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Wine culture matures

Once enjoyed mostly by the elite, wine has become more approachable
and affordable and is featured prominently in a new hit movie, ‘Sideways’
Wednesday, January 5, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:42 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

Jack is a B-rate actor and playboy who wants to have his last hurrah before he gets married on Saturday, and Miles is the failed writer and tragically uptight friend who is along for the ride. In the movie “Sideways,” written and directed by Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt”), the two former college roommates take a weeklong trip to California to “cut loose.”

Two years afterward, Miles (Paul Giamatti) is still recovering from his divorce with his therapist’s help. Though he outwardly disdains his friends “crass behavior,” he also envies that not even Jack’s impending marriage can prevent him from having fun. With a quick wit and carefree attitude, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a lovable but ultimately unredeemable character. He leaves Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a broken-hearted single mother, in his wake only to immediately sleep with another married woman, whose only redeeming quality is that she recognizes Jack from his former role on the soap opera “One Night to Live.”

The movie is about Miles’ quest to pull himself out of the deepening middle-age rut he’s living in.

It’s also about wine.

Miles hides behind his encyclopedic knowledge of wine, which he displays with an obnoxious arrogance, to keep other people, including Maya (Virginia Madsen), a local waitress who is romantically interested in him, at bay.

In this comical movie, Jack, for whom wine is nothing more than an intoxicating means to help him reach his ultimate goal, constantly mocks Miles’ enophilic façade. The movie’s charm is that not only does the audience identify with Miles’ personal struggles, but it can identify with Jack’s frustration: Why can’t Miles just relax, and instead of obsessively analyze, just enjoy, really enjoy, a glass of wine.

Today’s wine culture:

This movie’s plot and its wide appeal wouldn’t have been possible 15 years ago when wine was for the prim, if not proper. Today, almost everyone — 21 and older, of course — is enjoying wine.

“Wine use to be a high-end, urban beverage,” said Cory Bomgaars, winemaker for Les Bourgeois Winery and Vineyards in Rocheport. “Now it is more a cross-cultural. More people are drinking wine. It isn’t just white, upper-class males.”

Several trends account for this. Firstly, an increase in domestic wine production, as well as a growing number of imports, principally from Australia and Chile, has put downward pressure on the price of wine. It’s possible to get a decent bottle of wine for $7 or less. According to The Wine Institute, these bottles have even been given a new moniker: “extreme value varietals.”

Domestically, the greatest growth has been in California production, which produced 417 million gallons in 2003, the last year for which complete data is available. California’s flagship varietals, types of wines, are Cabernet and Chardonnay, both of which have put American winemaking on the international map. Exports of U.S. wine have also increased threefold from 1993, to 95.9 million gallons 10 years later.

Other U.S. varietals, however, are also gaining popularity. The Pacific Northwest is recognized for its fine Pinot Noirs (Miles’ favorite), which is a light red wine, and the wine industry is growing in other areas of the country, as well.

“Local wine producing all over the country is helping to produce a wine drinking culture,” Bomgaars said. “Having regional wineries is boosting wine knowledge and wine consumption.”

Missouri’s tradition of wine production dates to the early 19th century. Before Prohibition, Missouri was second in wine production only to New York. The long process of rebuilding its vineyards started in the 1960s. In 1984, though, the state started the Missouri Grape and Wine Program to promote the industry, which is gaining recognition for its official state wine, Norton, a heavy red wine.

According to Jim Anderson of the Grape and Wine Program, in 2003 Missouri harvested 12,000 acres of vineyards, and produced an all-time high of 627,000 gallons of wine. Sales of Missouri wine reached $6 million, and overall the industry added $27 million to the Missouri economy. For the most part Missouri wine is sold only in the state, but Anderson hopes that will change, soon.

Whimsical wine

“We’ve been working really hard to promote Missouri wine and a wine drinking culture,” Anderson said. “The last couple of years we’ve really been trying to make wine fun and easy.”

Part of making wine fun and easy is including tips on the back label for pairing the wine with foods.

More casual labels such as Pumari (a California wine named after the vineyard’s dog), Woop Woop (Australian) and Cats Pee (New Zealand) are also sending the message that wine isn’t only for special occasions.

At Village Wine & Cheese, the house wine is Cockatoo, white or red table wine from Australia, which sells for $7 a bottle.

“You’re starting to see that the wine culture is starting to become more fun and whimsical,” said Mika Mulford, who works at Village Wine & Cheese.

She also said that the old wisdom that white wine goes with white meat and red wine with red meat is out.

There’s a growing recognition that you have to pair the wine with the food’s sauce, and Mulford said she and her colleagues are trying to encourage their customers to discover new wines and experiment with pairing wine with foods that have traditionally been “beer meals.”

Anderson said that Missouri’s Vignoles, a semisweet white wine, pairs well with Chinese and Mexican food because it cuts through the heat, and Bomgaars said sweeter whites and light reds go great with grilling favorites, like bratwurst.

“You go to a tailgate party, and you’ll be surprised to see how many people have wine at their parties, and not just a lot of beer,” Bomgaars said.

Burgers and wine

Miles’ problem is that he would not just be surprised to see people enjoying wine with their brats — he’d be repulsed.

He has been waiting for the perfect opportunity to enjoy his prize bottle, a 1961 Cheval Blanc.

Since his divorce he has been too scared to open the bottle, afraid that he will waste it on an occasion that is less than perfect. (He had been saving it for his 10-year anniversary.) Meanwhile, Jack takes it all in, life passes Miles up, and his prized bottle threatens to pass its peak maturity and go bad. “What are you waiting for?” Maya asks, mildly irritated.

Miles’ relationship with Maya isn’t resolved at the end of the movie, but things are looking up for Miles. In one of the last scenes of the movie he’s seen sitting by himself in a grease joint, eating a burger and onion rings and drinking out of a plastic cup.

The audience’s heart sinks at the sight of this pathetic image, until he reaches below the table and pulls out a bottle of Cheval Blanc and pours it into his cup, and for the first time during the movie he enjoys, really enjoys, a cup of wine.


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