In the wine country north of Santa Barbara, the global economic crisis has drained wine sales, sapped tourist spending and siphoned away hotel profits.
But five years after the Santa Ynez Valley was featured in an Oscar-winning film, the region is still feeling the upside of “Sideways.”
The offbeat comedy about the wine-soaked adventures of two hapless buddies drew crowds of connoisseurs to the region’s wineries, vineyards and restaurants. And to the delight of merchants and wine makers, the continued popularity of the 2004 film has helped soften the blow of the worst recession in a generation.
Visitors continue to snap up maps that mark the wineries and restaurants shown in the film. Even today, tourists request the same hotel room and restaurant booths where the movie’s bottle-tilting heroes, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), sleep, eat and drink — a lot.
“The Central Coast got a real good shot in the arm from ‘Sideways,’ ” said Jack Sparrow, a wine tasting consultant at Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in Los Olivos.
“I think there were people who lived 50 miles away but didn’t know there was wine growing here.”
As Sparrow poured glasses of Syrah and Chardonnay on a recent weekday, Kimberly Cox, a social worker from Victorville, sat on a nearby patio table with her husband, Thomas, and two friends, enjoying a sunset, a bottle of Pinot Noir and cheese and crackers.
“Sideways” introduced Cox to wine, and so, to celebrate her 33rd birthday, she and her friends agreed to visit several filming sites, including the Fess Parker tasting room.
“We’ve already been to Los Olivos Cafe and the Kalyra Winery,” she said, citing two businesses featured in the movie.
The final stop for the day, Cox said, would be dinner at another key filming spot, the Hitching Post II in Buellton.
In Santa Barbara County, wine is a $360-million industry that produces more than 1 million cases annually. More than a quarter of those bottles come from the Santa Ynez Valley, home to 75 wineries, more than 100 vineyards and roughly 5,000 acres of vineyards. The county is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
In 2008, nearly 17% of the 8.4 million visitors to the county said they came for the wine, according to a survey by the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau.
But the recession has hit the county hard, dropping hotel occupancy rates 7% and revenue per room 15% in the first half of the year, compared with the same time last year, according to hotel consulting firm PKF Consulting.
Winery managers and restaurant owners throughout the Santa Ynez Valley say sales and foot traffic have dropped as much as 20% from last year.
Budget-minded tourists who might spend $75 for a bottle of estate Pinot in the past are “trading down,” and settling for, say, a $22 bottle of Syrah, according to winery owners.
Tourism officials also say many visitors from Los Angeles and Orange counties are now coming only for a day instead of staying a weekend.
But as the recession continues to draw off business, the Santa Ynez Valley still enjoys some residual benefits from “Sideways.”
At the Los Olivos Cafe and Wine Merchant, a chic eatery where Miles and Jack share a meal with Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), the menu offers the “Sideways Dinner,” a popular three-course meal that includes a glass of Chardonnay or Pinot for $35.
Sam Marmorstein, the cafe’s owner, said business has dropped about 10% this year from last year. But visitors continue to drop by to pose for photos by the wine shelves where the dinner scene was filmed.
“People are still into the movie,” he said.
Jeff Paaske, owner of the Solvang Restaurant in Solvang, plans to install a plaque on the booth where Miles and Jack ate breakfast in the movie. “I see people come in with ‘Sideways’ maps all the time,” he said.
Occupancy rates are down nearly 20% over last year at the Days Inn Windmill in Buellton, according to general manager Randi Stone. But nearly once a week, guests ask Stone about renting room 234, where Miles and Jack stayed in the film.
Another residual effect of “Sideways,” released in the U.S. in October 2004, was to catapult the popularity of Pinot Noir and bruise the reputation of Merlot.
In the movie, Miles, a depressed wine snob, raves about Pinot Noir and rails against Merlot, a varietal he believes has no character. Although sales of Merlot have remained strong statewide, several wineries in the valley even stopped producing Merlot, citing sinking demand.
Even businesses that were shown in the film but not identified by name benefited from the movie.
Firestone Winery in Los Olivos was shown in a scene in which Miles, Jack, Maya and Stephanie sneak away from a wine lecture to explore the barrel room. The winery’s name never appears on film but is listed on several “Sideways” tour maps.
On a recent weekday, Kerry O’Reilly, a psychotherapist from Ventura, and her friend Nancy Avery, a physical therapist from Montreal, rode bicycles to the winery, following a “Sideways bicycle tour” map they printed from the Internet.
“We sip, spit and ride,” O’Reilly said.
“If we like the wine, we sip, drink and ride.”
Perhaps no other business in the valley benefited from the film as much as the Hitching Post II, a noisy steakhouse on California 246 that is shown several times in the movie.
Restaurant owner Frank Ostini attributes 10% to 15% of his business to the recognition brought about by the movie. “This place is a destination,” he said of the eatery.
But Ostini, who produces his own wine, has been hit by the downside of “Sideways”: the bad-mouthing of Merlot.
“We make a good Merlot,” he insisted. “We are still bullish on Merlot.”