Evildoers Go Bang
One Layne Blacktop

There Goes The Neighborhood, Sideways

And now a few words from Myself As Curmudgeon:

I have not seen Alexander Payne's much-lauded film, Sideways.  Many, many reputable people swear that it is one of the cinematic wonders of the year.  My mother has recommended it to me, enthusiastically, and she is not one to steer me wrong. 

There seem to be obvious reasons why I would enjoy it.  The film is largely set in the wine country of Santa Barbara County and much attention is paid to the fine pinot noir wines of that region.  I have a longstanding fondness for Santa Barbara County pinot noir (as mentioned in this post way back in September '03, and again here this past July) and the area is reportedly shown off in the film to be exactly as it is in reality: as lovely and pleasurable a place to spend your time as you could ask for. 

And yet, I am reluctant. 

My one prior brush with Payne's work was surprisingly unpleasant: Despite all the good will in the world -- I  wanted and fully expected to enjoy it -- I turned off his earlier Election in under 30 minutes, finding the quantities of sex and profanity that piled up in the early going of that film to be too coarse and too gratuitous to give me any incentive to spend additional time with it, the pleasures of Ms. Witherspoon and Mr. Broderick notwithstanding.  The reviews for that film were at least as enthusiastic as they have been for Sideways, human folly (ave Moria) is my stock in trade, I've no objection to taking my comedy as I take my coffee -- dark -- and yet . . . , the film struck me as simply Wrong in some underlying way for which I had no patience.  Commentary from people who have actively disliked Sideways (as opposed to those who simply think it has been overhyped) makes me leery in much the same way.  See, for example,  Charles Taylor's complaints about Payne's misanthropy in this year's edition of Slate's Movie Club, or the report from Helen [Mrs. Professor] Bainbridge.  (The good Professor found his wife's review so compelling that he, sight unseen, declared Sideways The Worst Film of 2004, which is almost certainly an overstatement.)

But enough of that.  What I am working my way round to is actually this: my fears that the success of Sideways will somehow mess up the Santa Barbara wine country with crowds, overambitious increases in production (with declines in quality and/or undue increases in price), and other symptoms of sudden popularity. 

The Santa Barbara County tourism authorities had a publicity campaign in place in advance of the film's release.  They even produced a helpful map to permit you to visit the wineries, restaurants, ostrich farms and other locations that portray themselves.  (You can download that map, as a walloping big PDF file, here.)  The effort appears to have paid off in increasing numbers of visitors, as reported in stories around the country.  Here is a typical example, from the Arizona Republic.  And here is an MSNBC story that ran just yesterday, in which Frank Ostini of The Hitching Post Restaurant and (with partner Gray Hartley) its namesake winery talks about the effect of Sideways on his reliably fine "Highliner" pinot noir:

'I just tell everybody, "Let's just keep our feet on the ground. There's just a lot of hype around here right now,"' says Frank Ostini, the Hitching Post's owner and winemaker.

Ostini produced just 350 cases of his $48 Highliner pinot noir in 2001 and 2002, but prior to 'Sideways,' many customers opted for his less expensive single-vineyard wines.  Now the top-notch cuvée offering, which Miles orders by name in the film, is flying out of the rack. Ostini won't what his bottling run will be this year, 'but it's going to be more, way more.'

Oh dear.

Don't let me discourage you from visiting or from seeking out the fine pinots (and syrahs and viogniers and so forth) of Santa Barbara County.  There are inordinate pleasures to be found there; all you have heard to that effect is true.  But please, be gentle.


David Giacalone

Sigh. Even our Sylvan Fool wants to put a fence around his forest. Don't blame you a bit. I hope you'll keep us posted on price gouging and tourist blight.

Frank Ostini

I understand your concerns, and share them with you. I've instructed my people to remember what has gotten us to where we are now: good service, good food, good wine, and good value. All that must be maintained, so that when the movie goes away, we will still be successful. Prices have not changed with our surge in business. At present, the Hitching Post is very busy. We reccommend reservations, and booking in advance is advised.

About HIGHLINER, our premium Pinot Noir featured in Sideways, that has featured an increase in demand that exceeds 400%. In our supply/demand economy, we have several chooses to react to this increased demand: raise prices, increase supply, or simply run out (and have to deal with unhappy customers that have traveled far to come to the Hitching Post). We released our first HIGHLINER in 1998 at $40 retail, and we are committed to keeping the price at $40 through this current surge in demand.

But, as Alexander Payne would say, "Its all about timing." Luckily for us, with our newest bottled vintage, 2003, we have increased our vineyard sourcing in new vineyards of the Santa Rita Hills. We have many new growers working closely with winemakers striving for the highest quality, using the best clones and proven viticultural techniques. We feel we have found the motherlode of great Pinot Noir. We have 24 differnet picks of Pinot Noir from 2003,each from a different site and clone, an incredible palette of flavors from which to assemble our premium HIGHLINER.

We've put up 1000 cases and are quite proud of it. At present we are limiting take home sales to 2 bottles/person, in an attempt to spread the joy.

I understand your concerns and promise to never sell out as we have seen so many do when success falls upon them.

Marc-Henri Tomason

My family and I drove to the Hitching Post II from Arroyo Grande a few weeks back. The last time my family were at this establishment back in December my wife, myself, and our parents decided to enjoy a 2003 Highliner with our meal—which was, in a word, wonderful. THIS time, however, in our recent return trip (sans parents) my wife and I wanted to purchase another bottle of 2003 Highliner, only to be told the charge would be $100.00! This is a true story, folks. Elaine (my wife) and I were both startled and maybe even a bit aghast, since we paid roughly $40 prior. Instantly, I knew what was going on, and became very disappointed that the Hitching Post II would try and "cash-in" and gouge loyal customers from the central coast, whom they clearly mistook for out-of-area, naive film goers. This was so sad, and put a damper on an otherwise fine evening. I am not bitter, nor are my wife and I trying to spread negativity, but that kind of action was (and if it is still going on, IS) rather inexcusable. For the time being we'll stay home in A.G. and leave the hype and profiteering to others. With all due respect to the truth, and to the locals who deserve just a little better.

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