But when Alexander Payne optioned the book in late 1999 and Artisan Entertainment green-lit it, the news was trumpeted in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, and I proudly brought up the industry rags and showed them off. See, I crowed, I'm going to make you all famous! Excitement briefly mounted, but then Payne decided to do another film (About Schmidt), Artisan fled the project, and the fever waned. I was just another loser Hollywood scribe up from Sin City to weave stories and drink wine. All those years, this valley, with its cheap motels, inexpensive golf and great, little-known wines, was my only refuge, my only retreat from the indignities of my existence. I dreamed of renting a trailer, playing golf and drinking at the Hitching Post, and just calling it quits. Life wouldn't be so bad, I thought. Then Payne decided that his next movie to follow About Schmidt would be Sideways. With his writing partner Jim Taylor, he started to write the script. I could sense that something significant was building, but I'd been disappointed so many times in the film business. It's never a sure thing until they write the big check, which, in 2003, they finally did.
The Sideways production crew spent the fall of 2003 headquartered out of Buellton, shooting in all the authentic locations that I used in my novel: the Hitching Post II, the Sanford Winery tasting room, the Windmill (now Days) Inn—the rooms so tiny the crew had to tear out a wall and make two rooms into one—and numerous other locations now immortalized in a deluxe Sideways winery map that can be found at every tasting room and hotel in the area. To say that the movie has had an impact here would be an understatement. The Hitching Post's business has boomed. Wineries, both on and off the Sideways map, have seen a threefold increase in their tasting room business. The Days Inn's room rates have tripled. Weekends are a mob scene. After last year's Academy Awards nominations, the Sanford Winery tasting room, a quaint little adobe structure at the end of a dirt road, was inundated with tourists. Additional tasting stations had to be set up and portable rest rooms were trucked in. "It was insane," remembers Chris Burroughs, the tasting room manager who appears in the film and is now a local celebrity.
I decide to take my own little Sideways tour to see for myself just how much things have changed. In the movie, Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen have a somewhat critical exchange about a wine from the Andrew Murray Winery. Even so, when I stop by I see that the winery has greatly benefited from the mention. Fifteen or so people now crowd the tasting room, three times what would normally have been found before Sideways. I casually ask the tasting room manager how business has been since the movie. He brightens. When I then mention that I wrote the book that it was based on, he turns and makes an announcement to the room. Heads whip around, Sideways wine maps and wine purchases—even business cards—are produced for me to autograph. Digital cameras appear. Ten years ago I could have shambled into this room, sipped in silence, and left. Now I am mobbed, a veritable celebrity.
The same thing happens to me at Longoria Winery's tasting room. I escape around the corner to Patrick's Side Street Café—one of the main watering holes for the movie's cast and crew. The affable Patrick Rand seems delighted to see me. It's been almost two years. He's just wrapping up lunch, and his staff is prepping for dinner. He pours me half a glass of viognier, we reminisce, and I promise to return for dinner. Next it's down to the Ballard Inn, in the even tinier town of Ballard, where I plan to stay in a couple of days. A charming two-story Victorian with a terrific restaurant and a skilled new chef, they're—you guessed it—conducting wine tastings. I sense a little Sideways avarice when I belly up to the tasting bar, because I don't ever remember the Ballard Inn doing wine tastings before. Then it's off to the Hitching Post.
Among local establishments, the Hitching Post II—the original is in Casmalia—and its owner, the ubiquitous, pith-helmeted Frank Ostini, have profited the most from Sideways. It's here that Miles and Jack meet Maya and have a drink with her after dinner. It's here that Miles waxes on about the house pinot noirs. And it was absolute gold for the restaurant when the film took off and became that rarity in Hollywood: an indie film with no real stars that crossed over into the mainstream and stole the hearts of wine lovers—and those who vowed to become wine lovers afterward—forever.