- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

Product placement in filmdom never had it so good. Wine labels get so much screen time in “Sideways,” the romantic comedy set in and around the fertile vineyards of California’s Santa Inez Valley, that it’s as though the drink is a separate character in the movie.

Real labels are featured throughout, even though many of them may not be familiar to Easterners. Wine — especially pinot noir — is the all-consuming interest of the lead character, played by Paul Giamatti, who sets out to educate his loutish friend, played by Thomas Haden Church, who is more interested in feminine company. Matters get resolved, as they must do in the genre, but not before some very soulful and occasionally snobbish words are spoken in praise of the pleasures of the vine.

A lot of the stuff was consumed on the set and off, says Gray Hartley, 54, co-owner of a winery called the Hitching Post, which also is the name of a popular restaurant frequented by wine professionals in the region. The wine and the restaurant get mentioned at least 10 or 15 times throughout, along with other local wineries such as Foxen, Fess Parker, Sanford and Kalyra. (Only one label gets dissed, an Andrew Murray syrah — with the permission and approval of the winery’s owner.)

“While they were making the movie, they used a [wine facsimile] that looked like pinot noir so they could go through all the takes of a scene, and they rebelled,” Mr. Hartley recounts over the phone from the restaurant in Buellton, Calif., off U.S. Highway 101. “They said, ‘We can’t get into character with this swill’ and asked the director, Alexander Payne, if they could drink the real thing. This was after shooting a scene seven or eight times, and so Alex said, ‘Well, sure.’”

In a way, the movie might not have been made without the Hitching Post label. Rex Pickett, a Southern California native who wrote the novel on which “Sideways” is based, had been coming to the restaurant for years. When it finally got published and the film rights became available, the president of Fox Searchlight Pictures was given the film script. He read it over a bottle of wine a friend had given him — Hitching Post, a wine he’d never had before. “He comes across Hitching Post in the script and looks at the label,” Mr. Hartley says. “He calls up Alexander Payne right then and says: ‘Don’t let anybody else make this movie. I want it.’”

No money changed hands. Nor were the winemakers ever paid for their bottles. Adds Mr. Hartley, superfluously, “This is the kind of publicity money can’t buy.”

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