« Film Reviews | Main | A tough month »

December 13, 2005


Originally posted December 2, 2004.

Last night I had a 2002 Byron Pinot Noir (Santa Maria valley). Byron, an erstwhile small independent, was bought out by Mondavi in the Nineties. I have heard that, for several years thereafter, their run was rather unimpressive (I wasn't drinking Byron back then). On opening, I didn't like the immediate bouqet-it was actually somehow unpleasant. However, the wine really opened up with in the glass aeration, and I picked up ripe cherry, plum, something like cinammon. Similar themes emerged on actually drinking. My wife noted a growing hint of spiciness as it aired further. Oddly enough, on the palate it somehow reminded me of a lighter version of some amarones I've had. The finish was not particularly long or strong. Overall, a nice choice-but wait a few minutes while the air helps it to sort itself out and come alive. I tried it with my beautiful new Riedel bordeaux glasses. I recommend these without hesitation or qualification. They are gorgeous and the glass engineering by Riedel is paying big dividends in terms of drinking experience.

Drinking Byron got me thinking about the movie "Sideways", which I saw last week. "Sideways", a wonderful film, is the the latest creation of Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt", "Election", "Citizen Ruth"). Based on what was an obscure novel of the same name by Rex Pickett, its success is surprising given its rather conventional framing. It essentially relies on three well-worn (OK: tired) plot devices: the road trip adventure; the odd couple; the last bash before marriage. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a depressed divorcee and failed novelist teaching middle school English in San Diego. An intellectual beleagured by what he views as a disappointing life, he speaks with precision only about wine, a subject which has provided a unique and dependable place of sanctuary in a life otherwise overtaken by steadily deepening emotional scars from unrelenting (and unrewarded) struggle and regretabble decisions. Obviously, wine also provides one hell of a buzz, which can often come in quite handy when you are as morose and disappointed as Miles.

Miles certainly isn't conventionally endearing, by looks or personality, but he is sympathethic, perhaps especially to men. Miles is at a place in life that many thoughtful men have occupied at one juncture or another. Beneath his brooding, occasional pettiness and periodic flashes of anger, one senses a deeper decency and hopefulness, however tenuous the latter may be. He mourns for his lost marriage to Victoria. It quickly becomes apparent that blame is fairly evenly shared with his former wife: she had a tendancy to resort to demeaning him, and he responded with the ultimate passive-aggressive gesture, an affair. But Miles is a sensitive person for whom hard emotional calculus does not come easily and, even two years after divorce, he finds himself unable to let go.

He likens himself to the Pinot Noir grape. Pinot Noir is fragile. In fact, in some respects it is the delicate tropical fish of elite reds. It only grows under restrictive conditions, only with great care, only in certain "tucked away corners of the world." As Miles points out, it's not a survivor, like Cabernet Sauvignon (a weed by comparison, at least in terms of its vigor). Pinot rarely reveals its full potential and brilliance, but when it does he believes (and here I totally agree with him) that it is essentially without compare.

His friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is, at least superficially, less sentimental. In a week he will marry Christina, and the film revolves around a road trip to the Santa Ynez wine country, best man Miles' gift to Jack. Miles envisions a week of good food, golf, great wine-a send off in style. Plagued by fear and doubt about his looming marriage, Jack is focused on the easy reassurance of relatively anonymous sex, the nastier the better.

From the outset it is clear that Miles and Jack are the ultimate odd couple: the aloof, depressed, physically unremarkable, cultured, subdued, stubborn, cautious, reticent author and intellectual alongside a gregarious, buffed, crass, horny, mercurial, optimistic, decidedly un-intellectual washed up actor still possessed of a laid back surfer dude kind of rugged handsomeness. All they really have in common is the experience of being freshman roomates at San Diego State University at least two decades earlier. And yet the relationship is oddly convincing. For each the other is one of those friends (we've all had them) that one simply cannot justify: the fundamentals of personality would clearly seem to suggest total incompatability, and yet they have somehow become an essential, inevitable element of the fabric of each other's life. Each is to a certain degree utterly vexed by the other and yet, in spite of this (or because of it?), there is a real of affection and loyalty that binds them.

The acting, of course, helps make Miles and Jack more convincing. Giamatti solidifies in this film a reputation built on earlier work such as "American Splendor" (in which he played the genuinely weird Harvey Pekar). Haden Church is the bigger surprise. He shows real comic talent and, at the moments where we begin to feel like we might be breaking through the facade of Jack, range. It's clear that he spent far too long in the wilderness of "Wings" and the "George of the Jungle" series (no matter how much the latter delighted my wife's nephews when they were still little children).

The road trip begins in Buellton* (kind of an anchor town for the Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez wine country), where they settle into a vaguely run down windmill-themed Day's Inn. On their first night in town, they eat at the Hitching Post, a local restaraunt with a vaguely steak house kind of feel but excellent food and a highly regarded house pinot. (The Hitching Post is a real establishment; most of those featured in the film are.) The Hitching Post has been, well, a sort of base of operations and field office for Miles on his frequent excursions to the Santa Ynez wine country. There Jack and Miles spot Maya (Virginia Madsen, a veteran Eighties blondshell who, like Haden Church, demonstrates that she deserves a second look for serious roles), a waitress. Miles already knows Maya. He is on friendly, if hesitant and awkward, terms with her. The awkwardness stems from a genuine, though deeply repressed, attraction between the two. Jack, who at least exceeds Miles in sexual acuity, immediately picks up on Maya's attraction to Miles and urges him to close the deal. Miles, in full retreat from the world (as opposed to the fundamentally contented Jack's temporary pre-wedding panic), is not receptive to the idea.

What Miles does not realize (or maybe he does) is that Jack is determined to see each of them get laid before the trip is out. He is convinced that he needs to do something to shake his friend out of his steady downward emotional spiral. And who could think of something better than cheap and wild sex with beautiful women to get the job done? Well, certainly not Jack.

This is a key to Jack's effectivness as a character: we cannot totally dismiss him because his concern for his depressed friend is not an affectation. He cares about Miles, and is genuinely worried about him. After meeting Stephanie (Sandra Oh, who brilliantly portrays Stephanie as a hyper-sexual libertine hiding deeper emotional vulnerability), a pour girl at a winery Jack and Miles visit on the second day, Jack is able to sweet talk his own and the reluctant Miles' way into a double date with Maya and Stephanie. So begins a long, wine soaked dinner that eventually staggers along back to Stephanie's house (an avante garde dump in the bohemian California canyon tradition). Jack and Stephanie immediately dispense with their clothes, while Miles and Maya begin a quieter, slower, more romantic process. As the week progresses, Maya begins to awaken something long dormant in Miles. However, on the cusp of happiness, Miles becomes trapped under the collapsing edifice of Jack's lies. Their adventures begin to spin out of control, with real comedy and tragedy. (Before the week is out you'll learn why it is not a good idea to run naked through a field filled with angry ostriches.) Still, we sense (and hope) that Miles will find redemption.

The winespeak in the film is hilarious ("this is quaffable, but hardly transcendant") but at the same time well informed. In fact, I was pleasantly surpised by how assuredly the film handled the often thorny and contentious topic of wine. To be sure, there were a few slip ups. At one point Miles is stunned to learn that Stephanie has a Richebourg, which actually doesn't tell us that much. I was stunned only when we see that the bottle is in fact a Romanee-Conti Richebourg!

"Sideways" is funny, sad, tender and genuine. It is probably at the top of my ten best list for the year.

*There is actually an intervening detour to visit Miles' mom, an event which serves to deepen our understanding of his heavy baggage.

Posted by dag at December 13, 2005 9:09 AM


absolutely my fav of the year. enjoyed with a friend who's partial to DRCs and was just as shocked as you. even better: we sneaked in pinot for the both of us to enjoy with the film. ;) and enjoyed hitching post cab franc with ribeyes afterwards...

Posted by: enoch choi at December 29, 2004 1:19 AM