see the film -- before shooting began.
While he expects a quick rush of grape-minded stargazers, Ostini is more interested in building repeat business for his 52-year-old restaurant. He's not planning expansion, at least not yet: "We take reservations for dinner, and we book to full, and that's it."
One last thing, from Chris Burroughs. Miles' unforgettable tasting of Sanford vin gris -- strawberry and citrus and maybe even a hint of passion fruit. Sure. But a soupçon of asparagus and a flutter of nutty Edam cheese?
"Deliberately over the top," Burroughs says. "I have yet, in real life, to encounter those adjectives for that specific wine."