Rex Pickett, author of “Sideways,” Crushes on Chile and Artisan Wine

A few weeks ago I received a copy of “Vertical” in the mail, Rex Pickett’s sequel to his famous novel, “Sideways.”  Given my love of the movie, I gobbled the book up.  I noticed it was published in 2011, but the copy I was sent said it was re-published in 2016.  Odd.  I reached out to Pickett via Twitter to inquire, and he actually replied. Much like the question about merlot, Pickett didn’t want to address the two book versions, but now I want to read his award-winning “Vertical” to compare, as well as “Sideways 3 Chile.”

 I’m intrigued that he’s still in the wine game and that his current projects include the “Sideways” play, coming soon to Sonoma, and a possible TV show called “Terroir Chile.” Given I had his attention via email, I was curious how the “Sideways” movie’s success has changed him. Is he now a wine geek, collector, and bon vivant? I found him as down to earth, approachable, and authentic as ever.

 Writing your “Sideways” novel was a game-changer for you. Has the public come to expect wine as a theme in your work now, and do you disdain this or has it taken you on a path of growth and continued love for wine?
If wine takes me to a new culture—I’m thinking of Chile mostly—and I get to travel and meet new people doing incredibly different things with wine, I don’t disdain it at all.  I hope it’s not an expected theme in my work.  And, yes, wine has taken me on a journey, and a literary trajectory, toward some kind of growth.  But, my books are not about wine per se.  They’re about people, their hopes and dreams, their failings and glimmers of success, love and all the rest.  Wine is just the back-drop.  Yes, some would like to put it in the forefront.  And, that’s fine. 

Your experience and passion in fighting to protect the “verisimilitude” of your writing reminds me of the boutique or artisan wine producer who stays tried-and-true to his standards in the vineyard and in his wines. Do you find yourself drawn to these wineries yourself?
The smaller the better. The ones in it for the love, not for the profit, are the ones I’m drawn to, yes.  The ones who are uncompromising.  The Chileans I’ve met who grow grapes in regions where you can’t believe they’re going to ripen because they don’t get enough heat.  Some of the Italian winemakers in Chianti Classico who leave their Sangiovese in barrel for four years, because they know it needs that kind of time and don’t feel a need to rush it to market.  The ones who refuse to manipulate their wine.

 In California, we see so much of this manipulated wine because of deregulation and an absence of labeling ingredients.  Wines that I rhapsodized about in “Sideways,” I later learned had been totally manipulated:  grapes brought to over-ripeness, then watered back to bring the alcohol down; the addition of tartaric acid; and worse.  I like the pure, artisanal winemakers.

Tell me a bit more about your current love of Chile. What captivates you about the people and the wine?
In 2012 and 2013, I was invited to go to Chile to research a novel.  I had never been south of the Equator.  The Chileans are an amazingly humble people.  Having come out of a brutal military dictatorship, they’re still sitting on a lot of fear and resentment.  But, they are a prosperous country.  And their 12 unique wine regions are topographically the most incredible in the world, bar none.  It’s going to take some time, but I truly believe Chile is the new frontier for wine.

 A lot of ex-pats have migrated there, bringing their winemaking skills from New Zealand and France and California, and elsewhere, and they’re taking risks.  They’re truly trailblazing.  California wine is boring to me.  They’re commoditizing the taste for an unadventurous palate.  What Maria Marin is doing at Viña Casa Marin with pinot noir and sauvignon blanc is mind-blowing.  Without question, the most underappreciated wine region in the world.  And I like discovery.   I discovered the Santa Ynez Valley, (Alexander) Payne immortalized it with the film, and now they’ve sold out in so many different ways.  Sure, there are still some good wines coming out of there, but it’s all about money now. 

 Chile is about heart, soul, the land.  You don’t hear those words in California.  In Chile, they still dare to have an imagination, they still dare to take risks.  In California it’s all business.  Chile is producing the next generation of truly artistic winemakers.  I embrace anything that is creative, imaginative, and risk-taking. 

For me, TV wine shows have been painful to watch. They’re either tacky and cliche or snobby and boring.  I understand that your “Terroir Chile” show will be similar to the Anthony Bourdain model, but about wine. I’m a Bourdain fan, and though I’ve watched his show morph over the years, the common denominator is about food as a community’s tradition and connection to one another.  Why hasn’t wine on TV been done well?
What Bourdain does so well—and, again, this can’t be taught—is that he has a voice, a unique voice:  at times sarcastic, trenchant, hip, and always deeply informed.  No wine show has ever had someone with his voice.  Turn off the sound on anyone of his Parts Unknown, or strip it of its voice-over, and it’s just a lot of pretty visuals.  His voice-over is what makes his shows work.  And food is not an end in itself to Bourdain.  Food is just the hub that spokes out to the culture:  artists, chefs, musicians, the people in the world where he travels.  Bourdain’s shows work because his personality is unique, uncompromising, unflinching.  There’re no pretenses with him. Wine shows I’ve seen haven’t found this voice. I hope to find it this fall in my show. We’ll see. 

Where, when, and how can people see it.
“Terroir Chile” is waiting on a grant proposal to be decided in August or September. If we get the grant, we go immediately into production. 

Do you read about winem like the recent stream of articles regarding “bad wine is good wine to some” versus “bad wine is just bad wine.” Where do you stand on this viewpoint, given your own palate growth over the years?
Wine, like anything that involves taste, is highly subjective.  I’m shocked when I learn people like a certain movie or author whom I find dreadful.  And vice versa.  It’s very personal.  But, if wine can inspire conversation, can ignite a dialogue, then there’s hope for a greater appreciation of it through sheer greater understanding. 


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