Going Sideways, Part Two

Visiting the vineyards that they go to in Sideways—but without the drunk-driving part

A collage of two women and a man in a vineyard, a fridge full of wine bottles, an orange rectangle
The Atlantic

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This is part two of a special three-part Famous People series about a single weekend in California. Check back in the coming days for part three! (If you missed part one, you can read it here.)

Lizzie: We woke up in Buellton, California. What a feeling. We figured we should eat before a day of downing local Syrahs. For breakfast our choices were: a bagel or yogurt from the continental breakfast at our motel, a meal at Pea Soup Andersen’s (“Serving Over 2 Million Bowls of Pea Soup a Year”), or Ellen’s Danish Pancake House, recommended to us by the front-desk staff the previous night and implied to be the only real option in town.

Ellen’s Danish Pancake House feels like a small-town diner, with red-checkered tablecloths, bright lighting, and a surprisingly low-to-the-ground counter. We sat at the stubby counter and ordered blueberry Dutch pancakes for me, applesauce Dutch pancakes for Kait, and a classic bacon-and-egg situation for Frank. If you’re wondering, a Dutch pancake is a big, thin pancake, at least according to Ellen.

Well, everything was going okay until Kaitlyn noticed the framed portraits of Ronald and Nancy Reagan perched near the ceiling in the front of the room, looking down at us in what was, quite frankly, a condescending kind of way. That was when the numerous American flags scattered all around the room started to come into focus—we got out of there fast in search of a drink.

Kaitlyn: The sixth and seventh sentences on the Wikipedia page for the Santa Ynez Valley are “The 2004 film Sideways was set (and shot on location) in the Santa Ynez Valley,” and “Since then, visits from tourists looking to recreate the experiences of the fictional characters Miles and Jack, have become common.” Yet the guy driving us to the first Sideways-related vineyard of the day had never heard of the movie and clearly thought we were eccentric (but not in an interesting way).

On the way to Andrew Murray Vineyards, Lizzie told us that she’d fallen asleep with a grapefruit-flavored cough drop in her mouth the night before. She’d woken up hours later to find it in the exact same spot on her tongue, and it had not dissolved at all. We all marveled at this, but I was a little defensive. Since we’d shared a bed, I wasn’t sure whether Liz was intimating that the cough drop had dissolved and that I may then have put a fresh cough drop in her mouth to prank her (or kill her).

I also felt as if I had failed her. Maybe I should have taken the cough drop out of her mouth when I saw her nodding off to sleep? As those weird, condescending Twitter threads are always telling me, us girls are supposed to look out for each other! We can’t just let each other stumble around like babies, or choke to death like babies!

If she was suspicious or hurt, though, she was soon distracted by Frank telling us about a TikTok he saw in which a guy got a Jolly Rancher stuck to one of his teeth so bad that it ruined his life. The man’s dentist had to “basically take his tooth apart,” he said.

Lizzie: After about four minutes of research, I can’t find anything to explain why a cough drop wouldn’t dissolve why you were sleeping. (Just for the record: The cough was, like, four weeks old. I’m not out here spreading germs from sea to shining sea like Vicki Gunvalson.)

I do like those Halls vitamin-C citrus cough drops, though. The problem with that is I don’t think most wine people would recommend you suck on a grapefruit cough drop before slurping down a $55 bottle of wine. But that’s what I did at the first stop on the day’s tour.

Kaitlyn: At Andrew Murray, we were seated at a copper-topped bar, near a rug made out of thousands of scraps of leather. It looked expensive, so Frank and I decided we wanted our own. Then we remembered that we have cats and that the gracefully tangled leather pieces would be instantly clotted with cat hair and bits of cat litter.

Shauna, who was pouring for us, gave us a complimentary sip of an Étancher, which was pink, and which we loved. The second wine was a Viognier, a white, and Shauna told us that this was the varietal that made Andrew Murray want to be a vintner. He tasted it on vacation in France with his parents, when he was a child. “He fell in love with wine at 12 years old,” she said. We raised eyebrows at that, but it all worked out for Andrew. He studied wine making at UC Davis and is clearly a genius. My favorite of his was the Grenache with notes of “forest floor.”

Lizzie and Frank were chasing each wine with a swig of tangerine La Croix, evoking the wine-tasting scene in Sideways in which Miles turns to Jack in horror and asks, “Are you chewing gum?”

Lizzie: Gum, cough drops, La Croix, Étancher. We told Shauna that we were attempting to redo Sideways, and she said she thought the Roasted Slope (a Syrah-and-Viognier blend) was mentioned negatively in the movie. (She was right; Maya says “I think they overdid it. Too much alcohol masks the fruit.”) To me, the 2020 Roasted Slope (notes of black cherry, candied violets, and white pepper) was a delight. The Andrew Murray wines were probably the best of the trip, although that could’ve been because my tastebuds hadn’t been overwhelmed by dozens of fermented-grape flavors yet.

Also during the Sideways tasting scene, Miles holds his glass up to the light, then tips the glass to examine the “color density” of the wine. Then, they sniff. Miles instructs us not to be shy about it. “Stick your nose right in there.” During our Roasted Slope pour, Frank said, “God, I love smelling wine. It makes me feel a little high.”

I made a mental note that the wine was suppressing my cough as we made our way to the next winery, Firestone Vineyard.

Kaitlyn: I am choosing to give the pourer at the next winery a pseudonym, because of the high likelihood of his losing his job should his employer hear about the delightful way in which he interacted with us. This is a Famous People first. His name was … Mauricio. He told us that Firestone Vineyard was once owned by the tire-making family but was sold to the financier Bob Foley, who is, as Mauricio put it, “stupid-dumb rich.” I was Sideways mode, as you know, so I was like, “Is he the kind of rich where he can pay for Republicans to get on the Supreme Court?” Mauricio said, “Yes. I wish I was his grandson so bad.”

We loved Mo (nickname for Mauricio). He poured us a Fumé Blanc and told us a story about coming across a coyote on the beach. He said he wouldn’t have been able to beat it to death with his phone. I honestly don’t know why he said that. (I’m trying not to include any identifying details, though I wrote down many. I hope he hasn’t told this story to his manager.)

Lizzie: Mo was my favorite pourer of the day, but I can’t say the same about the wine. The Fumé Blanc, which claimed to have notes of “pineapple, guava, citrus, and toasted oak” smelled, to me, so strongly of cat litter that I could barely drink it. Frank and Kaitlyn disagreed. They acted like they had no idea what I was talking about, but to me it was obvious. Frank said, “Your COVID is making you insane.” The next pour, a 2021 Reserve Chardonnay (“stone fruit, candied toffee, ginger, toasted brioche”) smelled like cold turkey, and Frank reluctantly agreed with me about that one.

Kaitlyn: Just to reiterate, Lizzie did not have COVID. (I know that’s also what Vicki Gunvalson said on Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip: The Ex-Wives Club, but that woman is from a different planet.) That Chardonnay did smell like cold turkey but I liked that about it.

Mauricio’s favorite wine on the list was the 2019 Chairman Series Lineage, which was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot grapes. This endeared him to me because it was the priciest—$80 a bottle. When in doubt, I, too, assume that the thing that costs the most is the best. And it didn’t seem like he knew much about wine, no offense. I’m sure he’d admit this himself, as wine pouring was a part-time job for him. His real job was [redacted], which I thought sounded [redacted], and which prompted me to bring up [redacted], a book about [redacted] that has become a pretty significant part of my personality. Mauricio had seen the movie version of it. He had also seen Sideways and told us that one scene was filmed in the Firestone barrel room, which we were free to poke our heads into.

Mo took $20 off of our bill for no reason. Like, he didn’t even say a fake one; he just told us he was taking $20 off of our bill.

Lizzie: We appreciated the gesture. We also appreciated Meowbec, the winery’s cat, which, according to Mauricio, had just wandered onto the premises when he was a kitten and never left. He allowed all three of us to sort of drunkenly pet him at once, something many cats would not tolerate. Although I did wonder if some of his cat flavorings had found their way into the grapes, I forgave him because he was incredibly soft.

Kaitlyn: Meowbec felt like he was fresh from Build-a-Bear workshop. And he would let you pet his tummy, which not every cat likes. Mo told us that he prefers Meowbec to his own cat for exactly this reason—if he tries to rub the belly of the cat he has at home, he told us, “I get the claws, I get the teeth, I get everything.”

When we got in an Uber, headed to lunch, Lizzie found an iPhone on the floor. The driver tossed it to Frank and said, “Here, play with that.”

Lizzie: Our driver seemed to know which wine-addled group this phone came from, and they didn’t seem like his favorite passengers. I liked him, especially when he backed up Mo’s description of Bob Foley, saying, “He’s making a killing.” Speaking of killing, once we exited the vehicle, Kaitlyn mentioned the possibility that maybe our driver had done away with the owner of the lost phone. And that perhaps the phone had been accidentally left behind as he was preparing his vehicle for the next victim, I mean, passenger. I’m assuming her brain went in this direction because we had been talking about Michael Clayton the night before, a movie that teaches you that your life could be in danger at every moment unless you stop and smell the horses.

Still, it was really none of our business either way, and by this point I was really too hungry to think, because we didn’t even get so much as a cheese plate during our tastings.

Kaitlyn: I don’t assume that every stranger is dangerous, it’s just that he did refer to the women who’d left the phone as “a group of females.” Also, I was a little drunk, so it was just fun to be like, “He killed those girls.” I didn’t really think he did. Oh God, I can be so annoying.

Anyway … at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café—where the “I’m NOT drinking any FUCKING Merlot!” scene was filmed, as well as the scene where Paul Giamatti gets up from the dinner table to place a drunken phone call to his ex-wife—I had a bowl of incredible butternut-squash soup.

We sat at the bar, sadly, and not at a table near the library shelves of wine bottles, as they do in the film. But this gave us a better view of our fellow wine-country tourists, and it also made it easier to hear their conversations. “She runs hot; she’s like lava,” a man in a puffer vest was telling another man in a puffer vest, about his girlfriend and why it’s so hard to share a bed with her. She was like, “No I’m not!” And the other man’s girlfriend took her side, no questions asked. Boys against girls—classic.

Speaking of … when I went outside to call a car to take us to our final wine tasting at Fess Parker, the winery where Paul Giamatti’s character dumps the spit bucket of wine in his mouth and on his clothes, I found myself in the middle of a girls’ day gone wrong. A little kid was yelling at her mother and flailing around in rage. “YOU’RE TALKING OVER ME,” she was screaming, which seemed like something she’d heard an adult say. She went on and on and she was really, really loud. I didn’t think much of it—other than Wow, she is so loud—because children have tantrums, and obviously it sucks if it happens in public but it’s not, like, terrifying or bizarre. Yet, some freaking guy with long hair and fancy sneakers felt the need to stride up and shout, “What the actual fuck is going on?”

Lizzie: The man looked like a cult leader, which, I’m sorry, is often the risk you take when you’re a man with long hair. He also took a risk by acting like a total asshole in public for no reason. I’m not sure what the mother’s response to this question would be in his dream world, but in reality, it was something like “Fuck off.” We were in this scenic wine town getting misted on by a rain that everyone said we really needed, and people were cursing at each other!

While this was happening, we were attempting to find a car that could take us to Fess Parker, but no such car was available in this misty little town at 3 p.m. So we gave up, canceled the reservation, and walked to a winery around the corner.

Kaitlyn: At the tasting room for Stolpman Vineyards, the man at the door asked us if we wanted to try the classic, estate wines or—and he thought we might prefer these—the sans soufre wines in the “Fresh Garage.” (Sans soufre means “without sulfur.” It means natural wine.) We said sure, let’s try the garage. It was down the block, by the main tasting room’s back patio. It was very modern looking, very Los Angeles–and-or-Brooklyn. The only other customers were a couple that was wearing matching beanies and a woman whose hair was Wednesday Addams black and plaited into three braids. The stunningly beautiful woman pouring the wine had a fresh tattoo of a “shell-tini,” a martini glass made out of an oyster shell. Everything was white or pastel tie-dye, and the wines had names like “Love You Bunches” or “GDG,” which stood for “goddamn Gamay”—some kind of inside joke between the owner and his son Pete.

We had, I think, five different chilled reds in a row, and Lizzie started pouring hers into Frank’s glass because she was beginning to feel far too “sideways.” In my notes, I wrote down “LIZ CAN’T HANG.” This hurt her feelings. “In all caps?” she asked in a tiny, sad voice. “Really?”

Lizzie: I think I can make the case that refusing this final tasting flight actually allowed me to hang even more. And anyway my tongue was getting to that rubbery, numb state where I wasn’t able to actually taste any of the wines beyond a vague essence of wine and alcohol burn—like when you smell too many perfumes in a row.

Because he was drinking both my flight and his own, Frank started to go sideways here. We talked for a long time about Bob Dylan and whether or not it was “rude” to say he “looked dead.” For some reason, I was on the side of protecting Bob Dylan’s feelings, but I think it’s because we had been drinking what had been described to us as “adult fruit punch” for the past hour. We also got a trend report: Trousseau will be the next Gamay. The sun started to set and the space emptied out—time to leave!

Kaitlyn: It was raining so much. And when a car finally arrived to take us to our next stop in Solvang, who was driving? It was, of course, the guy from before. The guy who had thrown Frank the phone and then gestured at the gnarled trees we were passing, saying, “The trees are not useful. They’re too hard and too twisted.” That guy!

It turned out he was a bigger Sideways fan than anyone else we’d met all day. He remembered a lot of details, and he loved it when I said that my editor had once sat near Paul Giamatti at a restaurant in Brooklyn and had overheard him ordering a glass of Merlot.

Lizzie: We really bonded with him then. He was full of Sideways trivia! He told us that Paul Giamatti doesn’t even like wine, complicating Kaitlyn’s editor’s Merlot story. He told us that he’s even read the Sideways book. He told us about a revered Buellton institution called Tom’s Gas that sets the prices for every other gas station on the road. “He’s a wealthy man now,” he said of Tom. We sat in silence for a while and listened to the rain. He mentioned that it was kind of “scary” out, which it was, and that we would probably be his last ride for the night.

To be continued…

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