Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The annotated Sideways

Many people who liked Sideways remember it as the film where that guy hates that one wine. When I first saw it I was distracted by the frequent dropping of the F-bomb; recently I watched it again, and was pleasantly surprised at how funny it is. I also was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand the wine references, which helped distract me from the F-bomb. Here are a few oenophilic notes:

When Miles (the wine geek) and Jack (essentially, the cave man) begin their road trip, they open a bottle of " '92 Byron" champagne. Wouldn't you know it, this very first reference is one I cannot seem to trace. Whatever a '92 Byron is, drinking it gives Miles a chance to explain to Jack that white wines are pale because the juices are not allowed contact with the grapeskins, and red wines are dark because that contact is allowed. Shortly after, Jack says he thought Miles hated chardonnay. "No," Miles explains, "I like all varietals. I just don't like the way California winemakers manipulate chardonnay with too much oak and too much secondary malolactic fermentation." Jack grunts, "Huh." (Jack grunts "Huh" a lot. His reaction to most of the wines they taste is also simple -- "It tastes pretty good to me." After a while you get the impression that Jack knows how to enjoy wine better than poor, anxious, knowledgeable Miles.)

What Miles is complaining about, the fermenting and/or aging of chardonnay wine in oak barrels, is a practice originating in chardonnay's home, Burgundy. Centuries ago, winemakers there realized that time in an oak barrel helped give the somewhat bland but high-alcohol grape a little sweetness and mellowness that it otherwise might have lacked. Malolactic fermentation did the same. Malolactic fermentation occurs naturally through the action of benign bacteria in the wine. If these bacteria are allowed to multiply, they transform the malic acid in wine -- the acids that, for instance, also make green apples taste tart -- into lactic acid, the same acids that make milk taste smooth. When hundreds of California winemakers do this, we end up with shelf after shelf of quite uniform tasting chardonnays year after year. Real-life wine professionals complain in similar terms, which is why reaction has begun and you can now find chardonnays proudly labeled "unoaked."

Then Miles explains, for the first time, something about the pinot noir grape, which he loves. It is delicate and sensitive to climate, he says, and does very well along California's coast, where the fogs wash in and cool "the berries" every night. Later on, he will expand upon his theme with a more sympathetic listener. Jack grunts "Huh."

At the first winery they visit, Miles gives Jack a whole lesson in tasting wine: hold it up to the light, look for color, judge age, swirl and sniff. Miles senses all sorts of things in his glass, like strawberries and passionfruit and a "soupcon of smoky Gouda." Can anybody really see or smell all those things in a wine, and does it matter? The point is that the pleasures of color, aroma and taste are all a part of the wine-drinking experience. If you try to put your sensations into words, you will remember the wine better and gradually develop an understanding of what you like and don't like. By the way, I have never seen anybody plug one ear while sniffing.

In time the guys meet Stephanie, running a tasting at a small, chic winery. She pours out a cabernet franc for them, and Miles tastes it and then dumps it instantly. "I've learned never to expect greatness from a cab franc, and this is no exception," he says, and Stephanie agrees with him. The cabernet franc grape is used as a blending grape in Bordeaux, along with the noble cabernet sauvignon. It also is used alone to make red wines in France's Loire valley. Miles' dislike of the cab franc is something it will be interesting to remember.

In the same scene, Stephanie pours each of them a generous glass while they stare at her, dumbstruck. "You are a bad, bad girl," Jack growls, and Stephanie smirks, "I know. I need to be spanked," as she flounces off. What happened? During a tasting, a one-ounce pour is the norm. The winery, or the wine shop for that matter, is after all giving away free wine unless they charge a cover fee, and not all do. Depending on how many bottles they are offering that day, it doesn't take long before an ounce of this and an ounce of that adds up to a full glass of wine for the patron anyway. The idea is, of course, that the patron will be impressed enough to buy a bottle or two.

Later, Jack and Miles stop off by the side of the road and Miles talks about a picnic he and his ex-wife had here, with "a bottle of '95 Opus One. We drank it with smoked salmon and artichokes, but we didn't care." Opus One is a cabernet sauvignon, as well as a winery making just that wine, produced as a joint venture first organized by Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1979. The wine is and has always been very expensive -- the first case sold for $24,000 in 1981, and at the shop where I work we now sell the 2004 vintage for $180 a bottle. The reason Miles half-apologizes for having drunk it with smoked salmon and artichokes is because a smoked meaty fish would probably not be the best match for cabernet's dark heavy tannins, thick black fruit, and high alcohol content. Never having tasted it, I can't say for certain. I have encountered, though, a kind of reverse snobbery when it comes to Robert Mondavi and all his wines, from Opus One to the Woodbridge that you can find in a grocery store. "Overpriced for what it is," "all hat and no cattle," are two judgments I've heard delivered on Opus. As for Woodbridge, I've heard people sniff that they'll drink it as a last resort, perhaps if it's the best a restaurant can offer, provided they can dilute it with plenty of ice. For myself, I've drunk the Woodbridge pinot noir and found it very pleasant.

When Jack, Miles, and bad girl Stephanie meet Maya, all four -- well, all four except cave man Jack -- will exchange information about wine, about what they've tried, what they own, what they are saving for a special occasion. This is just about the point in the movie when Miles hollers at Jack that he's "not drinking any f---- merlot!" What's wrong with merlot? He never explains. (It happens that the most expensive wine in the world, Chateau Petrus, is a merlot, but the movie never tells us that.)

At their dinner together, the four friends start with Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc, "aged 12 months in French oak," Maya offers. The sauvignon blanc grape makes fresh, acidic, lime-and-grapefruit-smelling wines; it is also one of the noble grapes that goes into white Bordeaux. Aging in oak, therefore, is a treatment that our friend Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger considers an abomination. Yes, the French do sometimes use a little oak in their sauvignon blancs, he admits, but in general oak barrel aging "would criminally mar the delicate purity of the fruit." So who knows more, Gluckstern or Maya (or rather, the scriptwriter) of Sideways? Maybe both know something. It is at this dinner, too, that Jack castigates Miles for having given them all "a ten minute lecture on Vouvrays." Vouvrays are one of my favorite wines, made from the chenin blanc grape, and named for the town of Vouvray in France's Loire valley. They are soft, rich, but not sickly-sweet, and unfortunately rather pricey ($25 and up). One of the wines prominently displayed toward the end of the dinner is a Pommard, another red Burgundy -- that is, a pinot noir for Miles.

When the four move on to Stephanie's place, we learn more about their tastes. Stephanie's prize bottle is a Richebourg, which her friends are not allowed to touch. Miles is impressed. This is a red Burgundy, once again therefore, a pinot noir. But it is more than just a bottle of pinot. Wine writer Oz Clarke (The New Encyclopedia of French Wines) says, "What a name! It has resonances of tremendous opulence, of sumptuous velvet and silk-smooth flesh, of scents dark and musky .... " Among the "best producers" of Richebourg is Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, which is nothing less than the most legendary, perfect, and adored vineyard in the world. Come to think of it, one wonders what freewheeling Stephanie is doing with this bottle. Perhaps it would have been a tad more realistic to equip her with something just a little less glorious.

Since they can't open the Richebourg, Miles and Maya settle for a bottle of Andrew Murray. "Well, okay," Miles says with quiet delight. Andrew Murray has specialized in making French Rhone-type wines, from the syrah grape, in Los Olivos, California, since the 1990s. As they talk about how they developed an interest in wine (while Jack and Stephanie are off being freewheeling somewhere else), Miles says that his prize bottle is a '61 Cheval Blanc. Maya is stunned at his possessing this treasure, and warns him he'd better drink it because the '61s are reaching their peak, aren't they? -- or even past it?

A Cheval Blanc is a French red Bordeaux, more precisely a cabernet franc/merlot blend made in the St. Emilion section of Bordeaux. Chateau Cheval Blanc is the specific producer. So, Miles' great bottle is a blend of the two grapes he can't stand. Towards the end of the movie when he sneaks wine into a diner and drinks it in a plastic cup along with his burger, this is the bottle he stashes beside him. If you hit the pause button you can read the label. Is this an in-joke? Or ignorance on the part of the screenwriter, or the novelist originally? Maybe we're to understand that great French wines -- for, like Stephanie's Richebourg, a St. Emilion is a very great wine, from a place that has been making these wines since the days of ancient Rome -- no matter their varietal makeup, are just different.

As for the wine that "did it" for Maya, that made her love wine, when she announces "Sassicaia" she is talking about another red Bordeaux-type wine, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. A Sassicaia, however, is Italian, made only since the 1960s by an Italian nobleman and now his descendants, who wanted to grow noble grapes on his land in Tuscany. This was a new idea in Italy then. Apparently it was a success, for the wine is covered with adoring adjectives by wine writers who have tasted it. In the huge book Vintage Hugh Johnson simply calls it "resplendent."

Alone together, Miles and Maya wax eloquent about the pinot noir grape and wine in general, and of course they are talking about life and being human, not just about a drink. They use words like need, survival, neglect, thrive, living, ancientness, and decline. More prosaically, though, they also talk about having a palate. "I discovered I had a really sharp palate," Maya says about the aftermath of the '88 Sassicaia. Earlier, Miles had reminisced about his ex-wife's great palate, and how she was able to differentiate even among all sorts of Italian wines.

What does it mean to have a good palate? I find it hard to believe that the palate, the sense of taste, is not pretty much the same among all human beings. We may have slight differences in the acuity of it as we do in the acuity of eyesight or hearing, but unless you have experienced some tragic physical loss, you can taste things. "Having a sharp palate," noticing things, is I think more a matter of paying attention and being willing to learn and remember, than a matter of a bizarre gift that some people have and some don't. Referring to the palate in such mysterious terms only serves, once again, to make inexperienced wine drinkers think the whole thing is just not for them.

The movie winds down with a couple of in jokes. Jack and an increasingly agitated Miles stop by to do some tasting at a huge winery that just screams "Gallo" -- or "Woodbridge" or whatever winery would best scream "tourist schlock heaven." There are huge crowds of people, there is a fountain burbling wine, there is a man playing trite Spanish music on a guitar, there are baseball caps and t-shirts for sale embroidered with the name of the winery. Miles is appalled at the wine offered, and calls it Raid. Interestingly, he offers reasons why: "Don't bother to de-stem the grapes," he recites bitterly, as if he is instructing the winemaker. "You're hoping for a semblance of structure. Grind it all up with mice and leaves ...." This makes you think -- after all, grapes are a farm product, and farms can't be kept pure of everything. This fictional winery is called "Frass Canyon." Frass is insect, and I think specifically gypsy moth, excrement.

And finally there's the name of Miles' would-be publisher, which eventually "passes" on his 759-page novel. It's Conundrum, which perhaps coincidentally is also the name of another higher-end California wine producer.

Liked the movie? Try the book, by Rex Pickett.

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