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The Oregonian
Thursday, January 20th, 2011
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by Rex Pickett

Rex Pickett Brings His "Sideways" Characters to the Willamette Valley

A review by Angie Jabine

It's safe to say the Oregon wine community viewed the 2004 hit comedy Sideways with mixed emotions. On the one hand, the movie's love affair with pinot noir had a definite "ka-ching" effect on pinot noir sales everywhere. On the other hand, Sideways is set not in Oregon's Willamette Valley -- where something like two-thirds of all the vineyards are planted in pinot noir -- but in California's Santa Ynez Valley, where a dozen other varietals jostle with pinot for primacy. Oregonians were, understandably, a little miffed.

Rex Pickett, the guy who wrote the book that spawned the movie, tries to patch things up with Oregon in his new, self-published sequel, Vertical. It's another road trip featuring nebbishy protagonist Miles Raymond and his horndog buddy Jack, and it takes the two of them -- along with Miles' stroke-dazzled mother, her Filipina caretaker and a troublesome Yorkie terrier -- on another wine-drenched journey that reaches its bibulous heights at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in the town of "Willamette."

The town may be spurious, but the wineries that Pickett mentions are not. And I'm going to do those who are keeping track a favor and just tally all their names right now. Here are the Oregon wineries named in Vertical:

Amity, Anne Amie, Archery Summit, Ayoub, Ayres, Bergstrom, Boedecker, Elk Cove, Harper Voit, Patricia Green, Raptor Ridge, St. Innocent, Soter, Van Duzer, WillaKenzie and Witness Tree.

Whether these wineries will take pride in being so honored depends on how they feel about a tale that is, depending on your temperament, "Rabelaisian" or just plain crude.

When we left Miles in Sideways, he was trying to sell an unpublished novel and pursuing a romance with a lovely pinot-phile named Maya. In Vertical we learn that the book is now a hit movie, and Miles is the toast of the wine festival circuit. Maya is forgotten in the whirl of celebrity, all the free wine Miles can guzzle and groupies galore.

His mother, meanwhile, has suffered a stroke and a heart attack. Half-paralyzed but still feisty, she hates her assisted-living facility and wants more than anything to return to her childhood home in Sheboygan, Wis., to be cared for by her younger sister.

Jack, not surprisingly, is divorced and broke. With an invite to emcee the International Pinot Noir Celebration, Miles decides a road trip is in order. He'll rent a ramp van for his wheelchair-bound mother and her caretaker, hire Jack to help with the driving, and they'll all take a leisurely tour of California's wine regions, spend three days in the Willamette Valley and eventually deliver Mom safely to Sheboygan.

Surprisingly few reviewers commented on the fact that Sideways was essentially a prolonged alcoholic bender. Vertical is much the same. The veneer of connoisseurship is exceedingly thin when your protagonists are routinely polishing off a bottle of whatever's open for breakfast, not to mention passing a bottle back and forth in the front seat.

The sexual antics are equally relentless. The road trip can't even get off the ground until Miles employs an unforgivable stratagem to get his mother's dog Snapper back from the ex-girlfriend who adopted the dog after his mother's stroke. In a vineyard south of Paso Robles, Calif., Miles cavorts with a Spanish tourist who can't believe she's, well, cavorting with the man behind the movie (appropriately called Shameless here) that brought her to California.

Things are going nicely, at least for Miles and Jack -- Mom and her increasingly sullen caretaker are pretty much hostage to their whims -- until Jack develops a nasty case of Viagra-induced priapism, Mom develops an impacted molar and Snapper gets hit by a car. Miles, iPhone at the ready, gets Jack to a hospital for a truly wince-inducing emergency procedure. Snapper survives his accident but must be left behind with a veterinarian, who also obligingly extracts Mom's tooth, as the only dentist in town won't risk it, not with all the blood thinners she's taking for her heart condition.

We're more than halfway through the book before the van deposits our travelers at the (real) Brookside Inn in Carlton. It's time for the International Pinot Noir Celebration which, in Pickett's hands, is nothing short of a three-day bacchanal. Says Miles, "Rumor had it that at the IPNC, if you fell in with the wrong crowd -- which Jack and I were prone to do -- things could get dangerously out of control."

Now, as far as I know, Pickett has never attended the IPNC. He has told interviewers he was invited to emcee but had to turn it down. In Vertical, his alter ego revels in the spotlight, but the reveling turns to reviling when he agrees to a celebrity dunking for charity on the festival grounds. (These dunkings do happen at IPNC. But they involve being dunked in a tank full of water, not "Two-Buck Chuck" Merlot.)

And here a turning point is reached. Jack bails on Miles, and so does the long-suffering caretaker. With his mother dependent solely on him to take her home, Miles has to get sober, and quick. Suddenly we are reading quite a different story, still mordantly funny but surprisingly touching. In going from sideways (i.e., looped) to vertical, Miles is finally able to discern what his mother really wants from him, and he finds a way to give it to her. Who knows? It could make a good movie.

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