In her “re-view” of Sideways, Stevi Costa tells us of her jack-of-all-trades stepgrandfather, revisits her college days in Santa Barbara, and reveals the story behind her back tattoo.
As a life-long West Coast resident, I’ve had the good fortune to always reside within an hour’s drive from “wine country.” My family home is just an hour south of the Napa Valley, the now-moneyed-former-upstart patch of land along the Silverado Trail that changed the face of viticulture in the 1970s. I currently reside in Seattle, only forty minutes or so from some small vineyards in Woodinville. But for a brief time in the early 2000s, I lived in Santa Barbara, California, a place which lauds itself as the “American Riviera” because of its plush coastal location. The beaches are great, that’s true, but just a half an hour up the 101 you’ll find miles and miles and miles of grapes all the way from Solvang to Paso Robles.
It was in Santa Barbara that I first saw Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Because of its proximity to L.A., vast number of celebrity vacation homes and AMPAS voters-in-residence, and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, UCSB’s two campus movie theatres were often used to house Academy screenings, which were also open to students.
My roommates and I at the time attended many film screenings around campus, Oscar-affiliated and non. It was something to do that was either free or cheap and a good social alternative to getting shitfaced all the time (or, sometimes, a nice warm-up to getting shitfaced). We also liked going to these because my roommate had a huge crush on the guy who organized many of these screenings, so attending gave her opportunities to talk to him. (Reader, she married him!) The circumstances of seeing Sideways were as ordinary as any of the other screenings we attended (although it was our first Academy screening), but seeing the film was something of a watershed experience in and of itself. Sideways was the movie that made me fall in love with wine.
Because until I was in college and nearly-of-drinking-age, I had forgotten that wine was and could be cool. I had forgotten this fact because I grew up making wine.
My grandmother’s second husband was practically a character out of Steinbeck novel. He was raised in the Sierra foothills and eventually made his way to the Italian-American factory town of Crockett, where I grew up. Ed drove an avocado green Chevy pick-up truck from the 1970s and always wore jeans and a plaid shirt with boots of some kind (cowboy or workmen’s boots) and a signature hat: an olive green Smoky the Bear hat with a carefully rolled up brim. He was well-known in town and well-loved. He was a property owner, a journeyman plumber, jack-of-all-trades handyman, and the Scoutmaster of the town’s Boy Scout troop. He also had a unique hobby, which he basically charmed the whole town into participating in at one point in time or another: winemaking.
In the basement of one of Ed’s buildings, he had constructed his own wine cellar, filled with all of the supplies necessary to the craft. A large vat for initial fermentation, a press to clear the skins from the fermented grapes, a half dozen barrels in which each varietal would continue to ferment, bottling equipment, etc.
My father – and subsequently my mother and I – got involved in Ed’s winemaking adventures in Broglio Cellars shortly after he had begun courting my grandmother. I think I was seven or eight at the time. We would wake up early on a Saturday or Sunday, pile into a series of cars, and caravan from Crockett up the interstate to whatever vineyard Ed had made a deal with. The deal was always about access to someone else’s leftover grapes. We’d offer our labor in exchange for grapes, helping the vineyard owner cut expenses in the long run by clearing any bunches that were missed by picking machines. We’d pick a ton or so of grapes before noon most times and load them into the back of Ed’s truck or some other old Italian man’s truck and drive them back to the wine cellar, where my grandmother practiced being Italian by setting up trays of cheese and salami and little sandwiches while we started processing the grapes. Once the grapes were safely fermenting away in the vat, we’d eat Grandma’s indoor picnic spread and drink last year’s wine.
We did this once or twice a year for many years, but when I was fourteen or so I stopped going. I was a shithead about it. I didn’t want to get up early on a Saturday to do things with my family, let alone anything that involved manual labor. My father has a photograph of my utter disdain for this process as his desktop background on his computer. In it, I’m standing in front of a truck load of grapes with my arms crossed, and an expression that would seem to indicate, “These grapes are sour.” Meanwhile, Ed’s friend Hank Triglia stands beside the truck with his hand on the grape boxes, looking out onto the golden hills behind us. He looks majestic. He is so proud of the work he has done and the land that gave us these grapes. It is a perfect book cover for The Grapes of Wrath and I am ruining it. My father thinks this photograph is hilarious.
So I forgot about wine for a long time. I didn’t want to have anything to do with this weird hobby my family had. But in June of 2004, our family winemaker passed away after a long battle with mesothelioma. Ed’s property passed to his children, but he passed his basement winery to my father. Shortly after Ed died, I went on an exchange trip to Italy where talking about my grandfather and the family wine cellar was completely commonplace. Everyone over there has an uncle or a grandfather who knows how to make some kind of booze, and it’s usually wine. Italy, like my California home, has the right climate for grapes: temperate, where warm sunny days are cooled off by sea breezes and thick blankets of fog. Plus, in Italy, nineteen-year-old me got to really drink wine. And do so with practically every meal. In the old country, as Ed would have called it, wine was a way of life.
I came back to Santa Barbara after that summer and made the long drive down 101 and was suddenly so aware of all of the grapes. I may have tried to forget all the things I knew about wine, but they were always there all along. I thought about Steinbeck a lot on those drives – the way in which people would travel on horseback between King City and Paso Robles, how it must have taken days; the weight and expanse of the land; the vineyards that neatly sorted the hills into organized rectangles of cultivated property. And I thought about Ed, and how he knew California in exactly this way.
So by the time the academy screening of Sideways came to UCSB, I was ready to love wine. And to love the places it came from. Sideways, I find, is very much like Steinbeck in its approach to capturing the essence of the part of California in which it is set: Santa Barbara County. It is a special thing to see a movie in Santa Barbara that was filmed in Santa Barbara because Santa Barbara audiences get extremely excited to see themselves on film. Even though it’s a place where a lot of movie stars live, filming there is a rarity. (I recall tittering in the movie theatre at the sight of a hotel in Ventura during Little Miss Sunshine, for instance.) And Payne’s film really does work within the register of the every day. A portion of the film is set in Solvang, a strange little Danish town just a half hour from my college that my roommates and I would take day trips to every few months. We’d have Scandinavian food for lunch and eat ebelskivvers and buy pastries and drive home. So when we watched Sideways,we were watching our world on film – even if it was a world we only visited on weekends. It felt very natural and very real even then because of the Santa Barbara-ness of the film. Many of the actors in the restaurant and winery scenes are not actors, in fact. Just folks who worked in and around the wine industry. (Including a high school classmate, who thought she might become an actress, but instead became a waitress in Los Olivos.) Payne’s emphasis on everyday human beings, and movie stars who don’t look like movie stars, as the subjects of this film make it feel particularly easy and comfortable. Very slice of life.
But what I noticed in my recent re-viewing of Sideways is just how much more natural it feels because of its focus on landscapes, not people. The film dwells on the act of driving to and through wine country, dwelling on long walks down country roads to the Hitching Post II, and on the act of holding a finger of grapes in your hand. Sideways is a film that recognizes the everyday not just in its population, but in where they dwell. The irony of this is that for the characters – Miles and Jack, who are heading up to wine country for a bachelor weekend before Jack’s wedding – this is their escape. This is not the seaside cities in which they reside (San Diego and L.A.). They retreat from the city to the earthy, rural spaces of the wine country in order to shed parts of their lives they don’t feel at home in (marriage, divorce, work, a lack of work) to revel in the down-to-earthness of the countryside. This is, in essence, the same plot as many British novels from the early 19th century, only updated for men in the 21st century. And Americanized via its emphasis not on lush Italian villas, but the ruddy dirt of California’s central coast. It is a strange amalgam of plot and setting from East of Eden and A Room with a View.
It’s an achievement on the film’s part that I am so willing now to compare it to literary works like those mentioned above, and how much Steinbeck has come up in this review. I say this because Sideways is, to some extent, a literary endeavor. Like most of Payne’s films, it is an adaptation from a book. I did read the book a couple of years after the film had come out and I hate to tell you all that Sideways is one of the sad cases where the film is actually better. The book is awful. It’s a screenwriter’s attempt at creating a novel, and all of the characters are utterly terrible – particularly the women. In the novel, Jack pays one of the women they meet in wine country to be Miles’ companion for the weekend, so she and her friend (played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh in the film) end up in what becomes a pretty damn misogynistic portrayal of women’s fidelity, and turns Jack (who is an asshole, but a sweet asshole who’s kind of trying not to be an asshole after he gets hitched) into no better than a pimp. Perhaps that’s the writer’s attempt to make Miles seem pathetic, and therefore likeable, serving to cut through his faux pompousness? I’m not sure. But I think Payne’s adaptation serves these characters much better. He makes the characters make mistakes, but not cartoonishly evil ones, and allows Paul Giamatti’s Miles room to be pompous and sad all at once instead of by turns.
The one thing the book has going for it is the metaphoric conceit that wine, like people, is inherently complex. Some of the film’s most philosophical scenes illustrate this, especially the one where Miles and Maya sit out on Stephanie’s porch, drinking expensive bottles and discussing their favorite varietals. Miles, who is perhaps best remembered for screaming “If anyone orders any Merlot, I’m leaving! I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot!” outside a restaurant earlier in the film, confesses his fondness for Pinot Noir, a grape that’s meticulous and testy, growing and flourishing only under the tender care of a vintner. It’s an unsubtle metaphor for Miles’ own need for love and care, for his prickliness that might get smoothed by someone who can recognize a good set of legs in a glass of wine, like Maya. The metaphor works. We are what we eat and we are what we drink. And wineries all across the country began to realize this after Sideways. Walk into a winery in 2005, and you’d find any number of wine accessories declaring “I’m a Merlot” or “I’m a Syrah,” like the wino version of the old Sex and the City merchandise.
After Sideways, I started taking wine seriously, or at least as seriously as my family of hobbyist oenophiles did. I started talking to my father more about making wine, recommending the movie to him because it had a winemaker’s humor to it that only he and Ed would have understood. I started bringing the family wine back to school with me when I’d come back from family visits. I’d share the story of Ed and Broglio Cellars and its legacy with anyone who came to my apartment and tried a bottle of it with me.
What you need to know about Broglio Cellars wine is this: it is perhaps not good wine, not by any professional tasting standards, but it is wine. And it’s strong both in flavor and in alcohol content. The family wine was pretty popular in my circles at UCSB for that reason.
Eventually, I started writing about wine and the business of winemaking. During my brief stint as a business journalist, I tried to make my beat Pacific Coast viticulture, but my time in journalism was short and there were only so many big stories about the wine business to tell. But I did learn a lot at that time, and I got to drink a lot of good wine in the process.
When I moved out of California, I spent 10 and a half hours in the tattoo chair having a finger of Zinfandel grapes and a spray of California poppies tattooed on my back. The irony of this is that I can’t really drink wine anymore. I have some rather unpleasant sinus reactions to wine these days, so I’ll indulge only occasionally in a glass. (Gin is my preferred spirit these days.) But Zinfandel has always been my favorite varietal. It’s bold and rich, often jammy and spicy, and you just can’t get it everywhere. It grows best in Northern California, in the Napa Valley. And whenever we got second pickings of Zinfandel for Broglio Cellars, we knew it would make an especially strong wine.