Sideways author: ‘I was ready to shoot myself- then I observed pinot noir’

His riotous story of two buddies on a wine-and-woman journey intoxicated the world. As Sideways makes the stage, Rex Pickett recollects how “hes been gone” from debt-ridden divorcee to the toast of Hollywood

In 1998, my life was in the proverbial Dixie dumpster. I was living in Santa Monica in a rent-controlled home. I was dead broke. My indie feature film career had been poleaxed. My wife, who created and acted in those cinemas, and I had parted company. My mother had suffered a massive stroke. A larcenous younger brother had swooped down to steal what was left of my meagre trust fund. I had a novel that had been doing the rounds of the New York publishing world, to no avail. Messengers started pounding on my door at 6am to serve me lawsuits on old debts.

In short, if I could have afforded a firearm I would have shot myself. Instead, I believed, this is a good time to alchemise my destitute and despairing life into, uh, er, ahem well, writers are like thieves: were always working.

Long story, but I had fallen in love with wine, particularly one variety: pinot noir. Why that over cabernet or syrah or viognier or riesling? To me, it seemed an ethereal grape. When sourced from great vineyards, when vinified with care, it spoke to me like Lorelei of the Lakes. In my lowly state, I had not fallen in love with a woman who was going to be the answer to all my problems. I had fallen in love with a grape a grape that drove me to lyrical heights.

I started attending tastings. It was my only social outlet. I gratified wine geeks for whom the drink was almost a religion. I related to their passion. The Saturday afternoon tastings at Epicurus in Santa Monica are now legendary. A Brit named Julian Davies worked the floor peddling wine. Julian opened bottles I could never have afforded and taught me much of what I know about wine. Through him, I began to understand that the knowledge surrounding wine was a bottomless ocean that could never be mastered.

This is heaven Sideways, with Paul Giamatti on right. Photo: Merie W Wallace/ Fox Searchlight Pictures/ Handou/ Reuters

This wasnt only an alcoholic beverage anodyne to a miserable life. This was a world of mystery, inhabited by artisans who were in it for the love of the final product: a wine, when attained right, could induce you levitate, transport you to another world, hoist you to heights of, well, verse. It defined my imagination spinning.

Back then, the Santa Ynez Valley was a little known wine region north of Santa Barbara. Perhaps 50 wineries now more than 250. Very little pinot noir had been planted in the 90 s when I started sojourning up there, first to play golf, then to get familiar with the wines. I loathed Los Angeles and the cruel film industry that had brought me so much misery. So I would throw my golf clubs in the car and take off. Soon, instead of golfing, I ran wine tasting. I hung out at the Hitching Post restaurant and befriended local winemakers. My fascination deepened. I discovered small, ramshackle tasting rooms in this sylvan paradise a mere two hours from the horrors of LA, and I believed: This is heaven.

On one journey, I brought along my friend Roy Gittens, an electrician on my failed second movie. We ran wine tasting. I attained him giggle. Savor room after savor room. More wine. And some golf. And ostrich and pinot at the Hitching Post. At some phase during that journey, he suggested I write a screenplay about guys who run wine-tasting. Galvanised, I wrote a screenplay called Two Guys on Wine. I didnt like it. There was something about it that didnt work. The rejection letters on my novel continued to pour in.

Meanwhile, my publishing agent had come out from New York to Los Angeles to be a book-to-film agent. I had started to write a short story about the Saturday tastings and the wild periods with Julian and the group. It was written in the first person, from the standpoint of one Miles Raymond, and associated an afternoon where things, well, degenerate into a brawl.

When I got to the end of the story, I stood up and exclaimed out loud to the wall: Wow, Two Guys on Wine will be a fiction , not a screenplay. It will be a wine-soaked journey where everything that could go wrong will go wrong. All their midlife crisis Miless inability to sell his novel, his friends upcoming nuptials will be the spine upon which my characters will hold the reins, as if trying to stay on a bucking bronco.

I got to pour high-end pinot! Rex Pickett at rehearsals. Photo: Pamela Raith

Although my book would be filled with depression, hopelessnes and sadness( because thats where my life was ), I knew no one would want to read it unless I attained it funny! The greatest wines are those with the perfect balance of acidity and fruit, and my fiction would combine those components. Galvanised, I wrote Two Guys on Wine in nine weeks in an absolute conflagration of creative oblivion. I forgot who I was. I poured in everything: my divorce, my destitution, my failed writing career, my loneliness, my friendship with Roy, and my newfound love for wine, especially the singularly mysterious pinot noir.

When I was done, I felt depressed. I had lived the journey in my imagination, and that was such a wonderful feeling. I had, through the power of words, determined a route to induce myself laugh, weep and ensure things about myself that I didnt know. My agent ran nuts for it. My ex-wife, owned of an Academy Award for a short movie I wrote, detested it and told me in no uncertain terms: Burn it. It will end your career. But Barbara, I told, I have no career.

When Alexander Paynes film of my book came out in 2004, Merlot ran from 20% of the red wine marketplace in the US to a grim 7% because of one line uttered by Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, and pinot noir shot up from 1% to almost 8 %. Wine appreciation and savor became hip. The Santa Ynez Valley, where the movie was shoot, witnessed a inundation of tourism that has not abated. I watched little of the spoilings, but I didnt care. What mattered to me was the validation, the more than 350 awards we won including the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. It was a heady time.

Several years later, I was approached about doing a theatrical adaptation for a small venue in Santa Monica. I didnt wishes to. I thought it would look like I was capitalising on a popular and lovingly remembered movie that, alas, could only now be enjoyed on DVD. Then I believed: after all the spotlight-hogging and credit-grabbing that had pushed me and the fiction I had suffered to write to the periphery in such a way that only Hollywood can, this could be a way to reclaim my intellectual property. Everywhere I ran, I gratified people who didnt know me, but if I mentioned Sideways, their eyes illuminated up. Something about it touched a nerve. I believed, why not? If it fails, well, Im no stranger to failure!

The journey has only begun Sideways rehearsals. Photo: Pamela Raith

The play was staged at the 50 -seat Ruskin Group theatre, in Santa Monica. It was directed against Amelia Mulkey, who had only staged one play. We gave three performances a week, and it operated for a record-shattering six months. I was at the theatre three nights a week for the entire run. I get more love there than in my entire childhood. I got to pour for free! high-end pinot noir from all over the world, liberally and profligately, in proper pinot noir stemware!

Soon, wine regions around the globe were clamouring for the play. Broadway was calling with its siren charms and dangerously high standards. But I wanted London. I had heard that its off West End scene was one of the most vibrant in the world. My play celebrated language, with Miless surreal monologues, and the slapstick felt rowdily British. As I write this, I have now been in London for less than a week. We have begun rehearsals.

One day with no fund and making 40 as if it was a wall and I was steering a rickety old auto without brakes I sat down and wrote a fiction, a two-decade-long tale of heartbreak, failure and victory. I helped transform the wine industry and inspired millions of people to seek out what Miles discovered in his beloved pinot noir. I wanted to celebrate that feeling everyone who has fallen in love with wine knows so intimately. And I have a sneaking feeling the journey has only just begun.

Sideways is at St James theatre, London, 26 May-9 July. Box office: 0844 -2 64 2140.

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