Sideways: How it changed my life

Miles: “It tastes like the back of a fucking L.A. school bus. Now they probably didn’t de-stem, hoping for some semblance of concentration, crushed it up with leaves and mice, and then wound up with this rancid tar and turpentine bullshit. Fuckin’ raid.”
Jack: “Tastes pretty good to me.”

In 2003/2004 a film adaptation of a book by the same name was released and it made me see wine as something much more than alcoholic grape juice. The name of the film is Sideways and I owe it a lot. It made me realise that it wasn’t just middle aged women who could enjoy it… depressed school teachers and out of work actors also could too! Thirteen years after I watched it for the first time it still teaches me about wine and social protocol.

For those who aren’t familiar with the film, here’s a brief synopsis. Miles; a depressed, borderline alcoholic English teacher and wannabe novelist takes Jack; a loud obnoxious, ‘has been’ actor, to the wine region of California for Jack’s bachelor party. Miles adores wine and wants to have a relaxed week of tastings while Jack doesn’t share the same appreciation as his counterpart and wants to use this ‘last week of freedom’ to get laid one last time before he is ‘doomed’ to the same lady for the rest of his life.

In the film it is evident that Miles and Jack are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Miles is way too particular and judgemental of certain wines and he always follows the correct procedure on how to taste, whereas Jack doesn’t care and just wants to drink it. A line often repeated in the movie is Jack stating, “It tastes pretty good to me”. For me this film made me realise that there is so much variation and complexity when it comes to wine but, at the same time, if it tastes pretty good… you can just fucking drink it!

In some ways, Miles is a satirical stereotype of pompousness that is all too often associated with wine. I’ve been in an around wine for a number of years but I’ve never heard anyone say they don’t like Californian Chardonnay because of too much secondary malolactic fermentation. I’m sure it’s a valid point but I don’t think even the wankiest of wankers would dare say that and keep a straight face.

There is a particular scene where he is explaining to Jack the correct way to taste wine. He sticks his nose in the glass and starts listing all the fruits and aromas he can smell, strawberries, honey and even stating that there is a hint of asparagus. Jack looks confused and unconvincingly says, “Strawberries, yeah”. This showed two different ends of the spectrum and for me. I identified with both: I love smelling the aromas in wine and trying to identify them but, without fail, I always think I can smell strawberries!

To me, the film represents my Jekyll & Hyde persona. I completely identify with Miles in some ways, as I like the whole experience, I like knowing the grapes, the vintage year, if it was stored in oak and preforming the whole process but, on the other hand, I also identify with Jack, in the sense that despite my interest in all the finer details, if it tastes pretty good to me then I will drink it. Wine is a social drink, intended to be consumed over a meal or a conversation with friends. If it tastes good and the conversation is good then, in that moment, that is all that matters.

It was only in recent years that I realised I am also like Jack. For a while I was judgemental and a bit anal about things but it wasn’t until I actually moved to France that I lightened up.

For years I had an arsenal of grapes or regions that I thought I preferred e.g. Chilean Pinot Noir used to be my go to red because I knew I liked the grape and knew a little about the country so I felt safe and could confidently say a few facts to make myself look knowledgeable. When I moved to France I knew certain things about the wine and the different regions but it was a drop in the ocean of all the information that is out there. This, for me, was a humbling experience and one that I fully embraced.

Ok, so just a small crash course about French wine. In most cases, apart from a few exceptions, French wine is labelled after the region and Domain/Château (House) it is made in. They don’t name it after the grapes. So, for example, a very well known wine is Chablis but Chablis is actually Chardonnay. Sancerre, also well known in the UK, is Sauvignon Blanc (just in case you didn’t know).

So, when I made my venture across the channel, I was awoken to a whole new world and just kind of went in like a bull in a china shop. I ordered whatever I liked the sound of and then looked into the grapes afterwards. If it tasted pretty good to me I would look more into that region but, for the most part, I was just relishing the chance to try different wines and see what was out there. Most of all, I was enjoying just drinking it, talking to new people and butchering what is considered the most romantic language in the world.

The beauty of Sideways is that I have watched it a number of times and each time I find a new thing to identify with. It’s a movie that both a oenophile and a novice can enjoy because essentially, if you take the wine out of the film, it is just two hopeless guys constantly bickering with each other. It’s the same with The Mighty Boosh if you take away all the space and magic. In Sideways I love laughing at Miles’s gripes about fermentation processes and how he goes ballistic if you even mention ordering Merlot but then watching him and Jack argue on the golf course about his stance and posture is just as funny.

Anyway, the point is that if you want an indirect education about wine while laughing at two middle aged men bickering then give Sideways a watch. It changed my life and, although it might not change yours, it’s a good watch.

– James

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