I arrive there in the early evening and I've never seen anything like the scene inside. One year after the release of the movie and they can't stem the tide of Sideways fans. Thirsty crowds swarm in and jockey for position at the bar. Frank and his wine-business partner, Gray Hartley, tell me with eyes lit up like slot machines that since the release of the movie it's sometimes four deep at the bar. It's impossible to get reservations. I thought things might have died down since the film came out on DVD, but evidently not. Last summer it kept cresting, night after night. The locals complained that their Monday night hamburger and glass of wine was a thing of the past. The owners are all grateful for the free publicity, but they also privately lament that their world has been changed. For how long, no one knows, but a recent poll of several thousand Brits revealed that, because of Sideways, one in seven adults—in England!—now want to visit California wine country. And I'm assuming less than half of those polled actually saw the movie. But then again, fans of Field of Dreams flocked for years to an Iowa farm to see that baseball diamond hewn out of a cornfield and buy T-shirts. At least in following the Sideways dream, they can play golf, eat great food, imbibe great wines and marvel at the scenery.
It's all overwhelming. The next day, I hightail it out of Ballard and get back to La Purisima.
The fifteenth at La Purisima is one of my favorite holes in all of golf. On a windy day (which is nearly every day), it begins a stretch of four holes that may be one of the most punishing finishes in all of California. Number sixteen from the tips plays 436 yards straight into the teeth of the wind to a green that is guarded left, right and back by more dense scrub oak. I've laid up on my second shot there just because I was too terrified to hit a long iron into that green. Number seventeen is a relatively short downhill par three and an almost impossible club selection. It's so ridiculously hard when the wind is blowing that I've seen assistant pros rip their scorecards up after putting multiple shots over the fence and out onto Highway 246. And eighteen is another demanding par four dead into the wind.
The fifteenth itself is a serpentine par five with a tee box cloaked in a shroud of oak. The tee shot is really a layup for good players because the big dog can take them all the way into the yawning canyon that demarcates the first fairway from the second. When you ride out to the fairway on fifteen, you exit the canyon and the whole course opens up like a Monet landscape. Here at this high point, there is a view of Lompoc and the Pacific in the distance. I've experienced some late afternoons where a low-rolling phalanx of fog moved in so quickly off the frigid waters that by number sixteen I was so engulfed that I had to pick up and go in. Usually, however, I find myself bracing against a three-club wind debating my second shot, also a layup. Yes, it's a two-layup par five, and it's one of the best holes I know.
Whenever I bring someone up to La Purisima, when we get out to the fifteenth I announce that this fairway is where I'd like my ashes strewn. It's that special to me.
It's time to head to my next stop. i drive the long, lonely stretch of 246 back to Buellton as the sun is snuffed out in my rearview mirror. I ride by the Days Inn where Miles and Jack were encamped and where I would normally turn in. A mile later I pass the Hitching Post. The parking lot is jammed with cars, and more are braking to pull in. I try to imagine the three nights that a film crew of two hundred descended on this small watering hole and unwittingly immortalized it. All because I wrote a book.
I continue on through the kitschy town of Solvang and hang a right to the Alisal Guest Ranch, a ten-thousand-acre working ranch and resort. The rates for one night equal my monthly rent back in the nineties when I was writing Sideways. Life, I'm reminded, is now a little easier. Over the next few days I stay here and eat and golf—and drink wine, of course—at some of the best places the valley has to offer (see sidebar, page tk), places that I wouldn't have been able to afford before the movie. I'll reminisce with old friends, get toasted at tasting rooms, have my picture taken numerous times, and all the while feel like some archetypal war hero returning home after a triumphant conquest.
Ultimately, though, I can't resist spending the final night at the Days—formerly Windmill—Inn. When the time comes, the desk clerk doesn't recognize my name. I'm somewhat dismayed by the rate, but everyone is cashing in on the movie, so why not Days Inn?I lumber to my room and plop down on the bed. Same old back-aching mattress. Same old theft-proof shower nozzle. Yep, same sinus-desiccating air conditioner. Itching for a drink, I amble over to the Clubhouse Bar.
They shot a big scene between Miles and Jack in this tacky place and now it, too, is mobbed, but I remember back when you could go in and find yourself all alone with a bartender who wished he had another job. I order a glass of bad red wine—that much hasn't changed—and sit alone with my thoughts. It's been a great week; it's great to be recognized, and it's great to have your efforts amply rewarded. But something saddens me just the same.
Two young couples come in and take a seat at the bar. I overhear one of them mention Sideways and, wrenched from my reveries, look up from my wine. One of the guys is telling his friends that this is exactly where Jack and Miles sat when the former told the latter that he was thinking of calling off his wedding. I'm tempted to tell them that the guy who wrote that scene is sitting next to them, but I'm afraid all hell will break loose. So I smile slyly to myself and remain silent. I've come full circle, and nothing has changed—though, of course, everything has.