"Sideways," the iconic film about love, friendship and wine (especially pinot noir) set in the Santa Ynez Valley, returned home Sat., Aug. 2 for a gala reunion of the cast and crew.  

It was all for a good cause. Tables at the event were sold last February during the Santa Barbara Wine Auction Benefiting Direct Relief, with donors digging deep and paying $10,000 for each table of 10. In all, $100,000 was raised for the Santa Barbara-based relief agency, double what had been anticipated.

The auction package was the brainchild of Frank Ostini, whose Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton was prominently featured in the 2004 film, with the gala being held under a tent at Au Bon Climat owner/winemaker Jim Clendenen's historic Rancho la Cuna de California in Los Alamos.

"This film has been very good to me and my restaurant, and realizing the 10th anniversary of its premiere was coming up, I thought a reunion dinner would be a great auction package for Direct Relief," explained Ostini, a longtime Direct Relief supporter. "I've remained friends with people from the movie and was so gratified when many of them agreed to come back to our Valley for this benefit dinner."

Ostini's Hitching Post crew, led by chef Brad Lettau, prepared the pass-around appetizers and five-course sit down dinner, with help from James Sly of Sly's restaurant in Carpinteria, and veteran caterer Michael Hutchings. Local singer/guitarist Jacob Cole provided the entertainment. Ostini's wife, Jami, organized the wine-themed decor.

"Sideways" star Paul Giamatti was gracious with all the guests, posing for countless photos.  He'd flown in from his home in Brooklyn several days earlier. "None of us had any idea of the impact this film would have," Giamatti said. "It's turned into the little movie that could, so I have very warm feelings about this area."

Oscar-nominated director Alexander Payne, who lives in Los Angeles and Omaha, Nebraska, gets back to the Valley "every couple of years," he said. There had been rumors he might shoot a "Sideways" sequel but he put those rumors to rest. He's on to new stories and new characters.

He also shared one of his favorite memories of the production. Filming began with the actors drinking "carefully curated fruit juices blended so they'd looked exactly like pinot noir. By week three, we decided, the heck with it, and let everybody drink the real stuff."

Payne was accompanied by one of the stars of his most recent Oscar-nominated film, "Nebraska." Angela McEwan played the scene-stealing grandmother; she only began her acting career after her husband of 50 years died in 2009. Would she like to work with Payne again? "Absolutely," she beamed.

Also in attendance were "Sideways" producer Michael London, co-producer and assistant director, George Parra, set decorator Jane Stewart and editor Kevin Trent. Actress Virginia Madsen, who played Hitching Post waitress and Giamatti's love interest, was away on a film location in Hungary, but still called in via Skype.  It was the first time she and Giamatti had been in contact in a decade.

"I'm so sorry I couldn't be there in person," Madsen said. "It's 7 a.m. here and I'm going to toast you all with my orange juice."

Valley notables, who enjoyed a selection of wines from Hartley Ostini Hitching Post and Au Bon Climat, carefully paired to the menu, included Mike and Kathy Gordon, owners of the popular SY Kitchen, Foxen Winery's Dick and Jenny Doré, and Dr. Doug and Mariruth Webster.

They were all thanked for their contributions by Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe.

"Amazingly generous people like Frank Ostini, Jim Clendenen, and all of you are why we are able to continue to provide medicine and medical aid to those in need around the country and around the world," he said.


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