Sideways the Play & Pinot Noir

Written by

This guest-post comes to us from Mira Advani Honeycutt, author of California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles. She frequently contributes wine and travel pieces to the Good Food Blog. 

Actors Jonathan Bray and John Colella. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It’s not everyday that a pinot noir-tasting is included in the price of a play. That’s just what I experienced at “Rex Pickett’s Sideways the Play” at the Ruskin Group Theater tucked away at the Santa Monica Airport. We savored sublime pinot before the play and at intermission — and carried a glass of wine inside the theater to watch Miles and Jack get hammered on their Santa Ynez wine sojourn.

Waits.Mast Family Cellars pinot noir (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In the theater’s tiny lobby, a table was stacked with pinot noir glasses. There Brian Mast of Waits.Mast Family Cellars was busy uncorking bottles. As it turns out, I had met Brian and his wife Jennifer Waits briefly last month on my trip to Mendocino.

The San Francisco-based couple produces small lot (250-case annual production) of artisanal pinot noir and released their first wine in 2005. They source fruit from little known but well-cared for vineyards in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, Russian River and Santa Rita Hills. Production is done at San Francisco’s Bluxom Street Winery’s facility.

Pickett’s novel “Sideways” formed the basis for Alexander Payne’s hit 2004 movie comedy about the pinot-loving unpublished novelist Miles and his old pal Jack on a wine country excursion in the week leading up to Jack’s wedding. Rex has now turned the novel into a stage play.

The play’s been so successful that its run has been extended through August. Before each show, a different winery is featured, pouring what else … just pinot. The evening we attended, Brian brought along two 2009 pinots from Anderson Valley – the lush silky wine bottling from Oppenlander Vineyard and another one from Deer Meadows Vineyard exuding spice and cherry notes

Directed by Amelia Mulkey, the play follows Rex’s novel (and not so much the film) and is highly entertaining. It’s amazing how an intimate stage gets transformed ingeniously into various locations using simple props like a multi-purpose bar counter, two Murphy beds, benches, fences and a wine route sign.

The play is quite physical too as the actors get drenched, strip down to their undies and there are gunshots (one audience member mistook it for 4th of July fireworks).

And there’s a lot of drinking on stage. The bottles are all authentic boasting such labels as Sanford, Foxen, Fess Parker, even Domaine de la Romaneé Conti’s exalting La Tache and Richebourg. But what’s poured in the actors’ glasses is “faux” wine concocted by Hamilton Matthew, one of the ensemble actors and a former bartender.

A true alchemist, Hamilton brews various teas — Rooibos for the perfect hue for rosé, and calendula flowers to craft a big California chardonnay. “It lubricates the vocal cords,” he advises. Cran-apple juice is watered down and accented with drops of blue and red color to get that true pinot tint.

As for Rex, he’s on a roll. His sequel, “Vertical,” (set in Oregon’s Willamette Valley) has garnered rave book reviews and he plans to take “Sideways the Play” on the road. He’s considering a 700-acre vineyard property in Sonoma where the company could put up a Cirque du Soleil style-tent with flooring and tiered seating. The novelist has also been approached by wineries in South America and Europe as potential location for his next novel. Could a story set in South America do for malbec what “Sideways” did for pinot?