If you're a fan of the Oscar-winning black comedy Sideways, you will probably remember the famous outburst from Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, when he yells, "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I'm not drinking any f*cking Merlot!"
That was outside The Hitching Post, a restaurant in Buellton (near Solvang) in the Santa Ynez Valley, where a band of young producers had started making high-quality Pinot Noir, Miles' favourite tipple. He proved his love by downing a full bottle. "It's a hard grape to grow, as you know. It's thin-skinned, temperamental," he explains in the film. "It's not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected."
At the time when the film was released, Californian wine was all about the big Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons of Sonoma and the Napa Valley, and this ode to the contrary Pinot Noir grape put the Santa Ynez Valley on the wine map. Because of its proximity to the ocean, with cool temperatures, fog and ocean breezes, it is one of the few regions that is ideally suited to the grape and, with care, can produce outstanding-quality wine that is concentrated, fresh and expressive.
"Every wine has a story. There was no wine business here until my friends and I got into it in the late '70s, early '80s; so for me, seeing it turn into something larger is pretty amazing," says Frank Ostini, winemaker and the owner of The Hitching Post. By the time the film was released, there were a number of highly respected winemakers in the region, including Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict, who were the first to identity the potential for growing the grape in the region, and the delightfully irreverent Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. Frank says that, overnight, their business at The Hitching Post exploded, and it hasn't abated. People come to take their picture by the restaurant's iconic sign; 80 per cent of diners order Hitching Post Pinot Noir, and his wine production has grown from 5,000 to 15,000 cases.
"We have people that come through the door and film themselves doing the dialogue from the movie. There's a huge cult following," he says. "I've always told my staff: 'We've been here for 50 years, this movie is going to come and go; we have to maintain what we do and people will continue to come back.' But what I didn't realise is, the movie's a classic. In 50 years, people will still watch Sideways, and the cool thing is they'll see what we're doing in the wine business here. That's one of the biggest gifts they gave us, that little bit of immortality. The background of that movie is real. It was us, and it was our story that they put into it. We had preached for years and years about this special climate, this special place to grow grapes, the special wines we can make. Even my family didn't realise what I was talking about until they saw the movie."
While the better-known areas of Napa and Sonoma are wonderful to visit, it is fascinating to visit the smaller wineries in Southern California. You can even do a Sideways tour, taking in all the wine locations in the movie. While Hitching Post Pinot Noir is not available in Ireland yet, it has just landed in Britain, so we can expect to see a few bottles hitting independent wine shops here. In the meantime, I have four very different Pinot Noirs for you to try this week, all from different countries, and a truly exquisite one for a special occasion, from California.
The next Sheen Falls Wine Academy weekend sees winemaker and importer Simon Tyrrell take guests through the different grapes, wine regions and wine-tasting technique, finishing with a wine dinner on the Saturday evening; €599 in total for two people sharing a Classic Room for two nights on May 18 and 19. At Inchydoney, Maison Louis Jadot have an amazing line-up of Burgundy wines for their wine dinner on April 18; €129 per person sharing. And natural wines from visiting wine growers will be available at retail price with a €50 six-course tasting menu on April 10 at The Fumbally Café, Dublin, and on April 12 at L'Atitude 51 in Cork.
4 WINES TO TRY
Leyda Pinot Noir Reserva 2015, €11.95, reduced from €15.95
13.5pc, from O’Briens and obrienswine.ie
With a juicy nose of ripe strawberry, raspberry and a touch of spice, the fruit on the palate is more restrained and savoury, showing the influence of a cool climate in Chile; ripe tannins and good acidity add to the structure. Perfect with seared tuna, duck or steak tartare.
Lot Series Te Haupapa Central Otago Pinot Noir 2017, €12.99
13pc, from Aldi
Central Otago is one of the most interesting regions producing Pinot Noir, and this one packs a load of rich, spicy red fruit on the nose with concentrated baked raspberry, ripe cherry and cranberry on the palate. New to Aldi and only available seasonally, try it with roast duck.
Bender Pinot Noir 2015, Deutscher QualitÄtswein Pfalz, €18.25
13pc, from Wines Direct Arnotts and Mullingar, and winesdirect.ie
Germany produces some great Pinot, much of it light in style, delicious served a little chilled. This has fresh, juicy cranberry fruit, with ripe red cherry and a touch of spice. Would work well with venison, veal with mushrooms, or smoked duck.
Littorai Pinot Noir 2016, €65.99
13pc, from O’Briens, Blackrock Cellar, Green Man Wines, Jus de Vine, Clontarf Wines, all Dublin; Bradleys, Cork; World Wide Wines, Waterford; Vanilla Grape, Kenmare, and wineonline.ie
From the coastal mountains of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, this elegant wine is ideal for a very special occasion. Layers of cherry and raspberry balanced with savoury, earthy notes lead to a long, concentrated finish.