The Art of Wine
Sideways author Rex Pickett writes about the connections between pinot noir, life and art
I often get asked: Do I really like pinot noir that much?
Or was it just an affectation that suited the pricklish, sometimes dyspeptic character of Miles (Paul Giamatti in the movie version of my novel Sideways) and became his grape du jour for literary purposes?
My simple answer is always yes, I personally do love pinot noir more than any other grape variety. But the more complex and convoluted answer is that the real reason I fell in love with pinot goes beyond the sensorial attributions of that unique grape variety and into the realm of the aesthetical.
Let me explain. In the 1980s, I drank wine with my now ex-wife. She didn’t like red wine because she thought it caused her to break out in rashes.We drank white. Mostly sauvignon blanc, which was a favourite of hers. When we sadly parted company in the early ’90s, two things happened.
First, I started venturing up to the Santa Ynez Valley, where Sideways — both the novel and the movie — are set, and I began attending wine tastings at my local wine emporium, Epicurus. The Santa Ynez Valley was not planted in pinot the way it is today — largely due to Sideways, but also due to other factors: the transverse valleys that allow the cold air to rush in off the Pacific Ocean, and the then still relatively inexpensive land west of Route 101, where pinot was likely to thrive. As I made my monthly pilgrimages there, I often ate at the Hitching Post. Frank Ostini and his partner, Gray Hartley, made pinot.
And I imbibed a lot of it. And I liked it. I wasn’t blown away, but was eager to explore more deeply this, to me, unique wine flavour.
I really first fell headlong in love with pinot at my then-favourite winery, Sanford. After a bruising couple weeks of receiving rejection letters on my novel, I would escape Los Angeles for an inexpensive vacation in the Santa Ynez Valley, just a mere two-and-a-half hours north.
My first stop was always the Sanford Winery tasting room (now Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards). It was at the dead end of a dirt-and-gravel road. The tasting room was housed in a kind of homemade wood-and-adobe structure with a corrugated tin roof. There was no air-conditioning. It was very rustic. Peaceful. Birds trilled.
I needed that then.
There were also few tourists, certainly not the crowds that swarm the winery today. Chris Burroughs, the tasting room manager (and the guy in the movie!) and I became friends. Sanford Winery’s focus was Burgundian (i.e., pinot and chardonnay). Richard Sanford was one of the first to plant west of the 101, and he was told he was crazy to do so, that pinot was not a grape for the Santa Ynez Valley. That, of course, sounds ludicrous today.
Not only did I fall in love with the perfumey aromatics of Sanford’s gigglingly good pinots, I loved hearing about winery owners such as Richard who dared the odds and planted a grape that was consistently low-yield, hard to grow, difficult to vinify and even more difficult to sell to a consumer base that constituted only one percent of the total worldwide wine market. Why on earth did these quixotic souls pursue a grape variety that came freighted with so much hardship and potential for disaster?
First and foremost, they did it for the love. And this is precisely how I started out writing and filmmaking. I never thought about how much money I would make, or how famous I might become. I did it because I had to, because I loved literature and film, and I didn’t want to live any other life. This revelation made me grow to like pinot even more.
At my local wine shop, Epicurus (now closed), I fell in with a group of wine habitués every Saturday. They were mostly hardcore Bordeaux collectors — cult California cabernets were a hot topic (and pissing contest). They were bemused by my love of pinot. I like Bordeaux-based wines, but, as Miles says in Sideways, “I like cabernets, too, but I find them prosaic for some reason.”
And that’s exactly how I felt: they all tasted the same to me. Not in a bad way, but as if they were grown in more consistent climates — I later learned this to be true — and that, through creative and artistic blending, the vintners could produce a more consistent wine year in and year out.
But pinot — the “heartbreak grape” as it’s now famously referred to — called to me like Lorelei of the Lake. She was alternately moody, difficult, rapturous, levitational, disappointing, depressing and, every now and then, mind-blowing. Like art. Like me. And my love of pinot at Epicurus, exuberantly expressed over one too many glasses, helped differentiate me from the Bordeaux cabal that threatened, in a jocose way, to disparage me for my inability to be able to afford the wines they consumed.
To them, I was an outlier, a radical, irreverent — the way I am, or try to be, in my art. Writing — or the making of any art, for that matter — is very hard work.To do it well doesn’t come easily. And even when you work your ass off and think you’ve done it well, it isn’t often well-received (heartbreak). And then you do it again (another vintage). And again (yet another).
If you’re a real artist, you suffer your art; i.e., you don’t cave in. You do it because you have to; it’s in your blood. You live and breathe it every moment of the day and into your most vivid dreams and gooseflesh-producing nightmares (an early rain; cold snaps that freeze the fragile buds and give the vintner no amount of disquieting nights). You often have no idea if you’re good at it at all, but you feel this driving need to keep doing it because, well, you were born to do it.
In all the screenplays and novels and films I’ve respectively written and directed, I have only achieved what can be called anything close to perfection maybe twice in my life: Sideways and a short film I wrote that won the 2000 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. I’d like to feel my Sideways sequel, Vertical, is in that class, but it’s probably going to take a movie adapted from it to seal the deal.
Illustrations by Philippe de Kemmeter