Reliving the 2004 Movie Sideways in 2022

Famous People heads to Central California for a wine-tour whirlwind.

A collage of the Hitching Post II sign, a stuffed bison, a bottle of pinot noir, and a windmill on the side of a highway
The Atlantic

This is the beginning of a special three-part Famous People series about a single weekend in California. Check back in the coming days for parts two and three!

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Kaitlyn: We write to you as different women than we were the last time you heard from us. Or rather, we should say we are different “chicks”—more appropriate in the lexicon of the 2004 film Sideways, starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as two friends on a bachelor trip in sunny Santa Barbara County. If you haven’t seen this movie, all you really need to know is that Giamatti’s character, Miles, loves wine and is depressed, while Church’s character, Jack, doesn’t care that much about wine and is horny. They are both liars. But they are friends!

Sideways is classic early-aughts indie in that it is talky, morose, and about objectively bad people getting really drunk. The stakes are never very high, other than existentially, but Sandra Oh’s character’s little house in Lompoc is so cute. Today, we are introducing a three-part Famous People special on a modern Sideways adventure—otherwise known as “Lizzie and Kaitlyn take Buellton, California,” or a journey into boys’-trip and wine-country culture.

Lizzie and I saw the need for this in June, and then we presented it to The Atlantic’s executive editor, Adrienne LaFrance, arguing that the magazine ought to send us to California to report on the coming Sideways renaissance. Soon, everyone will be watching Sideways again, we told her. Sideways is perfect for our times. “Say more,” she said. But we couldn’t remember our argument, because the conviction had come to us while mixing below-average pet nats and chewable anti-motion-sickness tablets on an ill-advised day trip to a random part of Long Island. So we rattled off something about the mystique of Solvang and Saabs and teeny-tiny sunglasses … of barbecue ribs and men’s shirts and the lifelong struggle to find love and fulfillment.

Lizzie: The point is, we think Sideways is coming back in a big way. How exactly, we can’t quite say. It’s like how you don’t know you’re in a recession until after it happens. Obviously Sideways was successful when it was first released—it won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay—but neither of us was old enough to drink in 2004, and honestly the weight of the whole thing doesn’t really start to hit you until you feel like, as Miles says, “a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper.” I’m kidding! A little.

Kaitlyn: Maybe you think this premise is thin and a scam run by us against The Atlantic. Well, we were serious about it, and I don’t know why you’re reading this if you don’t like us enough to want us to be sent on free vacations.

And anyway, we did the work! We studied the details of the movie’s creation via various filming-location websites and weird, obsessive blogs. We sifted through the city’s bookstore bargain bins in search of era-appropriate books about wine. I made some effort to create a mood board by rewatching the movie and writing down every noun mentioned, touched, consumed, or beheld by one of the characters (spinach croissant, Xanax, horse painting, Motorola flip phone, etc.). Lizzie did not understand the journalistic function of the mood board, so I abandoned it. We posted on Craigslist, writing that we were hoping to rent a Saab from someone in California. I asked my parents to watch Sideways so that we could have a discussion of its major themes, but they refused. They said it was too annoying when they watched it the first time, and they didn’t want to see it again. (Then they got distracted talking about how much they like Sandra Oh.)

Lizzie: Kaitlyn had big ideas when it came to preparing for this trip. One of them was that I should become a Pinot Noir expert, and another was that we should learn to drive stick and rent a 20-year-old car. Both seemed pretty ambitious and neither was achieved in any real way. I did try to play the expert part—I bought three wine books, including a scratch-and-sniff book that I thought would help train my nose to identify flavors, but then I forgot about it. By the time our trip came around, the only piece of wine-related knowledge I had retained was the definition of carbonic fermentation.

About two weeks before we left, the podcast How Long Gone touched on the topic of “going Sideways mode” while recounting the taller host Jason’s recent trip to Napa. At first we thought the worst: They beat us to it! But then we realized that this was actually just a much-needed piece of culturally significant evidence to back up our original hypothesis. Plus, we were headed to Buellton and Solvang, which even I know is not the same thing as Napa.

Here was the official plan: We’d fly from JFK to LAX early Friday morning, then drive the three-ish hours north to where the movie was filmed and spend Friday night and Saturday trying our best to do as the Sideways boys had done. If you’re thinking, “That sounds like an awfully short trip considering the movie takes place over the course of a week,” you’d be right.

Kaitlyn: Obviously we failed in our efforts to procure a Saab for the weekend and had to settle for whatever Hertz was going to give us. That was for the best. Though we tried to think of someone who lives in California and knows how to operate a stick shift and who might also acquiesce to driving us around, the only idea we came up with was Jonathan Franzen. (We have to assume he’s seen the movie, but he’s probably busy.) Oh well. In the Rex Pickett novel Sideways, upon which the film Sideways is based, Paul Giamatti’s character actually drives a Toyota 4Runner.

That was my other research assignment: A few months before our trip, I ordered a copy of Sideways the novel and its sequel, Vertical. (The third book in the series is called Sideways 3 Chile, but it wasn’t available on ThriftBooks.) The only interesting differences in the book version of Sideways are that the main characters almost get shot more than once and that the famous Merlot scene from the movie, in which Paul Giamatti shouts, “If anybody orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any FUCKING Merlot!” is way less dramatic (and less funny). In the book, he just says, without screaming, “They’re not going to order Merlot. They’re way too hip for that.”

Lizzie: I didn’t read the book. I meant to watch the movie again on the plane ride to L.A., but I rented it and then forgot to download it. Lucky for me, I had Season 3 of Vanderpump Rules on my laptop, which occupied most of my flight time.

On the plane I accidentally picked up someone else’s chewed gum, thinking it was a cough drop that had fallen out of my bag. I showed Kaitlyn the slightly deformed scarf I was knitting and she laughed and said it looked “like a colostomy bag.” Despite the hits coming from all directions, I tried to make the most of things. I asked Kaitlyn’s seatmate, who worked at a restaurant in Manhattan, if she had seen Sideways. She hadn’t, but she was taking wine classes! I asked if she had any fun facts about wine, not sure what I was grasping for. “Have you tried orange wine?” she asked.

I was happy to touch down in beautiful, beige LAX.

A woman holding up a deformed scarf on a plane.
Not even the most surprising section of Lizzie’s knitting (Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tiffany)

Kaitlyn: I’m sorry, I’m not trying to bully Liz, but I should explain about her knitting. The “scarf” is very narrow at one end—like 10 stitches across—but then she somehow just kept adding stitches to each row without noticing, so the middle of the scarf got to be about 40 stitches wide. She claims she has no idea how she did this. The rest of the flight was so boring and a little humiliating, as Lizzie and I were the only ones doing lunges in the aisle to avoid swollen ankles and blood clots.

When we arrived in Los Angeles, our legs and hearts were fine but our skin looked and felt like tissue paper someone had left hot popcorn on. No matter. The weather was adding years onto our lives.

Our first stop after Hertz was In-N-Out, where we waited for Lizzie’s long-lost friend Frank to meet us. (He moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey a few years ago.) Lizzie hated the burgers, but her reunion with Frank was beautiful and moving. She immediately started lobbying for him to leave the Golden State forever and come back to the East Coast.

Lizzie: According to Frank we were at “the worst In-N-Out in Los Angeles,” so maybe my experience was not indicative of what the establishment is normally capable of, but nothing we ate tasted like anything at all, except the raw onions, which were as thick as those rubber bands that hold bunches of broccoli together. The fountain soda hit the spot, and I liked the pebble ice.

Frank couldn’t partake in our meal because he was wearing an Invisalign. “My Invisalign will be fully purple by Sunday, and I’m just accepting that,” he said. (Imagine the Invisalign as a fourth, silent character in our weekend.) We got in the car and tried to find some thematically relevant listening material.

Kaitlyn: On the ride up to Sideways country, we listened to a few episodes of Rex Pickett’s podcast and learned that he is working on adapting Sideways into a musical. The song “No Fucking Merlot,” which was sampled on the pod, is not quite there yet. In fact, we all hated it. But the drive was stunning—geological wonders at every turn. Ocean, mountain, ranch land, creepy trees. We even saw the Amtrak train that runs parallel to the 101, which has the beautiful name of Coast Starlight. Lizzie was really wowed by every cow we passed, but especially the ones that were standing on hills or in deep valleys. “How do they get up there?” she asked. “How do they get down there?” I made an honest effort to understand these questions … “They have legs with knee joints,” I told her.

Lizzie: I don’t think of cows as the most agile creatures—so sue me. Is it easy for them to walk up and down very steep hills? I’m talking very steep. And not to harp on this point, because I understand it’s not that interesting, but the cows were seemingly just out there on their own. Not just momentarily unattended—there was nothing around, anywhere. No fence, no barn, or whatever cows live in, no farmer’s house. Just huge hills and a highway.

Eventually we passed a sign that read Welcome to Buellton, Home of Split Pea Soup. This pea-soup business was news to us! I’m a documented fan of pea soup, but Kaitlyn and Frank were less thrilled.

Kaitlyn: Having traveled for about 14 hours, we arrived at the Sideways Inn—known as the Windmill in the era and story of Sideways—just before sunset. It was the same motel as you see in the movie, except with a fresh coat of paint to make it Instagrammable. The windmill was no longer tattered. The floral comforters had been thrown out. There were sweatshirts with the word OFFLINE on them available in the lobby for $74. After poking around the place and making a quick costume change, we set off on the side of state route 246, walking past multiple car dealerships and a Taco Bell—exactly as the boys do in the film!

Lizzie, who’d had one glass of Pinot Noir at the motel bar before the walk, pointed at a drainage ditch and said, “A cow would love it down there.”

Lizzie: You can see that I tend to get stuck on a topic. But we couldn’t stand there and stare at the ditch for too long, because we were on our way to the Hitching Post II, probably the most visited location in Sideways—sort of a home base for the boys and the employer of Miles’s love interest, Maya, played by Virginia Madsen.

The restaurant still looks almost exactly as it does in the movie, save for the framed photos of Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church posing with the owner. There’s wood paneling everywhere, wine glasses hanging above the bar, a carpet, ceiling fans, old red-leather booths, white tablecloths, cloth napkins the color of Mourvedre, and a big glass-paned cabinet full of wine bottles. We all loved it instantly.

We split a bottle of the Highliner Pinot Noir (Sideways fans will know that Miles downs at least one bottle of this by his lonesome) and snacked on a grilled artichoke and some roasted garlic. We felt so content that we considered staying and eating more, but we had a lot to do and not a lot of time in which to do it, so we changed locations.

A wood-paneled wall covered with pictures from the set of the movie Sideways.
The warm glow of the Hitching Post II and its Sideways memorabilia (Courtesy of Lizzie Plaugic)

Kaitlyn: I would have stayed at the Hitching Post II for the rest of the weekend. It was so cozy. It smelled like barbecue and aftershave. It was the best version of the midlife masculine dream we were chasing! But, as Lizzie said, we had to get on with it. For dinner, we headed to AJ Spurs, a “saloon and dining hall” that appears in the movie. AJ’s is decorated vividly with a stuffed bison, a bear, an elk, a lion, and many deer. You get a big cauldron of “cowboy soup” and a bowl of beans as an appetizer no matter what you order, which Lizzie loved. She was trying to keep us on track, fiber-wise.

I was already feeling pretty “sideways,” if you know what I mean. The rest of what I remember about AJ Spurs is that it had a wooden sign on the wall reading 2006 California Beef Backer Award First Place. For Outstanding Beef Menuing and Support of the California Beef Industry. (I took four photos of this.) At the beginning of Sideways, Giamatti tells Church, “Despite your crass behavior, I’m actually glad we’re getting this time together.” I hope that’s how Lizzie felt about me at AJ Spurs.

Lizzie: In the movie, AJ Spurs is where Jack picks up the waitress, who turns out to be married. We skipped this part. Jack and Miles are also served huge portions of meat by this waitress, and that part is true-to-life. I suggested that perhaps we should split a half rack of ribs, but Kait insisted on the full rack. It was approximately 28 ribs, and we didn’t make much of a dent.

We each got a glass of white wine, and we each received a heavy pour. Then we each took a sip and made a slight grimace.

Maybe it was the jet lag, or maybe it was the malolactic Chard, or maybe it was the fact that we were eating ribs surrounded by dozens of taxidermied animals wearing Santa hats, but at one point we all locked eyes and knew we needed to go back to the motel. We shuffled back along the highway.

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of our neighbors drunkenly screaming, “Adam!!!!” “Adam!!” I put my pillow over my head and had a fitful rest.

Kaitlyn: I filled our mini-fridge with ribs and slept like a rock!

To be continued …