Movies, the writing of them, brought Julian Davies across the Atlantic from England. It was 1987; he was fresh out of university and had just spent six months working as an assistant manager for a London wine shop. The wine business made for a good day job, and he hung his hat in a number of venues -- the Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills, the wine department at Irvine Ranch Farmers Market, the Wine House in West L.A. -- before landing at Epicurious in Santa Monica.
The shop was "just around the corner," recalls Davies, from the home of wannabe writer Rex Pickett. "He would come in for an evening bottle, and we became chums. We used to talk literature and film a great deal. I used to close the store at nine, and we would just kick back and drink. Often, he would bring his friend Roy Gittens, who worked as an electrician in the film business." Gittens also made mix tapes. "At times, we would leave the back door open so people could still come and taste and buy. The store had a mezzanine, and Roy used to play his tapes up there. We always said, 'This would be a fine way to run a store -- have an in-house DJ and be tasting from the moment you open to the moment you close. '"
Pickett learned a lot about wine from Davies, and around 1998, he and Gittens took a road trip up to the Santa Ynez Valley to taste some wine and play some golf. "He was a long time divorced," says Davies, "but he had learned that his ex-wife was about to remarry." (Gittens says that Davies was invited on the trip but had to work; Davies has no memory of this.) The trip started Pickett on a novel, and in '99, he showed Davies the manuscript, then entitled Two Guys on Wine, "which was a horrible title. He used it because they stopped at Fess Parker winery, and Fess actually signed a magnum to Two Guys on Wine. I think the magnum is still on Rex's shelf -- empty, of course."
The manuscript went out to both the film and book-publishing worlds. The publishing people would have nothing to do with it, but director Alexander Payne found in it an embarrassment of riches and decided to make a movie out of it. Somewhere along the way, the title got changed to Sideways, and the book world came around, and the rest is wine history. The story of Miles and Jack and their romantic and vinous escapades was a sleeper hit and won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. The novel is chugging along at #2404 on Amazon. According to the Global Language Monitor, says Davies, "Pinot" tops the list of showbiz-incubated words that influenced the English language in 2004. Why? Because Pinot Noir was the fetish of choice in Sideways. Accounts differ about just how much Santa Barbara wine country has benefited from the film, but times are good. There are not only Sideways maps available -- "Ooh, this is where Miles chugs the spit bucket!" -- there are Sideways bus tours.
"It's going to be like Titanic," says Davies. "Nobody can really understand why Titanic got all the Oscar attention it did. I've got a keynote speech for a doctors' retreat at Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, and the subject is going to be 'Sideways: The Cultural Phenomenon That Wasn't.'" But for now, whatever it signifies, there is plenty of sound and fury. Davies chuckles when he talks about visiting the forums at the Internet Movie Database and seeing people arguing about the meaning of the film's title. "In England, 'sideways' just means drunk. It's a term I use, being English, and it worked its way into the book. The kids on the boards were saying, 'No, it's because you age wine sideways,' or 'It refers to the lateral progression through wine country that they took, as indicated by the split screen.... '"
Pickett dedicated the book to Gittens and Davies, but the celebrity fallout has been minor. "I was actually at the premiere of the film at a theater in Santa Barbara," says Davies, "and some handler from Fox Searchlight asked me, 'What's your association with the film?' I said, 'Well, I'm the wine component of the central character's brain, one-half of one percent' -- I was trying to be modest. She said, 'Yeah, you and a hundred other people.' Why on earth would I try to share in the glory of one aspect of a not-necessarily-likable character?"
Gittens and Davies did, however, hold a Sideways Wine Tasting as part of their joint venture, the Irregular Wine Tastings held at the Echo, a Los Angeles nightclub. "The owner was getting into wine, as people sometimes do, and suggested to the talent buyer that maybe they should try having a wine tasting there." The agent turned to Davies, and he and Gittens decided to try something along the lines of what they had daydreamed about back at Epicurious. "It was a bit of a trainwreck the first couple of times, but it's evolved nicely. We wanted to get away from pairing wine with food. We started with wine and music pairings, and we just got silly. We paired them with haunted lighthouses of Maine. April 22 is built around the actress Lillie Langtree, who actually happened to own the property that became Guenoc. Normally we don't have that kind of hard tie-in."
The Irregular tastings are irregular, in part, because of Davies' commentary on the wines -- often laced with sit-up-and-take-notice blue bits and a smattering of sociopolitical opinionmongering. "You get a lot of hard information, and a lot of messing around." He asks questions throughout and throws offbeat prizes -- cat food, boxer shorts, Seabiscuit bobbleheads -- to the lucky winners. "Mainly, people want to drink and win crap," he says. "For 18 bucks, you can start at eight and leave at two and get a fair amount of food and wine and information (if not knowledge)." Gittens does DJ work throughout, "and afterwards, you can stick around and hear a few good bands."