Rex Pickett, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor, 2004

A schlub who is both a connoisseur and guzzler of wine goes on a weeklong trip to the vineyards of Santa Barbara with his old college roommate, a one-time soap opera actor who is about to get married and wants to get in a last couple of flings before the ceremony.

This was recommended to me on the basis of its evocation of a particular place, a slice of California that hasn't been seen in a million other movies. These were places I knew from real life: Elizabeth and I went through Buellton and environs a couple of times just this year, and while we obviously didn't go to the wineries, I've taught up in Sonoma and down in Corral de Tierra so the tableaux of hills and vineyards were very familiar.

But Sideways isn't a feature for Here Magazine; it is a portrait of these two guys. You've got Lloyd from "Wings" as Hap-Pea and Bart Giamatti's kid as Pea-Wee, and I suppose it's better than the majority of such efforts, but the strings are still clearly visible. You've got a monologue about the fragility of pinot grapes that undoubtedly led to many middle-aged women loudly whispering into their husbands' ears, "Pssst! I think he's really talking about himself!" You've got a supposedly casual mention of a bottle of wine from 1961 that Pea-Wee is saving for a special occasion that could not possibly be a more obvious setup for a scene at the end. I was reminded of the end of the MST3K version of Bride of the Monster, with the enormous rock perched at the top of a hill. Joel: "Yeah, that boulder's gonna roll." What would screenwriters do without their boulders?

Talk about arenas in which aesthetic discernment is especially prized and wine is likely to be one of the first things that spring to mind. When Pea-Wee says that a particular vintage has "the faintest soupçon of asparagus," this is hardly a novelty; wine snobs have been parodied for ages. Now, I am a culinary snob myself. I don't buy juices from concentrate. I pay $15/pound for ramps during the one week a year they are in season. When I need a loaf of bread I drive twenty miles to Acme. But I am not a wine snob because I'm a straightedger and have never had any. One of the interesting things about Sideways is that it acknowledges that while wine may well be a medium of artistic expression, it's also, y'know, booze. Pea-Wee drinks wine because he likes to show off his familiarity with "secondary malolactic fermentation," but ultimately he is just a loser looking to get drunk.

This got me thinking. I personally find the consumption of alcohol abhorrent, but I am well aware that in this culture mine is a minority view. But what if someone wrote a book in which someone brought the attitude of an oenophile to a practice that is universally despised? Say, child molestation. What about a story in which instead of talking about the tannin levels of different varietals, the main character brings a sommelier's vocabulary to his discussion of the difference between a ten- and an eleven-year-old's vulva? Of course, half a second after I had this thought it occurred to me that this book has already been written — it's Lolita. I hadn't really thought about it in exactly this light before. One of the interesting things about literature is that texts will have very different conversations with different texts. So I'll give Sideways credit for suggesting a new angle on a book I thought I'd figured out half my lifetime ago.

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