Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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Looking At Wine "Sideways"
At last, a movie that really loves wine...

By Jonathon Alsop
January 1, 2005

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church sniff, sip and slurp their way through wine country. One of my favorite things to complain about is how wine and wine lovers are portrayed in the media. Most of the time, they're completely ignored, and elaborate cinematic meals that call for a tasty wine end up served with nothing but a glass of water.

On the other extreme, as in 1995's "While You Were Sleeping" with Sandra Bullock, the same bottle of Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon turns up in scene after scene: first in his apartment, then hers, then at dinner at the parents' house.

Each time, the bottle is angled ever-so-slightly away from the camera so you can't see the label head-on, but if you're an obsessive wine nut, you know -- and you know it's not right.

Variety is the spice of every wine lover's life, and the idea of the same wine turning up in multiple locations is preposterous, unless the filmmaker is trying to make an irrational statement of some kind. I chalk this up to simple bad set dressing.

On television, Frasier Crane and his slightly more unbearable brother Niles set a bad example for wine drinkers everywhere by establishing new Olympic records for haughtiness and pomposity with every wine they taste. Not only do they mis-pronounce the names of certain famous wines, they over-pronounce them with cheesy Euro accents, which is even worse. Their portrayal of the stereotypic wine lover is too on-target, and that cannot be forgiven.

"Sideways," the new buddy film starring Paul Giamatti as the Wine Guy and Thomas Haden Church as the Ladies' Man, fleshes out this stereotype with real accuracy, affection, and frivolity.

The plot, in a nutshell, goes something like this: buddies run off for pre-wedding bachelor party tour of California wine country, boy loses girl, buddies crash car. In between, they drink a lot of fantastic wine, eat a lot of excellent food, and score like Wilt Chamberlain with wine-hotties Sandra Oh and Virgina Madsen.

Our boys surrender the high ground early on when they not only drink and drive, but drink while driving. In fact, their first sips take place in the Winemobile as they speed away from the despicable in-laws' house. In five seconds, they break so many laws it's hard to count, and you know it's only a matter of time before they get into some real fictional trouble.

Like so many great wine experiences, this movie begins with the best of intentions but ultimately goes down the drain. Refined, civilized, appreciative tasting surrenders to gluttonous drinking and eventually ends with a naked fat man chasing the protagonists down the street. By this time, the movie's no longer about wine but about how far astray people's appetites can lead them.

Women who love wine come out of the film looking best of all. Madsen and Oh portray their characters as smart, funny and sensual, an irresistible combination. Of the two guys, however, one's insane, the other's just stupid, and most of the time it's hard to tell which one's which. At one point, Giamatti fails to kiss Madsen after she takes his hand, so maybe they were both just really drunk.

My favorite thing about "Sideways" is the beautiful soliloquy Madsen delivers as she explains why she loves wine. My least favorite thing was how I cringed every time the Wine Guy said something idiotic about wine that I'd heard myself say before.

Feeling cheap

2001 Conte di Bregonzo Amarone (about $13, imported by Santini Fine Wines, 510-317-8888, available at Trader Joe's)

$13 Amarone?!  This is the golden age of cheap wine! My friend Kitty is an expert shopper whose philosophy is that the only discount that really matters is on something expensive. In other words, 90% off a $200 suit is a bad deal compared with 50% off a $1000 suit, even though $500 is a lot more money. Amarone -- the late-harvest, high-alcohol red of Valpolicella -- normally sells in the $40 to $75 range, so to stumble upon this delicious $13 version in the discount wine aisle at Trader Joe's was a real treat.

Granted, it's not as concentrated and intense as its pricier siblings, but this wine is rich with the flavor of figs, dates, plums, and dried apricots. The alcohol level is high at 14.5%, but the layers of ripe fruit provide a solid foundation. Serve this wine nice and cool with a crisp roast duck or pork chops stuffed with dried fruit.

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