Sideways showcases a Central Coast Legend: Pinot Noir
by Mark Storer
Originally Published in Central Coast Farm and Ranch Magazine, Spring, 2005
The phenomenal success of the small art film Sideways probably has many explanations and as I am no film critic, I won’t begin to conjecture what all of those are. What I do know is that all of my friends in the wine world have seen it and like it because it gives an almost personal, certainly realistic, glimpse into the Central Coast wine world. If you go up to Los Olivos, you won’t see a lot of signs that say things like, “Sideways was filmed here” or “Drink the wine that Miles and Jack did right here”. Well, at least those signs are not up as of this writing.
The film centers especially on two men in their 30’s who are coming to grips with the fact that their lives are not going the way they wanted them to go. At one point, the main character Miles, played masterfully by Paul Giamatta (Academy nomination?) gives a monologue about Pinot Noir. Maya, Miles’s love interest throughout the story, asks him why it is that Pinot is such “a thing with you.” Miles’s answer reveals much about himself, but anyone who has fallen in love with a glass of Pinot Noir, or better still, produced the wine, can tell you that Miles also hit the proverbial nail on the head when it comes to this most enigmatic of red wines.
Santa Barbara County is considered one of the premier spots in the “New World”, along with the Carneros region of the Napa Valley and the Willamette Valley of Oregon, for growing Pinot Noir. While the Burgundians in France will never believe that anyone can top their masterful renditions of the only red grape they produce in serious quantity, the fact is that several Pinot Noirs from the Santa Barbara County region have won awards and proven themselves worthy of world class Pinot Noir.
One of the most consistent and award winning producers of Pinot Noir on the Central Coast is Lane Tanner. She enumerated the reasons for Pinot’s reputation as a problem child. “It doesn’t grow everywhere. It needs an almost Mediterranean situation. Cooler days and warmer nights. For a lot of people, that’s Carneros in Napa. The weather here, though, is perfect,” said Tanner. Focusing predominantly on Pinot Noir and Syrah, Tanner’s eponymous Central Coast Pinot’s have a near cult following and in this sommelier’s opinion, are consistently the best Pinots in the area and arguably in the state.
The reason for such greatness? Why the land of course. Since the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys run east west versus every other California valley, which runs north south, the ocean influence is felt heavily and produces what Tanner calls, “ a fog range that I really love.” That fog range is what makes the Pinot Noir grapes according to Tanner. Combined with sandy soil, which the Central Coast offers and which provides great drainage, the result is Pinot Noir haven. Tanner picks her fruit from here because the daytime temperatures stay roughly in the 80’s and nighttime temperatures don’t go too far below 50. “It’s definitely a micro-climate,” explains Tanner. She’s right. Within just a few miles in any direction and temperatures can vary much more drastically.
A thin-skinned grape, as Miles refers to it in the film, Pinot Noir reacts very quickly and sometimes very badly to the influences placed upon it. “Anything will effect it,” said Tanner. “Too much wind, rain, sun, all of those can turn it into a sloppy mess. You have to watch it carefully. You want to have control of it.” In other words, it’s not for the squeamish or novice winemaker, who’d be better off making Merlot, but check with Miles before you do that. He has some pretty caustic things to say about Merlot in the film.
As with all things that are difficult, though, the reward of a fine Pinot is a treat that goes beyond real descriptive powers. Lane Tanner’s Pinot Noirs are works of art, truly. The fruit forward, velvety flavors that the grape is capable of producing in the right hands, are lavishly shown in Tanner’s wines. “I think of Syrah as the happy step-child,” said Tanner. “You can grow it anywhere and make it anywhere. With Pinot, though, everyday is a different day. One day it will stink in the barrel and the next day it’s fine.” Avoiding the rush on harvesting, Tanner prefers to go into the vineyard just a bit early. “I’m looking less for those jammy, big flavors and more for the vibrant fruit. They get that a little earlier than their peak.”
The tricky, even maddening process of producing great Pinot Noir is no myth, though with its starring role in Sideways, it’s certainly the stuff of winegrowing legend.