Occasionally I write about interesting interpretations and misinterpretations of works: Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" or the Village People's "YMCA." As we head into the wine festival season, here's a brief consideration of an oddly influential film.
I love the paradoxes and ironies of the wine industry. For example, I’m delighted that the bubbles of champagne – that romantic image of luxury – are formed by the microscopic dirt in the glass. And, it's funny that dust in a wine cellar becomes a mark of quality. Everywhere else it’s an embarrassment, but in the basement, it shows that someone has had these bottles for a while. I confess, however, that I’ve always been bewildered by the so-called Sideways effect.
In this Alexander Payne film, at one point, the main character Miles, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, insists not only that he won’t drink Merlot, but that he won’t have dinner with anyone who will. He rants, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot.” It’s a funny scene, and I know people who quote it with affection. Sometimes they even substitute other popular varietals, such as Chardonnay.
Miles loves Pinot Noir, a finicky grape that, like him, can be difficult to appreciate. Miles speaks of it in beautiful terms, saying, “it’s a hard grape to grow… it’s thin-skinned, temperamental … Pinot needs constant care and attention . . . Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.” Miles’ admiration, and the popularity of Sideways, created a surge in Pinot Noir’s popularity, and, for a while, a slight decrease in Merlot’s.
The irony of the Sideways effect is that Miles is clearly a wreck. He steals from his mother. He seems to be a functioning alcoholic. He can’t maintain relationships except for his friend, Jack, who is also a loser. A compulsive womanizer, Jack turns to sex, the way Miles turns to wine. Miles even blows the one chance to drink a special wine that he has been saving. He ends up sipping it out of a paper bag at a fast food restaurant. This is not someone from whom we should be taking any advice.
Sideways is a beautiful, sad, film, but like so many works of literature, it seems to have been misinterpreted. If you’re inspired to hit the road after reading On the Road, you’ve misread the book. If you think in the poem “A Road Not Taken,” that the narrator really takes the road less traveled, you haven’t paid attention to the lines that each path “equally lay” and were “equally worn.” And, if you scorn Merlot and drink Pinot Noir because Miles does, you might want to see the movie again.