It’s an Oscar-winning look at male friendship. But it’s also about drinking wine. Lots and lots of wine. David Whitehouse lines his stomach and heads for the Californian vineyards
You know a good friend is a best friend when you’re only ever as far away from hugging them as you are from punching them in the face. Many bottles of wine will decide which way this one goes. James and I leave the Hotel Oceana, Santa Barbara, California, intent on reliving the journey taken by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in the film Sideways. The petty bickering, midlife existential despair and random sexual encounters are of course optional – we’re here to enjoy the wine. But some things, it transpires, aren’t up to us to decide.
To drive north on Highway 101 is to get an idea of the kind of landscape God might use as a hammock. Beaches become mountains become the huge golden expanse of the Santa Ynez Valley. Unique microclimates tend the grapes, making for some of the best wine in the world. We pull into Alma Rosa Winery, already burdened with hangovers that could fell a bullock.
It’s here that Miles (Giamatti) teaches Jack (Church) how to taste wine, to look, smell and savour its infinite intricacies. I get through five delicious pinots without identifying a single ingredient. Not that I tell that to talismanic tasting-room manager Chris Burroughs, who appeared in the film.
I try to hide the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about by whispering words such as “fennel” and “oaky”.
STRANGER THAN FICTION
“You know it’s a fantasy, right?” Burroughs says, gesturing all around him, past beautiful vineyards planted straight as war graves.
“Sideways. It’s a wonderful fantasy. But then two guys come up here, think they’ll drink loads of great wine and go home with a beautiful waitress, like in the movie. A fantasy. Ain’t gonna happen.” We’re here for the grape and only the grape, we lie to ourselves.
A tone is set. The next few days are suspended in the amber of a warm, wine drinking fug, perfect sunshine making the hours bleed vaguely into the next. We check into the Hamlet Inn, Solvang. Solvang is a wonderful curiosity of a town. Everything is Denmark-themed. Restaurant staff wear traditional Danish dress. There are more windmills than phone booths. Everything somehow involves dough. If you lived here, you’d drink wine too. It helps it to make sense.
We spend the evening in a local bar, where more wine makes hard work of the residual jetlag. Typical of small-town America, everyone is friendly and assumes that, because we’re British, we’re more intelligent than we are. We get talking to a lively group, and when the novelty of having my dull West Midlands accent fetishised by strangers wears off, I get to the more miserable end of the drunk spectrum and head to the room to sleep it off.
Meanwhile, James stays out for a few more drinks and goes home with a woman who works in a local winery. He gets back at 5am and recounts the night’s events in romantic detail. “She’s great,” he says. He hopes to meet her more over our next few days here. As I can’t drive, this will seriously eat into my wine-drinking time. I am not sure what’s worse, this fact, or how eerily close to the plot of the film things have become. I am actually a depressed writer. James is falling in love.
In the morning we argue over the merits of a visit to nearby wildlife park, Ostrich Land. I conclude that the only single thing on the ‘pros’ list is ‘ostriches’, and with the point made we head out through Los Olivos to more of the wineries made famous in Sideways. We learn too late that Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch is close by, which is a shame as at various points we’re drunk enough to try to steal a chimp.
The lady at the Foxen Winery, Santa Maria, pours me a 2010 merlot from the nearby Vogelzang Vineyard. I may not know wine, but I’m anti-merlot.
It is Sideways lore. I refuse it.
“Three weeks ago,” she reasons, “Rex Pickett [author of Sideways] was in here. He said the merlot was his favourite.” I sip. I taste black cherry.
I taste chocolate. I think I understand the difference between this and a pinot noir. We sit on the steps looking out across the valley, pondering the effect of the magical weather on the annual September/October grape harvest. Maybe I’m wrong. For all our insight we may as well be two dogs figuring out how to drive, but for the first time we feel that wine and its devilish complexities might not be lost on us, not least in a landscape as sumptuous as this. I turn to James.
“It’s a shame I’m not in love with you, because if I was I’d propose right now,” I say. He looks at his phone. She still hasn’t texted back.
Back to Los Olivos. At the Firestone Vineyard, a slightly bigger, less rustic joint, we join a group of pensioners for a delightful 2009 malbec and a 2009 syrah clone, then burn it off with a run around a vineyard in the heat of the afternoon. We agree on something as dusk droops in: we are great at being drunk, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. We even drink to it.
RAISE A GLASS
In the morning I actually feel like wine. I smell like it. I taste like it. I have the troublesome ennui of a three-day hangover, the kind of melancholy that makes you feel like you’re always late for a funeral. Worries that James is dead are allayed when he finally wakes and we have breakfast at Solvang Restaurant, where a grumpy Jack informed Miles of his plans to get laid one last time before his imminent wedding. The owner, Jeff, foists some more dough on us. Tasty though it is, we sit largely in a silence only two hungover men can conspire to make.
The day is rescued by a visit to the River Course at the Alisal, where a deranged Jack goes postal on some locals. Neither of us play golf, and do a good few thousand dollars of damage to the fairway on the first. Thankfully there are no natives to argue with so, with only the company of the majestic San Rafael Mountains as a backdrop, we turn on each other.
“Why hasn’t she replied?”
“Because we’re on a golf course in the mountains and you haven’t got a signal.”
“I have got a signal.”
“Then it’s because she hates you.”
Things calm down when we come together in mutual appreciation of a delightful chip to the green by James on the seventh, and by me smashing the last of our six balls into a nearby vineyard with an errant drive on the ninth. Wine, we decide, will get us through the afternoon.
The Fess Parker Winery in Santa Maria feels a little too big and impersonal for men of our newly cultured palates. But our evening in Los Olivos Café, where Miles and Jack double date Stephanie and Maya, ends beautifully. I buy a £40 Ojai Vineyard pinot noir, which we see off in 20 minutes, and an £80 bottle of locally produced Zaca Mesa Black Bear Block syrah – by far the most expensive thing I’ve ever drank. I also try to persuade James to drunk-dial his ex-girlfriend back home like Miles does here in the film. He declines, his face like a miserable crab, though perhaps it’s because we’ve spent all our money on wine and he’s got nothing left to make the call. We both lose our wallets and fall asleep in our shared bedroom, and the next morning have no recollection of how we got home without dying.
Wake. Wine. Food. Wine. This place at this pace is gloriously consumptive, though I’m starting to worry about gout. The next night ends with dinner at the famous Hitching Post, the restaurant around which much of Sideways revolves. I fight a 12oz New York steak, and win, and sit rubbing my belly like Henry VIII. Still no word from James’s girl. Tomorrow is our final morning. There is only one thing for it.
We head out early to the winery she works at in the hope we might say goodbye after enjoying a 2011 sauvignon blanc with a light, crisp flavour and pretty stone fruit and citrus notes, followed by a tremendous 2009 cabernet sauvignon estate reserve that has clearly benefitted beautifully from an additional eight months in a neutral barrel with a notably nice acidity and slight tannin.
We drink, we talk, we walk around, but she’s not here. We put our noses in the bulb of the glass one last time, take in the aroma – blackberry, a hint of vanilla – and sup our last before we leave. We agree, it wasn’t meant to be. Fantasies seldom are.
Take the trip
Where to eat and sleep: Plonk your travel-weary frame at the ludicrously plush Langham Huntington, Pasadena, LA (Langhamhotels.com) before the drive upstate takes in poolside ping pong at the Hotel Oceana (Hoteloceanasantabarbara.com) and the Hamlet Inn’s stylish Scandi charms (Thehamletinn.com). When not drinking, follow Jack and Miles with a clumsy round of golf (Rivercourse.com) or surrender your dignity with some stand-up paddle-boarding (Channelislandso.com). Discoveramerica.com. www.santabarbaraca.com