by Michelle Said
The two things people remember from Sideways is that Miles will not drink any fucking Merlot and that he loves Pinot Noir. Maybe, maybe, people also remember the speech Virginia Madsen gives in the middle as Miles is falling in love with her, but mostly not. After the movie came out, I went wine tasting in the same region as Miles and Jack with my then-boyfriend. We were blissfully, willfully drunk and everybody was buying up all the Pinot like crazy because Miles was so in love with it.
All I could think was, Miles would hate this.
In Sideways, Miles is at the bottom of several bottles of wine. He is hungover and late. He is pretending at emotions, he is sneering and wide-eyed when he smiles. He is middle-aged and stuck and completely, utterly in love.
He loves wine because wine allows him to disguise his drunkenness with culture, to make him feel like he is the man he was always meant to be, the kind of man who is revered and respected for his stunning intellect. In the same kind of way you find the people at the local trivia night who were always a little bit better than average in school and know obscure facts that nobody cares about. Miles is of the same ilk.
"He loves wine because wine allows him to disguise his drunkenness with culture, to make him feel like he is the man he was always meant to be..."
I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I, too, am one of those nerds who gets upset when people misuse the word “complement” or don’t know the names of all the original Monkees (Davey, Peter, Mickey and Michael). But Miles belongs to a breed more ornery than your typical, run-of-the-mill trivia master. Miles would be categorized under the genus trivius nerdus within the specific species ofoenophiliac grumpus, the neurotic wine savant. He knows that nobody or nothing understands him quite as well as an empty bottle of wine does.
Well, that is, wine and Jack, his freshman-year roommate from college.
Two men couldn’t be more opposite on the outside. The new millennium’s Odd Couple. Miles is stodgy, Jack is fun-loving. Miles is pedantic, Jack is pedestrian. Miles is petrified of opening himself up to someone else, Jack is, uh, too open.
The threads that tie them together are their shared history and immaturity. As far as it appears, neither has matured at all beyond the age of 18. Two grown men stuck in the emotional state of college freshmen.
But they are not freshmen, not anymore. Both men are entrenched in their forties now, sharing a history of disappointment and unrealized dreams. Miles has been divorced for two years, while Jack is preparing to get married in a week for the first time, a resounding defeat over his playboy past. Career-wise, they haven’t fared much better: Jack is an actor whose biggest success came in the form of a soap opera decades ago; Miles is a writer who can’t get published.
And yet, despite their overwhelming failures, they keep trying. They are, after all, not destitute. They are alive, they are middle class and they still take pleasure in life, in women, in wine.
Miles’s idea of a bachelor party is to take a trip a few hours north of their home in San Diego to Santa Barbara. He wants to show Jack a good time in the only way he truly feels comfortable: wine tasting. And despite the breathtaking views, the casual and rarefied atmosphere of the coast, there is this underlying feeling that this is, really, nothing more than two men on an extended spring break.
Jack treats it this way—using the trip as his free pass. His intent is to get consistently laid before he becomes a married man. Miles just wants to disappear into the bottles, but tries to keep his dignity intact by making bold statements about regions, tannins and vintages.
The movie’s light and goodness comes in the form of Maya, played by Virginia Madsen. Maya is a waitress at a local restaurant. She is beautiful, in that sort of classic, earth-goddess way, the kind of true beauty that warms you from the inside out. She is sincere in a way that Miles can’t even fathom: he has been unhappy and pretending for so long that just being around her makes him uncomfortable.
Yet the two have an intimate and sincere moment together deep into the night, despite (or perhaps aided by) getting drunk off of an unknown quantity of wine. She asks him why he is so interested in the varietal Pinot Noir. He stammers:
“Uh, I don’t know, I don’t know. Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.”
There, right there, he comes clean—about who he is and what he needs. It is a truth he has most likely never articulated before, despite feeling it for years, deep down inside.
I recently went for ice cream with friends at this place called the Bent Spoon in Princeton. It’s one of those artisanal creameries with dramatic flavors, like Basil or Blueberry Mascarpone. We had just gone to the wedding of dear friends and there were unusually many of us, loitering in a circle just outside of the restaurant. We went around describing the flavors we had picked. Some went for the standard—vanilla—some went for more exotic (chocolate habanero sorbet). I, basking in the novelty of choice, picked sage honey and lavender. It felt somewhat romantic to be eating what was, essentially, the contents of a potpourri satchel. But as we went around the circle, we all decided that what we had picked in this place was somehow indicative of our larger personality.
I have heard time and time again that our choices don’t really matter, that the things we like or find ourselves drawn to aren’t really grand signifiers of our inner essence. I find that people most often say this when they are giving other people dating advice: “When I was dating around, I said I could never date a guy who liked sitar music, but then I met Stan, who is an avid sitar player, can you believe it?” or “Yes, Sally happens to be an ax murderer, but she’s so great. I mean, I always figured I would never be with someone who is is a psychopathic killer, but love blindsides you. Know what I mean?”
In reality, what we like is so much a part of who we are. And of course that can change—I used to be someone who hated Harry Potter before I ever read it, just for snobbery’s sake. Then I became the person who almost considered canceling a trip to Spain so I could buyHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on the first day it came out. People change. We evolve. But who we are at our core remains consistent.
Miles is desperately trying to tell Maya the truth about himself in that soliloquy: he is difficult, but he is worth it. He can’t flourish just anywhere because he is thin-skinned and temperamental. And of course, he is certainly not for everyone. His favorite wine is more than a quirk of taste buds.
During that wine tasting trip to Santa Barbara county, just after Sideways came out, I was only beginning to learn about wine. I tried all the various Pinot Noirs the wineries had laid out for me, like so many other consumers eager to snap up the latest Hollywood-inspired trend. And I was repulsed. Pinot Noirs were bitter, too smoky, too peppery. I gravitated to the lush, juicy Zinfandels and the bold, oaky Chardonnays. After tasting all day, experiencing everything the region had to offer, I purchased a sweet, Jolly Rancher-esque rosé to bring back with us to my apartment in Los Angeles.
That was almost a decade ago. In the time since, I have grown and changed in many ways, and that particular relationship has dissolved. I moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Dublin and finally to New York, where I have lived for the past four years. For our first anniversary, my boyfriend and I went to a wine bar after an oyster dinner and I picked out the most expensive glass they had on the menu. I was celebrating, it was $14, I said, why not? The wine was a Pinot Noir, from France. I held it to my nose; it was rich, earthy, a little spicy. I took a sip and the flavor explosion was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, a most sumptuous, unheralded concoction. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland when she obeyed the Drink Me sign—although instead of getting bigger or smaller, I had this world of taste open up to me and I just got it, in the way that sudden epiphanies can grab you.
So now I get Pinot Noir. I get it completely, utterly, totally. And I understand Miles more than I had ever understood him when I was younger.
As Maya says in her soliloquy, “I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity.”
Every day that goes by, we are subjected to incremental adjustments in who we are. Every day there is a choice: remain stuck in the false allure of the past or embrace the truth of the present. Who you are today is not the same as the person you were yesterday or the person you will be tomorrow. It is important—no, vital—to drink up. Embrace the day.
Michelle Said was one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and later served as media director and podcast host. She currently freelances and works on her novel in New York.