Twenty years ago, an unassuming indie picture completely upended the wine world. As for the cool, quiet hills and valleys in which the film was set? It would never be the same.

Sideways” was an unexpected smash hit. Released in October of 2004, it went on to rake in a genre-busting $70 million in the U.S. and about $110 million worldwide at the box office during its run. For a film with a measly $16 million budget, that’s a goddamn killing.

Dozens of awards — including an Oscar for its darkly offbeat screenplay — rained down on the eccentric bender of a story.

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The movie didn’t just slingshot the careers of its purple-toothed stars — while simultaneously tanking Merlot and igniting the Pinot Noir boom. It also surprised the industry by supersizing the already percolating underground hype of Santa Barbara winemaking and its posse of fermentation frontiersmen.

“All of us knew [about filming] while it was going on,” says Greg Brewer, founder and winemaker at Brewer-Clifton. “At the same time, I don’t think that anyone had any idea how much it would eventually impact us all and for how long it endured.”

But back in the day — long before the camera crews showed up to blow its cover and alter the course of history — a mischievously scrappy lot of grapey gold hunters and rambunctious characters roamed the landscape.

“Everyone always had each other’s back,” Brewer says. “It was such a cool era.”

The Original Cowboys of Santa Barbara Wine

It was 1972, and a gregariously loquacious retail booze buyer had just migrated north from L.A. and settled in for his first gig in a sunny land of lotus eaters known as the City of Santa Barbara.

Don Gillette, currently the longtime senior wine specialist at San Francisco’s boutique retail institution Napa Valley Winery Exchange, had no idea at the time that he was about to enjoy front row seats to a revolution on California’s breezy, laid-back Central Coast.

In the early ’70s, it wasn’t wine country at all. “There were virtually no local Santa Barbara producers in 1972 when I began,” Gillette says. Firestone Vineyard had just been founded, followed shortly by the planting of Zaca Mesa vineyard, where winemaking godfather Ken Brown would soon mentor a who’s who of greats. But both were isolated, newborn pioneer operations stitched into the fabric of a sleepy agricultural valley.

“The old guard were focused on learning about what grapes worked here, where to plant them, and how best to make wine from them. We naturally banded together since we had no outside support group.”

Gradually and inevitably, acre by acre, more nascent shoots sprouted up.

“I remember tasting Pinot Noir with Michael Benedict from their first non-commercial harvest,” says Rick Longoria, Santa Barbara industry patriarch and founder and consulting winemaker for Longoria Wines. He had signed on to be the cellar foreman at Firestone around that time — at the recommendation of his fabled mentor André Tchelistcheff — and as expected, Longoria was busy getting a lay of the land. “[It was] a 1975 Pinot Noir, out of one of about four barrels stored in a makeshift cave,” Longoria says. The California “grand cruSanford & Benedict Vineyard had come of age and was ready to shine.

“The old guard were focused on learning about what grapes worked here, where to plant them, and how best to make wine from them,” Longoria says. They were true pioneers; doing their damndest to take an educated wild stab at what would work and where. “We naturally banded together since we had no outside support group.”

It was an epoch of trial and error; figure it out as you go. And fortunately for the county and wine lovers worldwide, their guesstimations frequently happened to be spot-on.

Firestone, Zaca Mesa, and Sanford & Benedict Vineyard picked up steam. And as the ’70s raced forward, ambitious little branches budded from the infant Santa Barbara winemaking seedling, typically led by talented assistants from those groundbreaking operations.

These bold young guns would roll down to the city of Santa Barbara and pick up goodies at Don Gillette’s bottle shop. Despite later becoming buddies with an assortment of these characters, Gillette wasn’t fully aware who this motley crew were at the time.

“I unknowingly had people like Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist as customers,” he says. “Perhaps because I always carried Jaboulet Hermitage … and was carrying the 1969 of a new Guigal wine called La Mouline.”

The Zaca Mesa Family Tree

In early 1979, a plucky young Bob Lindquist also found himself managing a wine shop. But unlike Gillette’s down in the city, this one happened to be in Los Olivos, the adorable little cultural heart beating at the center of what was gradually becoming bonafide Santa Barabara wine country.

It was owned by the son of a principal proprietor at Zaca Mesa, which promptly proved to be fortuitous, as Lindquist found his tenure at the retailer itself abruptly cut short. “In late August that year I was fired by the son … and hired by the father [at Zaca Mesa] the same day,” he recalls. “It involved a Kinks concert.”

(The details of said circumstances remain a closely guarded secret.)

“My boss was the assistant winemaker, Jim Clendenen. Jim taught me how to make wine [and] was my best friend back then,” Lindquist says of the departed icon. “We also hung out with Adam Tolmach, Rick Longoria, Fred Brander, Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict, … and Frank Ostini from the Hitching Post, which became a favorite haunt.”

“[He] loved movies, especially the offbeat type Alexander [Payne] was making. I’m sure Jim wanted to be in the movie and could not understand why he wasn’t.”

“Ken Brown at Zaca Mesa was very kind,” says Adam Tolmach, another alum and owner/winemaker at The Ojai Vineyard. The Zaca Mesa professor worked his class of lively personalities with precision, while simultaneously encouraging them to find their own voices.

It was a heady time during which a multitude of icons were fabricated from the Zaca Mesa forge. Tolmach and Clendenen founded Burgundy-inspired superstar Au Bon Climat before Tolmach left to start his own operation, and Lindquist fashioned Rhone Ranger champion Qupé into an icon of the Syrah-centric domain.

From other incubators in the county, grape-whisperers like Chris Whitcraft, Lane Tanner, Bryan Babcock, the Foxen Boys, and Kathy Joseph began popping into prominence from the pastoral terrain.

But by far, the most visible cheerleader for Santa Barbara wine — and irrefutably the most colorful — was Jim Clendenen himself.

“Jim was a tireless promoter. He was constantly going around the world talking up Santa Barbara County,” says Tolmach. “Ten years after our breakup, we began to get along well when we saw each other. What a character!”

Jim Adelman likewise remembers his notably roguish friend and colleague fondly. In astonishing contrast to the brash personality — which some found a bit much at times — Clendenen was a ballerina in the cellar. “He always made balanced wines, even when everyone was making huge wines,” says Adelman. The two Jims worked together for decades at Au Bon Climat, where Adelman continues on as general manager.

“[He] loved movies, especially the offbeat type Alexander [Payne] was making. I’m sure Jim wanted to be in the movie and could not understand why he wasn’t.” With such charisma — and Clendenen’s gargantuan persona and penchant for mischief — the term “scene stealer” comes to mind.

That cast wouldn’t have stood a chance.

‘Sideways’ Stumbles Into Santa Barbara

In 2003, whispers and sightings — along with a splash of trepidation — breezed through the valleys as Hollywood descended and filming for “Sideways” swung into action. The cast and crew were ready to shine a light on this now-thriving, if still relatively anonymous, slice of California wine paradise.

But not all the expectations were positive.

“The production crew came to me and asked to do some filming, but we were a bit skeptical to be honest,” says Chad Melville, head winegrower and owner at Melville Winery.

Sure, he loved the cast, but the script — a tale of questionable, damaged characters drunkenly tornadoing through wine country — was far from ideal. “I had heard the script wasn’t necessarily placing our area in a positive light,” he adds. “It’s a bit of a messed up story.”

Despite some minor local misgivings, filming marched on. In October and November, production hopped from one venue to another, laying down the sordid stew of wine-stained poor choices amid the backdrop of an ongoing harvest. But fortunately for the locals, the process ended up being fairly painless. The crew and the talent proved engaging and thoughtful, and work on-location wrapped in just 10 weeks.

The story of what followed is a well-trodden path of viticultural pop legend. Merlot was promptly pummeled in the market, Pinot Noir became the underdog “it” variety of a new millennium, and wine tourism in Santa Barbara shot off the charts.

Yadda, yadda, yadda. We’ve all heard it.

But as the aughts became the 2010s, the ruckus eventually died down a bit, and the region quietly continued to refine its craft — eager to put the focus back where it belongs. “To be honest, people around here have moved on and, in a way, are kinda over the whole thing,” says Melville.

“The quality of wines coming out of our region keep getting better every year, and we are driven to perfection,” he adds. “That’s exciting. That’s real. That’s the foundation, not a movie.”