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Whining and Dining 

An intriguing wine list and excellent tapas are perfect after Sideways

Wednesday, Nov 17 2004
"This is my favorite movie of the year," I realized as I watched Sideways for the third time with the same sense of delight and pleasure as I had the first time, six weeks earlier, at the Toronto Film Festival. Not that I hadn't expected something incisive and moving from Alexander Payne, whose first two movies, Citizen Ruth and Election, had amazed me with their wit, power, and extraordinary performances. (I found his third, About Schmidt, to be slightly curdled, slightly patronizing, but hey, two masterpieces out of three is batting .666. And I would still rather see About Schmidt for the second time than most of the dreck I see for the first.) All I knew about Sideways before I saw it was that Payne had abandoned his familiar hometown setting -- Omaha, where he even relocated Schmidt from its Manhattan and Hamptons locale -- for the Santa Ynez Valley wine country (well, I guess there is no vinous equivalent in Nebraska).

So I was entranced to see what is nominally a road movie, but actually a delicate chamber piece for four unbankable actors (can it really be true that Payne had to let Tom Cruise down gently, over lunch, telling him that he really couldn't believe him in the role of a failed television actor so bravely incarnated by Thomas Haden Church?), which swirls its story around in the yeasty scene of wine and food. OK, I've always had a weakness for movies with a gastronomic setting. (Probably my favorite movie seen on tape this year was Julien Duvivier's 1956 Voici les temps de l'assassin, with Jean Gabin as the chef/owner of a bistro in Les Halles.) But remembering my own semidisastrous meal of ostrich ("Very lean, locally raised," just as semi-intolerable wine-and-food fetishist Paul Giamatti says in the movie) and bizarrely portioned, overcooked steak at the Hitching Post, an important locale in Sideways, or gasping at the disrespect shown local wine god Andrew Murray (his syrah is casually dismissed by waitress/aspiring horticulturist Virginia Madsen with, "I think they overdid it; too much alcohol, overwhelms the fruit"), or laughing knowingly at Giamatti's impassioned recollection of his amour fou with his ex-wife ("We drank a '95 Opus One with smoked salmon and artichokes, but we didn't care!") is just the icing on the cake.

You don't have to be a foodie to identify with the Apollonian and Dionysian pair of old college buddies wining and dining their way through a weeklong bachelor party. (Oddly enough, it's Giamatti, the Apollonian one, who's really into the grape, overidentifying with the thin-skinned, hard-to-grow pinot varietal that he prefers.) In fact, vinophiles may cringe a bit at Giamatti finding "a little citrus, maybe some strawberries ... the faintest soupçon of asparagus ... and just a flutter of, like, nutty Edam cheese" in a whiff of an otherwise naive local white wine that might amuse you with its presumption, to paraphrase James Thurber's famous cartoon.

I think we should cringe, a little. In Adam Gopnik's alternately hilarious and stern piece "Through a Glass Darkly" (subtitled "What do we talk about when we talk about wine?") in the Sept. 6 food issue of The New Yorker, after subtly eviscerating Robert Parker, the man who turned wine into baseball cards, and quoting with measured approval ("He is offering a metaphor") another oenophile's even more dreamy judgment of a bottle of Krug ("intense empyreumatic fragrances of toasted milk bread, fresh butter, café au lait, and afterthoughts of linden join in a harmonious chorus with generous notes of acacia honey, mocha, and vanilla"; hey, I'll take two), he offers this cutting insight: "Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing ... would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk."

We can't forget this salient fact while watching Sideways; scratchable right under the surface of Giamatti's sensualist is an alcoholic who returns from hearing his ex-wife say, "Don't call me when you're drunk," to the cleareyed question of his friend: "Did you drink and dial?"

I defy anyone not to want to drink and dine after seeing the movie, which ends on a note of nonvinous elation (I got teary-eyed every time I saw it, despite knowing what was coming). Robert, Gail, and I knew exactly where we wanted to go: Bocadillos, where they'd had a happy supper a week ago after seeing Maria Full of Grace (the Embarcadero validates parking at night, making it an easy evening), and whose nighttime tapas menu I'd been looking forward to trying since my own happy lunch there, heavy on the little bocadillo sandwiches for which the place is named, but light on cooked food. (The place does a single tapa of the day at lunch.)

It had also been a lunch too light on wine. One of the most intriguing aspects of Bocadillos is its insightful, wittily written wine list, in which each bottle gets a poetic yet brisk description ("imagine Meyer lemons, bottled," for a 2002 De Santé sauvignon blanc; "rich, generous, like drinking Washington red apples," for a 2001 Scandella chardonnay); maybe more usefully, the wines are also simply categorized as dry or fruity and light, medium, or bold. In the event, we took a couple of cues from the movie and chose a 2001 Beckman grenache ("rich, warm, red plums") because it was from Santa Barbara, and a 2002 Russian River Patassy pinot noir ("tiny new producer making delightful wine") in homage to Giamatti's character's obsession, and the '99 Condesa de Leganza tempranillo from La Mancha, because we were in a Spanish-style tapas bar, after all. And Robert chose one of his favorite whites, the Txomin Extaniz ("try drinking a couple of glasses, then pronouncing it"), which came in a squat stemless glass that I thought was adorable, and perfect for a casual yet chic tapas bar, but might earn the scorn of humorless wine snobs (you warm the wine up by holding the glass).

We had scored three seats at the large center communal table, separated by a seat from our involuntary companions on either side, but close enough to (again involuntarily) overhear them: The wine-and-food chat made me feel I had walked right out of Payne's movie into its universe, the way a Fellini movie can temporarily turn the world Fellini-esque. I dragged myself away from their talk of the wine-matching options at the French Laundry and Per Se to address myself to the very distracting food, served in generous portions: the yummy, salty potato and bacalao salad with aioli; the lightly fried, pale, tender tentacles and caps of calamari with a smooth romesco sauce; and the evening's special of tiny sautéed dark green padrones peppers (from the Happy Quail Farm in Palo Alto, we found out), some of which were mild, though others packed quite a bit of heat. We ordered all three of the dishes listed under the punning title Innard Circle: tripe basquaise, the mildly funky flesh softly braised with tomato, onion, garlic, and peppers into a lush stew; pigs' trotters, chopped and formed into a loose, succulent patty with a crisp fried crust, sided by a creamy chopped egg salad that I could have eaten a lot more of; and a tricky foie gras roll, cut into sushilike pieces, the chunks of foie gras and mango wrapped with rice and held together with nori-mimicking chewy serrano ham, dribbled with off-putting aged balsamic vinegar. I thought this elaborate construction was too cute by half, masking the nice combination of suave foie gras and sweet fruit. It was the one dish I wouldn't order again, though it was still a tasty bite. I much preferred the cool charred strips of flatiron steak piled with fresh-chopped garlic-and-flat-leaf-parsley chimichurri, chosen with thoughts of the Hitching Post, and the meaty baby-back ribs glazed with honey and sherry, an homage to the piles of ribs consumed by Giamatti and Church in their last shared dinner, a glum, downscale affair. We were so taken with the soft Beckman grenache ("Usually I don't like this kind of wine, but there's lots of acid balancing the chocolaty fruit," Robert said, risking risibility) that we ended up ordering two more glasses of it.

I wanted to try the selection of three artisanal Spanish cheeses, but Robert and Gail hadn't been impressed with what they'd gotten when they'd ordered it the week before ("Except the accompaniments," Robert said. "There was a wonderful cakey fig thing and the best membrillo I've ever had"), so we finished with a delicious warm bread pudding packed with strands of coconut and topped with diced pineapple, and a crème Catalan that was more like an excellent brûlée than the thicker custard I expected. Robert treated us to two elegant, tall, thin shot glasses of the Bodegas Gutierrez de la Vega muscat, a rich gulp at $10, but oh so silky, fragrant, and seductive.

"This place is going on our list of regulars," Robert said, after extolling the octopus salad (with celery, endive, carrots, and a dressing flavored with chili and the Asian citrus yuzu) and the fried patatas bravas, also served with romesco, that he'd eaten there before, but that we hadn't gotten around to that night. I hoped that Mondevino -- Jonathan Nossiter's world-of-wine documentary that subtly skewers the Parkerization of global winemaking (can you really trust the taste of a man who stuffs his suburban Baltimore home with tacky doggy tchotchkes?) -- might show up on a local screen, so that afterward we could toast the filmmaker, in absentia, with grenache, pinot noir, and muscat, washing down Bocadillos' exemplary tapas.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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