The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

'Sideways': 10 years later, hit film still makes waves in Santa Ynez Valley economy

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Ten years after the premiere of “Sideways,” the region where the film is set continues to feel its impact. 

The independent movie about two middle-aged men drinking and misbehaving their way through Santa Barbara wine country opened in limited release in October 2004 and went on to became a surprise hit, grossing more than $71 million at the box office. It was also a boon to the then fledgling winemaking industry in the Santa Ynez Valley and a boost to tourism in the region.  

“Agriculture and tourism are really two of the big industries that are still important in Santa Barbara and the Central Coast, and wineries live right in the middle of those two,” says Josh Williams, president of Carlsbad-based BW Research, which studies the job market for the Santa Barbara County Workforce Investment Board.  

Williams says his research shows the number of jobs in wineries in Santa Barbara County has grown from about 950 in 2005 to nearly 1,400 today. That's huge growth compared to other industry sectors in the county, says Williams, who adds that winery jobs are good jobs. 

"While tourism and agriculture tend to be low-wage paying industries, wineries pay anywhere from 30 to 50 percent more than the average tourism job pays," says Williams. 

Even though the sector tends to generate lower-wage jobs, there’s no denying the residual effect of increased tourism. It can be the tide that lifts all boats, bringing added customers to nearby retailers, hotels and other enterprises. 

Many tourists follow the movie’s wine-tasting path through the region and decide to let someone else do the driving. That has meant opportunity for Eric John Reynolds, who started Stage Coach Wine Tours in 2001 with just a couple of vans. Now he has seven vehicles and employs seven drivers, or "tour hosts," and he says he's upped his game to stay on top of the competition.

"It’s now sort of like a prerequisite for my people to have an entry-level sommelier certificate" Reynolds says. 

Breakthrough Recognition

One economic barrier the film clearly broke through was the region’s lack of recognition. “I thought that all the wine came from Sonoma and Napa, so I didn’t even know this area was a big wine area," says Lisa Carle of Scotch Plains, N.J. Recently she stopped to take pictures with her boyfriend by the Hitching Post II restaurant and bar in Buellton. More than a decade after the film’s release, they were on a mission to drink wine and see sites from "Sideways."

"I remember Miles drank a whole bottle of wine here by himself," says Carle, referring to the "Sideways" character played by Paul Giamatti, whose reflections and tantrums made Pinot Noir popular and Merlot passé.   "It made me appreciate this area of the country more," Carle said of the film.

Not many people knew the wine being cultivated and produced in Santa Barbara County was of such high quality, but "Sideways" changed that, too. When consumers came looking for it, in places like Buellton, Solvang and Los Olivos, winemakers like Norm Yost were caught off guard by the sudden fame, but they were ready with a good product.  

"When the movie was released after the fall of 2004, what happened here in Santa Ynez Valley was quite surprising," says Yost, who founded Flying Goat Cellars in Lompoc in 2000.  "People came in the wine area up here [before],  but I don’t think they were really aware of what was going on, and 'Sideways' really opened  up the door to California and the world." 

Yost began making his own Pinot Noir in Lompoc four years before "Sideways" put the town and its wine on the map. He started small by himself, producing about 500 cases a year. After "Sideways," that jumped to 1,200 cases, and his winery doesn't even appear in the film. Today, Flying Goat has five employees and a tasting room and makes about 3,500 cases a year.

From 'Wine Ghetto' to 'Wine Mecca'

In 2002, Kate Griffith moved to Lompoc to work in the city's economic development department. Back then, tourists visited Lompoc to look at art and flower fields, Griffith says. The city's hotels mainly serviced nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base during the week, but were less full on weekends.

Griffith learned that a small handful of wineries were based in an industrial park known affectionately as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. The name embraced the non-glamorous side of wine-making: "the antithesis of any kind of chateau," says Griffith.  

In the fall of 2005, a year after the release of "Sideways," Palmina was the first winery to open a tasting room in the "ghetto." Today, there are at least 24 tasting rooms in Lompoc, and Griffith says the hotels do marketing tie-ins to wine tasting tourists.

"Once this movie came along, and we had people all over the world recognizing the Central Coast, Santa Barbara County and Santa Rita Hills in particular [were] producing phenomenal wines, it was easier to  go out and promote the city of Lompoc," says Griffith, who eventually married Norm Yost and became co-proprietor of Flying Goat Cellars. "The real name we should be embracing now is the 'Lompoc Wine Mecca.'"  

Tom Pirko, managing director of the beverage consulting firm BevMark says "Sideways" hit a nerve at a time when Americans were ready to take their wine drinking to another level. He compares the movie's release and success to another historic event in the world of wine: the 1976 wine tasting often called the Judgment of Paris, where California wines bested bottles from Bordeaux and Burgundy. 

"What we really have is an industry that found its way because of a little movie, and Pinot Noir almost is synonymous in many people’s minds with red wine," Pirko says. 

Because of its proximity to the ocean, the Santa Ynez Valley has the elements to  grow Pinot Noir grapes: cool temperatures, fog, ocean breezes and rich soil. As the "Sideways" character Miles explains: "It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, it ripens early. ... It’s not a survivor, like Cabernet." 

Boom time for wineries

The Santa Barbara County Vintners Association says that, 10 years ago, it counted 75 member wineries. Today, that number is almost double, and the association believes there are at least a hundred more wineries in the area that aren’t members. Very few wineries in the area had tasting rooms 10 years ago; now there are at least 35 in the city of Los Olivos alone. 

The Hitching Post II is now offering a "Sideways" 10-year anniversary Pinot Noir flight and serving the Pinot it was bottling back in 2003, while "Sideways" was filming. Owner, chef and winemaker Frank Ostini started making wine for his family’s restaurant in the late 1970s. Every aspect of his business expanded after the film's release. The already successful restaurant saw a 40 percent jump in traffic, with many customers lining up before the place even opens in the late afternoon. Ostini had to hire another 20 people. 

"I always told my staff the movie would come and go, so we better do everything right here," says Ostini. "But in the end, the movie will outlive us all."

The Hitching Post's wine production has grown from 3,000 cases a year, pre-Sideways, to 22,000 per year today. It now produces its wines at the Terravant Wine Co. in Buellton, a modern facility that opened six years ago and serves dozens of wineries with grape-crushing, bottling and label development. 

"That company wouldn't have existed except that 'Sideways' came here," Ostini says. 

In good times and bad

But even riding the "Sideways" wave of popularity, the local wine industry wasn’t immune to the recession. Rideau Vineyard in Solvang increased case production and added employees, but owner Iris Rideau says she had to cut back and get creative when times got tough.

"After the recession set in and we were all growing exponentially as a result of 'Sideways,' I had more wine in the winery than I needed to bottle," Rideau says.

She started selling her bulk wine straight from a tasting room tap in growlers like some craft breweries. Wine people would just call them jugs.

"It’s been phenonomenal," Rideau says, laughing. "People come back with three and four empty growlers in their hand."

Economist Kenneth Harwood with the Solvang Chamber of Commerce says the lasting impact of "Sideways" carried the region through the darkest days of the recession.

"'Sideways' was affecting this valley just at the very worst time economically and helped to save it," Harwood says. 

In 2007, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, which already owned a casino resort in the region, took over the Royal Scandinavian hotel in Solvang, remodeled it and rebranded it with a wine theme, calling it Hotel Corque.  

"The Chumash stripped that down to its bare bones, and they did that blessedly during the recession, and it provided jobs here, and it has since," says Harwood, the economist.

Adding insult to flattery

Of course, one of the most remembered scenes in "Sideways" was a huge smack at Merlot, which was very popular at the time. Giamatti's Miles character dramatically refused to drink "any [expletive] Merlot," even to impress dates. So what happened to the much maligned Merlot?

The answer turned out to be complicated, as a 2008 working paper for the American Association of Wine Economists pointed out:

While it is difficult to attribute any change in the growth rate of case volume to the movie, we do observe relative growth of Pinot Noir and a stagnant and even declining growth in case volume of Merlot since 2004. 

You certainly won’t find Hitching Post owner and winemaker Frank Ostini discrediting Merlot as a wine varietal. His winery bottled a Merlot the same year the movie was released. 

"Despite what Miles said, Merlot is compelling and wonderful wine here in Santa Barbara, different from Napa Valley, and it’s different from anywhere else in the world." Ostini says, standing over a vat of Merlot grapes at the Terravant wine facility. "So we’re proud of it." 

Before "Sideways," he says, Pinot Noir was a hard sell, but he didn’t give up, and he’s not giving up on Merlot.   

Map and Guide to "Sideways" locations - published by "Visit Santa Barbara" (See a larger image here)

Map and Guide to "Sideways" Locations

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