Friday, January 20, 2012

Think like Wine: an essay

Awake at 4am, plagued with a fit of existential jitters, I was suddenly reminded of one of my favorite speeches from Alexander Payne's Sideways.

Miles, (the would-be sommelier played by Paul Giamatti), responds to the question "Why are you so into Pinot?" with one of the best speeches of the movie.

Miles Raymond: 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.

Any wine lover I know adores this movie, and has put "Have dinner at the Hitching Post" on their bucket list. For me at 4am, I flattered myself to think that I was exactly like a Pinot grape, brilliant but temperamental, and I went on to make perhaps the less than original conclusion that people are complex as wine. Cabernet Sauvignon. Tempranillo. Even a cheap Vin de Table.

Miles here is delving into his true inner romantic, and by extension describing himself. He says, "Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression." In this seduction scene, he's telling his love interest Maya (Virgina Madsen) the exact same things about himself. "I'm stubborn baby, but I'm worth it."

In the question, "Why Wine?" Maya has this to say:

Maya: I like to think about the life of wine...How it's a living thing. 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'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your '61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline. "

Here as Maya speaks she delves into her passion for the creation and story of wine. (And I can't help but agree with her historical romanticism.) She says, "it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity" speaking on not only wine, but on what it is to experience life as a human. She's demonstrating to Miles her desire for him. Unfortunately, as intelligent and emotionally fragmented as he is, can't quite complete the seduction in the moment. This scene is so full of the potential passion that their union could have. It is gut-wrenching, eliciting loads of empathy for Miles from our hearts.

The idea that human characteristics can be applied to wine is crucial to understanding our relationship with food. As much energy it takes to grow, cultivate and manufacture wine, there is a reciprocal effect on those who consume it. This movie makes clear that the the tradition of consuming and manipulating raw ingredients from the ground is at the heart of survival and evolution on our little Earth.

I could get hyperbolic about this movie. Perhaps I already have. Great cast. Great script. It's one of those films that you've just gotta see.


P.S. Haven't seen The Descendants yet. Looking forward to it, Mr. Payne.

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