Revisiting 'Sideways' with Alexander Payne and Virginia Madsen on Its 10th Anniversary

Revisiting 'Sideways' with Alexander Payne and Virginia Madsen on Its 10th Anniversary

Oct 08, 2014

Director-cowriter Alexander Payne didn't intend to start a wine revolution in America by adapting Rex Pickett's book into 2004's Sideways, but we bet you haven't looked at a bottle of merlot the same way since. The acclaimed film about two middle-aged friends, Miles and Jack (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church, respectively), who make a road trip to the Santa Ynez Valley wine country north of Santa Barbara, California and wrestle with their shortcomings, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay thanks to its richly drawn characters.

To toast Sideways' lingering impact on wine culture, a special screening took place on Sunday at Santa Barbara's historic Arlington Theatre, where the film had its premiere 10 years earlier. "I liked wine, but I didn't know about wine very much," said Payne (pictured below with Virginia Madsen) during a Q&A that followed the screening. "But those characters and those pathetic misadventures appealed to me very much. If the film has any virtues, it's that it's human. A lot of people find recognition in there."

Virginia Madsen, who played oenophile waitress Maya and the object of Miles' affection, won nine industry awards for the role and was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Golden Globe. "It changed my life," says Madsen of Sideways. The actress still spends a lot of time in the region and genuinely appreciates the affection people have for her character and the area. "The essence of the place will always remain the same because of the people who are here. The people who live [in Santa Barbara] and all the way up the Santa Ynez Valley have a certain character and closeness. They are very protective of their home, and they honor and cherish it. It's wonderful when you think of the tremendous success that poured into this area… for lack of a better term!"

The Sideways aftershock was felt most by the businesses featured in the movie during the 10 weeks of shooting. The Hitching Post II, where Maya worked as a waitress, used to sell about 4,000 cases annually of its Highliner wine until the movie came out and the new popularity of pinot noir spiked sales to over 15,000 cases a year. In Sideways, Miles and Jack also stop at the winery Foxen, which is featured even more prominently in the book. They only do a tasting at Foxen's famous tasting shack in remote wine country on-screen, but the popularity of the movie prompted the winery to expand and build a larger facility down the road to keep up with demand. Suddenly tourists of all ages were flooding into the Santa Ynez Valley and following an official Sideways map that guides visitors to all of Miles and Jack's stops—not just the wineries, but also the bizarre Ostrich Land farm and the quirky Danish village of Solvang.

Sideways even had an unintentional adverse effect on the public's perception of merlot, since Miles rants outside the Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café, "If anyone orders any merlot I am leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing merlot!" Nielsen data shows that merlot had a 15% market share in 2004, and has since dropped to 10%. "The merlot joke was just a joke," says Payne. "I like merlot!" Madsen adds, "People in Napa will send me letters. They want me to make up for it."

Pickett wrote a follow-up adventure featuring Miles and Jack published in 2011 called Vertical, but you should put a cork in the idea of Payne making a Sideways sequel.  "I couldn't quite see trying to step in the same river twice," says Payne. "It just seemed like I was going to leave well enough alone."

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Fox Searchlight just released a special Blu-ray edition of Sideways, which includes a digital copy for your portable devices so you can take the movie with you as you visit the Santa Ynez Valley and walk in the characters' footsteps. The Blu-ray also contains instructions about how to enter "The Ultimate Sideways Sweepstakes" for a chance to win a seven-day experience in Santa Barbara wine country. It all sounds intoxicating... just like the movie that has aged like a fine 2003 Highliner pinot noir over the past decade.

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