The Wandering Wino Blog

Rex Pickett


The Sideways novel and film are arguably the most impactful wine entertainment in today's pop culture, and certainly for Santa Barbara County. Talking with Rex Pickett the author of the book, "Sideways" on his view of the impact of the film. 



Q - Could you share a bit about the varietals Pinot Noir and Merlot in relation to the characters in your novel Sideways?

"At the time that I wrote Sideways Pinot Noir was a semi-obscure grape variety coveted by wine geeks who spoke of Burgundy and Sonoma’s Russian River in rhapsodic terms.  I, who knew little about wine, was drawn to this particular passion.  It’s the same way I have always approached literature and film -- my two other passions -- I go where the really interesting people go, the really intelligent people go, I don’t follow the masses, I don’t read commercial fiction, I despise the low-common denominator sensibility of the hoi polloi.  That’s not the way to expand your consciousness, or to open new neural pathways into aesthetical awareness.  To me, wine is no different than literature and cinema when it comes to developing an aesthetic sensibility."

"Merlot, to me, to the wine geeks I was hanging out with at the time, was just the opposite.  By ’98 when I wrote Sideways -- Petrus and Duckhorn and others excepted -- Merlot had become a flavorless, mass market swill that dominated almost 20% of the red wine market, largely because consumers believed in the French Paradox and wanted to find the Fountain of Youth by drinking red wine to cut their cholesterol, so they quickly gravitated to the least demanding, the least challenging of red wine grapes, and the industry, in their greed to satisfy this demand, started mechanize farming it, cultivating it in poor soils, and, in the process, vitiated what, in France, is a noble grape.  To me, and to others who took wine seriously, it was not about snobbery, Merlot was about philistinism, about the absence of taste.  To like Merlot back then was to argue that Leroy Neiman is an artist or Judd Apatow makes enduring movies."

"Miles (me) was written in the first person.  Among his many flaws he is an intellectual, a seeker of that which best expresses the human condition in all art forms.  He is an aesthete, but not a snob (that, unfortunately, came out a little in the movie, but it’s not true; I despise snobbery).  Jack is a great guy, a great friend, and someone who has no real taste in literature or film or art, so naturally he drinks what the average person drank back then:  Merlot.  Until, with Stephanie (Terra in the novel and the play), he gets a taste of something radically different.  And it rocks his world, the way Pinot Noir rocked my world when I first became infatuated with it."


Pinot Noir


Q - What is your opinion of the consumer Pinot/Merlot view before the book/film, and did it adjust after the movie? 

"Of course it adjusted.  Depending on who you read for your facts, Pinot exploded from 1% of the red wine market to 5%-8%, even though only about 2% of the grapes planted in the world are Pinot Noir.  Merlot plummeted to under 10%.  And they deserved the hit, the ignominy, for what they did to the grape to meet the demand of the undemanding masses.  So many charlatan vintners were trying to cash in on the grape’s popularity and were making it cheaper and cheaper, and increasingly more insipid as a result.  Thus, Miles’s infamous remark was nothing less than what was on any serious wine geek’s lips at the time.  On the other hand, after the movie came out, a lot of bad Pinot started hitting the market, as a whole new greed set in -- I won’t mention names of people or so-called wineries, but I think we all know who I’m talking about."



Q - Why did you select the Santa Barbara County wine country as the setting for your novel?

"I’ve told this story many times.  You can read all about it on a 7-part blog I wrote on In short, my life sucked in ’90, I got back into the game of golf, which I was once very good at it, L.A. was a horrible place to play if you weren’t wealthy, so I started venturing north, finally landed at La Purisima Golf Course, a great course, uncrowded, started staying overnight at, yes, the Windmill Inn ... I found the place uncrowded, an inexpensive getaway from my life in L.A.  Then, I discovered it was wine country.  One day I brought up a friend of mine named Roy Gittens and we went wine tasting and golfing and the rest is history.  Writers are like thieves; they’re always working.  That’s the short answer.  The very long answer is on under blogs."

Q - Tell us about any general styles or philosophies you may have on wine?

"I hate snobbery.  Everyone -- well, not everyone -- can develop a literary or film sensibility because it’s affordable to all.  Wine isn’t like that.  Unless you’re a prominent critic or work in the wine world or have great connections you’d better have deep pockets.  Wine appreciation can easily be hijacked and controlled by snobbery because if someone can afford those rare Burgundies and you can’t they’re going to have the opportunity to develop a palate and you’re not.  I abhor that about wine.  It shouldn’t be about money, but, sadly, like so many things in life, it is."

Q - Do you believe there were any changes to Santa Barbara or the wine industry following the release of "Sideways?" 

"Is this a facetious question?  The changes were huge!"  

"One only has to be in my shoes to know that the movie meant everything to the wine world, especially Santa Barbara County."  




Q - Do you have any special places you like to visit in Santa Barbara?

"I still love La Purisima Golf Course, and I like Foxen Winery."  



Q - Can you name any favorite wineries in Santa Barbara County?

"Foxen.  Brewer-Clifton.  Longoria.  Cold Heaven.  Loring.  Clos Pepe.  There’re probably others."  

Q - What do you think the locals think about the films impact to the area?

"A man who runs a little grocery store in Buellton, when he learned I had written Sideways, scrambled out from behind the cash register and hugged me, thanked me profusely for all the movie had done for the region."

"One example:  in the ‘90s, when I was sojourning there frequently, there were 3 tasting rooms in Los Olivos for the longest time.  Now, there are, what?  45?  50?  And that was going to happen without the movie?"

Q - Do you think the film impacted the number of tasting rooms opening, and why?

"Tasting rooms, wine bars, you name it, it exploded all over the world because of the movie.  Before the movie came out there were less than 20 so-called wine bars in Manhattan.  Now, there are over 100.  That wasn’t going to happen without a movie, now, according to many, a beloved cult movie.  And, again, look at Los Olivos!  Why not just rename the damn hamlet Los Tasting Rooms!  Get rid of that stupid jingoistic American flag in the middle of the main intersection and erect a 30-foot tall statue of Miles (Paul Giamatti) drinking from the spit bucket.  I’m sure Franzia would sell the County plenty of Two Buck Upchuck for the continuous fountain of red needed to keep it operational 24/7."

Q - Do you believe todays Santa Barbara wine country would be different in some way without Sideways, and if so, how?

"Without Sideways Santa Barbara County would have slowly grown, would have prospered, but they wouldn’t be the wine region they are today if it were not for the movie.  That’s just a fact."

Q - What is the most over asked question you hear about Sideways? 

"Anything that has to do with Merlot.  Funny story:  I was talking to a journalist and he was telling me he recently interviewed Paul Giamatti.  He said that Giamatti told him that when he goes out to eat, invariably some knucklehead will order a bottle of Merlot and send it to his table as a joke.  At first, he tried to be polite and appreciative, then it just got down right annoying, then embarrassing, then infuriating.  I feel his pain.  Again, this was told to me by a journalist who interviewed Paul, so I don’t want to attribute anything third-hand that Paul said, but I can imagine it’s happened given that I’m asked that question all the time -- hell, look at your first two questions -- T-shirts and mugs that have I’m not drinking any f#%@ing Merlot are all over the Internet.  It just goes with the territory, I guess."

Q - Tell me about Sideways the play.

"The play is one of my greatest creative joys.  I was promoting my Sideway sequel Vertical at a huge Pinot Noir tasting called Pinot Days at the Barker Hanger at the Santa Monica Airport.  Across the street is a small 50-seat, non-Equity theater called Ruskin Group Theater.  A young man from the theater wandered over to the tasting, came up to my booth, we started chatting, he said he was connected with the theater across the street and wondered if I had ever thought about doing a play version of Sideways.  That was January 2011."

"It’s a long story, but eventually I said yes.  With the folks at Ruskin Group Theater we developed the play, which is based on my novel, and not the film, for legal and creative reasons.  It opened in May, 2012.  3 performances a week.  With a woman in Sonoma named Barbara Drady I managed to have high-end Pinot producers pour every performance.  For free.  We sold out for 6 months.  We poured almost $100,000 worth of wine at retail in beautiful Pinot Noir-specific stemware.  For free!  As much as you wanted!"

"For me, the play was redemption.  I saw a lot of people make a lot of money off a story I created from nothing, when my life was in the shitcan, when I had nothing.  I made a lot of bad decisions, which I don’t want to get into.  The play not only was a huge success, not only did it win awards, but it proved to me the power of the brand.  Yes, the brand.  Sideways is a brand.  If I say that word, anywhere -- restaurnats, bars, casual encounters, etc. -- 95% of the time there is instant recognition.  Say the director’s name, my name, the actors’ names, the names of the characters and people look at you dumbfounded.  Say Sideways and it’s instant recognition.  It’s a huge brand."

"Once I realized it was a hit, without leaving my couch I got in touch with Des McAnuff, the former artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, winner of 3 Tony Awards, most recently for the smash musical Jersey Boys.  The La Jolla Playhouse is on the campus of UCSD, my alma mater.  My papers were recently donated to their Geisel Library, arranged and processed into what is now my official archive.  Selections of my manuscripts, including early drafts of Sideways, were on display during the running of the play.  The play went up at the Potiker Theater in June 2013, less than a year after it had closed at Ruskin.  It was the La Jolla Playhouse’s most successful non-musical in their 30-year august history, was extended twice, ran 8 performances a week and sold out almost every night.  20,000 patrons saw it and laughed their asses off.  What a dopamine rush."

"Doing the play and getting the respect a writer deserves -- that I did not get from the movie as so many moved in to hog the spotlight and make fraudulent claims from saying they did this or that, came up with the idea, the title, you name it -- I found redemptive, even cathartic.  With the play, in theater, the writer is king.  They respect the written word.  It was redemption for me, pure and simple. And for the audiences it was a way to experience a much-beloved movie that can now only be watched on DVD with a small audience.  And it’s the same movie over and over, right down to every single cut.  The play, by contrast, is different every night.  And it will be different in every different venue where it will one day, hopefully, entertain fans of Sideways -- different Miles’s, different Maya’s ..."

"The play now goes to London’s West End.  It was, and continues to be, the single most rewarding creative experience of my life, bar none."

Q - Can you share a bit about Sideways 3?

"Sideways 3 Chile was a lark.  Through Twitter I met a culture rep in Santiago who wondered what would happen if my two iconic characters came to Chile and explored their amazing 12 very distinct wine regions.  I was intrigued.  I said that in order to write a novel I would have to journey there.  He made it possible.  I wrote a novel."


 Disclosure, some of Rex's responses had portions I elected to reduce in size or omit.