By Clarissa Tan
IN 2004, a film called Sideways became the sleeper hit of the year. In it, two men called Miles and Jack drive across the wine region of California, with a memorable scene involving the oenophile Miles praising pinot noir and dissing merlot. After the movie, it was noted that sales of merlot blipped down across the US and UK.
Central scenes in Sideways take place at a restaurant called The Hitching Post, which exists in real life in Buellton, California, and which saw an influx of tourists after the movie. Its owner Frank Ostini, whom no one could ever accuse of following the herd, is eager to talk up merlot.
"When Sideways happened, our sales of pinot increased by at least 100 per cent," says Mr Ostini, who also runs a winery that creates many of the wines sold in his restaurant. "We didn't bottle merlot then, so our sales of other merlot labels held steady, maybe dipped just slightly.
"The movie was simply making a joke, but the reality was that there was a bunch of mediocre wine being made as merlot," he says. "The movie reference was a comment on those bad merlots. The other reality is that there has always been great merlots from great vineyards."
Mr Ostini says the whole movement of people away from merlot caused his winery to consider a merlot bottling.
"The quality and uniqueness of Santa Barbara merlot was exciting to us, and provided a wine that has tremendous acidity to match well with food, and potential to improve with bottle age."
Today, you can sample the 2006 Hitching Post merlot by the glass at the restaurant, or an older 2004 by the bottle. Mr Ostini says the Santa Barbara region is known for chardonnays, syrahs, cabernet francs as well as pinots, and the push with merlot is part of this story of diversity.
The Hitching Post's menu - it is famous for its steaks, quail, grilled artichokes and french fries - has always drawn in the hungry from miles around. Mr Ostini can be seen cooking in the kitchen most days, wearing a pith helmet because he says that most comfortably accommodates US health and safety standards for chefs.
The restaurant's relationship with Sideways actually started way before 2004 - it was a popular hangout of author Rex Pickett as he did research for the novel on which Sideways is based.
"The exposure of the movie gave us a chance to reach new customers for both the restaurant and our wines," says Mr Ostini. "We had over 30 per cent increase in an already busy restaurant, but we dealt with most of it very well."
This article was first published in The Business Times.