Sure, Sideways is good. But how's the wine?

Nov. 5 2004 6:25 PM

A Connoisseur's Guide to Sideways

Sure, the movie's good. But how's the wine?

Sideways: great wine porn
Sideways: great wine porn

When I first heard about Sideways, the film that follows a wine buff and his friend on a weeklong, wine-soaked misadventure through the vineyards of California's central coast, I braced myself for two cringe-inducing hours at the theater. My apprehension wasn't all that surprising, I suppose—whenever obscure hobbies become fodder for major motion pictures, the hobbyists get restless. We worry that the filmmakers, in some misguided effort to render a beloved and complicated subject accessible, will dumb it down and produce a work riddled with errors.

Sideways is a major disappointment for those of us who relish pointing out such mistakes. It is not just a terrific movie: It is a terrific wine movie, one that should put an appreciative smile on the face of every oenophile. 

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The movie doesn't get everything right, of course. At one point in the film, Miles Raymond (the wine obsessive played by Paul Giamatti) is dumbstruck to discover that Stephanie (the saucy tasting-room hostess played by Sandra Oh) has a Richebourg in her small wine collection. But the fact that the wine is a Richebourg (a grand cru red Burgundy) by no means guarantees that it will be celestial; what matters is who made the wine and when. The important point is that Stephanie's bottle is a Romanee-Conti Richebourg—which is impressive. (Unfortunately, we don't get a close enough shot of the bottle to see the vintage.) 

A more substantial sticking point is Miles. It is impossible to say that Paul Giamatti's portrait of the oenophile is inaccurate, but it is not exactly flattering. Apart from being luckless and joyless—his life is truly an empty glass—Miles is also a bit of a wine asshole. At the first winery he and his friend Jack hit, Miles claims to detect in one wine a "soupçon of asparagus" and a "flutter of nutty cheese," descriptions that had me sliding a little lower in my seat. Later in the movie, he pompously dismisses another wine as "quaffable but far from transcendent." Miles is also condescending. When Maya (the love interest played by Virginia Madsen) observes that the alcohol overwhelms a pinot noir the two of them are sharing, he seems excessively surprised that she recognizes the flaw in the wine and can diagnose it using the correct lingo.

Sideways casts a bemused eye at wine geek culture generally. It suggests that all the sniffing, swilling, and pontificating is ultimately BS and that, even for an aficionado like Miles, the real point of tasting fine wine is to catch a nice buzz. (Miles is forever getting tanked and nursing hangovers.) In TheNew Yorker's recent food issue, Adam Gopnik caused some gnashing of teeth among oenophiles when he claimed that the rituals and rigors of wine appreciation are essentially a smokescreen, a way of prettifying the grubby business of getting bombed. In online chat rooms, aggrieved wine lovers weighed in: "The enjoyment of wine qua wine, distinct from the joy of imbibing alcohol to get drunk, seems lost on Mr. Gopnik," one wrote. "The twin pleasures of the wine and its alcohol combine to produce an intoxicating effect, but to collapse the former into the latter is to effect a fruitless reduction. ... I have been pleasantly drunk on fine wine and cheap lager. Sorry, there is a difference." So far, wine fans have been kind to Sideways, even though it echoes Gopnik at points—perhaps this is the best testament to how winning the movie is.

And it is winning. Sideways is great wine porn. The vineyard scenes are, of course, stunning, and the wines paraded across the screen will certainly put that knowing smile on the faces of those who like to drink well. When Maya and Stephanie join Miles and Jack for dinner one night, the bottles come fast and furious, and all are recognizable, estimable names: Kistler, Sea Smoke, Andrew Murray, Dominique Laurent (a slightly odd presence, given that Miles indicates early on that he is no fan of excessive oak). When the ladies retreat to the bathroom for a moment and Jack chastises Miles for having subjected the table to a lengthy disquisition on Gaston Huet's Vouvrays—perhaps the ultimate insider's wines—I nearly fell out of my seat. Huet's Vouvrays, mentioned in a major motion picture? Delicious.

There were other things I never thought I'd hear in a mainstream movie. Miles outside a restaurant: "If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I'm not drinking any fucking merlot." Maya to Miles: "Why are so you into pinot?" Miles to Jack: "I just don't like the way they manipulate chardonnay." There was also one thing I hope I only ever see in a major motion picture: Late in the film, sad sack Miles takes a 1961 Cheval Blanc to a local diner and proceeds to drink it out of a Styrofoam cup while chomping on a burger and onion rings. True, he is borderline suicidal at this point, and maybe this is his death-row meal, but a '61 Cheval Blanc certainly deserves a better death than that.

For this wine geek, it is Miles' affection for pinot noir that is most thought-provoking. Pinot, at least in its Burgundian incarnation (and it is in Burgundy that pinot reaches its apogee), is the most fickle wine grape. It also happens to produce, in Burgundy at least, the most ravishing and seductive wines of all, and I've always regarded pinot as the grape that has the greatest appeal for sensualists.

But because pinot is so temperamental, it delivers a lot more frustration than pleasure—for every truly sublime red Burgundy, there are probably a dozen that are thin, tart, and insipid. That Xanax-popping Miles, whose life is one long catalog of disappointments, is drawn to the one wine grape that rarely fails to disappoint raises an intriguing question: Pinot may appeal to sensualists, but does it also hold a perverse appeal for masochists and tortured souls? It is a question the sensualists may ponder over their next bottles of Volnay.

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