'Dude," read the message from my old college buddy. "Weird." There was this movie Sideways, he wrote, which David Denby had just reviewed for the New Yorker. It was about a fortysomething wine-loving failed novelist named Miles who lives in San Diego and takes his libidinous college buddy Jack on a week-long bachelor bender to wine country. (My buddy is happily married, but his pie-eating grin mapped well onto Jack's, as played by Thomas Haden Church.) He'd also sent the accompanying photo, suggesting the caption, "Matthew declaims on the finer points of Mexican rosé to Joe, who only wants to drink the damn thing down, considering the FIVE OTHER BOTTLES OF BOOZE STARING THEM IN THE FACE!" (My friend knows how to read a picture. In the film, that's exactly what's going on.)
"I am not, repeat, NOT fortysomething," I shot back. But good gravy. Watching actor Paul Giamatti's character drive north past the airport on the 5, go nuts over Pinot, spiral into self-loathing, and harangue his agent about his unpublished (unpublishable) novel, I cringed. It's unsettling to see yourself on a movie screen, only balder and paunchier and with more facial hair. They even picked up on my affection for Riesling.
But if watching Miles was wine unsettling, it was also a thrill, and not only because there was a fellow geek on the screen, complaining about manipulated Chardonnay and gazing lustily at someone else's Richebourg. (Why oenophiles are "geeks" and Civil War fanatics are "buffs," I dunno.) Some of the thrill was because the wine geek was not a preening aesthete but a slobby guy who liked drinking good wine and paid attention to the distinctions that provide much of its pleasure. I myself would not refer to a wine as "tighter than a nun's a**hole," but the phrase has the virtue of sounding like regular-guy speak.
Miles is not a snob; he just cares about what he drinks. When he cuts out on a tedious lecture on Pinot to slip into a winery's barrel room, it's clear we're meant to sympathize with someone who knows better than the pontificating windbag. And when Miles does get huffy, it's for extraneous reasons: once when Jack gushes over a poor wine simply because he wants to bed the gal pouring it, and again when Jack drags him to a lousy, touristy winery in an effort to cheer him up.
Miles is no poster boy for the wine crowd, however. He starts the film hungover and pretty much stays that way -- except when he's drinking. He knocks back bottle after beautiful bottle, not in the generous sense of the moment, but because he's depressed and frightened. The contrast between wine lover and wino is laid out in two scenes not five minutes apart. While looking out across the rolling vineyards with Jack, Miles recalls picnicking with his (now) ex-wife on the same spot. "We drank a '95 Opus One," he says, his voice melting with the memory. The accompanying repast involved smoked salmon, an unfortunate pairing, "but we didn't care." That day, the wine highlighted the occasion. If the sensual experience wasn't ideal, so what? A few hours later, when he's about to go to dinner with a lovely, affectionate woman, all he can think to say is that he's "not drinking any f***ing Merlot." The wine has taken center stage; it's trumped the thing that can make him happy -- the promise of love. In comparison, all wine can do is stroke his ego, make him sensually intrigued, and get him drunk.
His degraded affection for the grape is laid bare when, after his novel finally gets the killing stroke, he heads into a tourist winery and begins pounding tastes of some lousy red as if they were shots of whiskey. When the pourer cuts him off -- "This is a winery, not a bar" -- Miles loses it and dumps the contents of the spit bucket down his own throat, his face, and his shirt. At this point, he's less a connoisseur than a hooligan.
That's the real thrill: the way the movie uses wine to illustrate character. When Buellton-based waitress-divorcée Maya discerns that the alcohol on an Andrew Murray Syrah overwhelms the fruit, Miles is taken aback. It's his first indication that he's misjudged her, that she's a person of finer sensibilities than he imagined. He starts taking her more seriously. Then he lets on that he's saving his star bottle, a '61 Cheval Blanc, for a special occasion -- he had hoped to open it on his tenth wedding anniversary. "The '61s are peaking," she warns him -- they may even be starting to decline. Besides, "When you open a '61 Cheval Blanc -- that's the occasion."
Perhaps the clearest example comes during Miles' speech about why he's into Pinot Noir. He likes that it's thin-skinned and temperamental, requiring constant care from a nurturing and patient grower. It's a wine full of disappointments, but when it succeeds -- when the vintage, the vineyard, and the vigneron all hit their marks -- Pinot Noir is as good as wine gets. For her part, Maya's introduction to wine via her (ex) husband's "showoff cellar" teaches her that she has worth -- she's got a great palate -- and that her husband is a fraud. (She laughs when she says this, but she says it nonetheless.) She falls in love with the way wine changes, the way it offers different things over the course of its life. As she tells Miles this, her passion comes to the fore; she reveals herself as she speaks. Miles, a bit of a tight wine himself, retreats into casual chit-chat.
The film isn't about wine, of course, it's about Miles and Jack. So I hope I haven't given too much away. About the story, I will say that it provides some justification for a man's decision to knock back a '61 Cheval Blanc from a polystyrene cup while munching a burger and onion rings in an anonymous San Diego diner. I just wish he'd gone to Hodad's to do it.