Rex Pickett's Sideways Column: Summer is for Road Trips

Rex Pickett's first wine tasting road trip was in Napa and Sonoma.

© Shutterstock


Rex Pickett's first wine tasting road trip was in Napa and Sonoma.

© Shutterstock Rex Pickett's Sideways Column: Summer is for Road Trips Reminiscing about past road trips, our columnist remembers his first forays into wine country and the transformative powers of those vineyards and the idea that changed his career.

Relationships and writing projects have one thing in common; they take trial and error to get right, to find that balance between mutual understanding and need, maturity and knowing what you want. Road trips are the same. I have written and directed two feature films and they were both road movies. Difficult-to-make road movies. I can’t say I got it right. There’s something about the road. Every mile racked up launches you to a new adventure. But it wasn’t until I discovered road trips and wine tasting that I knew I had found the acme of travel.  And wine tasting road trips, which more or less originated in California, are meant to be taken in the summer when the vines are leafed out in all their verdancy, when the air is warm and balmy, when birdsong can be sonorously deafening, when all else around you is awash in silence.

I took my first wine tasting road trip to Napa and Sonoma back in the eighties with my now ex-wife Barbara. There was something exciting and rejuvenating about angling off a barbarous freeway and suddenly finding oneself in the rural world of wine country. At a quaint grocery store, we purchased a colourful map of the wineries and, knowing nothing about wine, began to explore the single-lane roads, sometimes bending off onto dirt roads – how wonderful!  The tasting rooms weren’t open all day like they are today. They didn’t have three pricing tiers of tasting choices, the most expensive being the elitist wine club choice where you were shown into a private room with other wine club members. Back then they didn’t have “wine experts” justifying the exorbitant tasting room fees by delivering academic lectures on their vineyards and vinification methodologies with videos playing on screens in the background. You just showed up, often down a long and winding dirt path bordered by large stones or arboreally shaded. The tasting rooms were frequently empty. Bric-a-brac (T-shirts, corkscrews ...) was non-existent. Greed and capitalism weren’t omnipresent in the air.

I remember on that first wine-tasting trip ending up at a now famous winery, Dry Creek. We sampled some of their aromatic Sauvignon Blancs, then bought a bottle and meandered our way out to a picnic bench splashed in sunlight and sipped the wine as hawks wheeled overhead. It was romantic; it was summer; it, alas, was not meant to last.

Escape into wine country 

In the nineties, my life took a turn toward the destitute. I was living in L.A. and clinging to my “profession,” my “career” as a writer, all alone in my rent-controlled house. I needed an escape. When the world felt omnipresent with its crushing weight of failure and debt, I would throw my golf clubs into my rattletrap Honda Accord and vector north, covering miles of soul-destroying freeway before I came to peaceful Santa Barbara. An hour later I was in the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley – a wine region now made ridiculously famous by Sideways.  Golf soon gave way to wine tasting when I learned that it was wine country, albeit a burgeoning one, one that I got to discover seemingly all on my own. I distinctly remember a summer day when I saw a small sign for Sanford Winery (back when pioneering Richard Sanford owned it). The tasting room was situated at the cul-de-sac of a dirt road that wound through beautiful vineyards. It was a weathered adobe-style structure with a corrugated tin roof helmed by a tall hippie-looking dude named Chris Burroughs sporting a grey Stetson adorned with a beaded headband. As soon as I clambered out of the car, stretched and inhaled the flora-redolent air, all I heard were birds chattering in the tall oak trees. My being was immediately permeated by a natural drug-inducing peace. I heard no cars, no urban cacophony. Now and then there was the cawing of a turkey vulture piercing the sonority of the songbirds, but nothing else. The tasting room was blissfully empty.  Chris came out from the back. He was setting up the bar for the day’s guests. I knew I had found heaven. The seed for my novel Sideways was unwittingly sown in that preternaturally beautiful moment.

Summer in the soul

I grew up in southern California, and surfed every summer until I fell in love with literature and film, and then discovered the intracranial theatre of the imagination and new aspirational goals. But summer for me will always be felicitously associated with wine tasting road trips. The two pair together like Pinot Noir and slow-cooked goat shanks. Whenever I felt down or despairing about my life, I got in my car and steered it north, up the 405, then the 101, and kept going for another two hours before I found the wonderfully intoxicating joys of wine tasting. The great Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung said the soul needed the revivifying power that immersion in nature provides. Wine tasting road trips happen in nature. You motor from winery to winery in a sylvan paradise and you regain that connection to your soul that Jung argued was a desideratum for mental health. Sure, you can go wine tasting in the winter, but it’s summer, leading into fall and the imminent thrill of harvest, that dislodges my most profound memories. Without those summer road trips – not always alone; sometimes with girlfriends, sometimes with those who might become characters in my novels – I would not have discovered the glory of a book that became a movie that has become a fixture in the wine world.

I’m in New Zealand now, Central Otago to be exact, researching and writing the next Sideways novel, and though it’s their winter, it’s still summer in my soul.