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Movies: He’s Got Good Taste

4 minute read
Joel Stein

I don’t see it coming. He’s wearing A cashmere vest, talking about the limitations of the Sangiovese grape and the appeal of Italian neorealist films and then–boom–Alexander Payne whacks the top of my knee to emphasize a point. The Nebraskan bonhomie explodes right there on my kneecap. He does it again. And again. He’s the kind of guy who can swirl a glass of Pinot Noir like a pro and then down it with a “Cheers, bro.”

He seems, at the very least, far less awkward than any character in his films. After exploring the unlikable, self-tortured inhabitants of his hometown of Omaha in Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt, Payne, 43, has moved on to unlikable, self-tortured Californians. In his latest film, Sideways, opening Friday, the director and his longtime writing partner Jim Taylor turned a novel by Rex Pickett into a quirky movie about a failed writer and a C-list actor who go on a weeklong wine-tasting bachelor party through the vineyards near Santa Barbara. Paul Giamatti plays the novelist, who is deeply in love with wine and deeply in hatred with the rest of the world. It’s a quiet, sad, beautiful story about how ego obstructs work and love. And it contains the best joke about Merlot in cinema history–along with the funniest beating-with-a-motorcycle-helmet scene, as performed by Payne’s wife Sandra Oh.

As we sat at a bar in Manhattan, Payne tells the sommelier that we have no time for bubbles or even whites. When the bartender tops off Payne’s 2002 Drystone Pinot Noir from New Zealand, Payne pours half of it into my glass, eager to move on to the next red. It’s a 2001 Pintas from Douro, Portugal, and he likes it. A lot. He immediately starts to think about what food to match it with. “Wine is to food as music is to film,” Payne says. “If the combination is right, then it’s a whole new thing.”

It’s right about here that Payne gets nervous that he’s coming across as a wine snob. His Midwestern self is suspicious of phony behavior. In Sideways, a waitress reads a special that includes “root vegetable foulon and wasabi whipped potatoes.” No one in the film knows what foulon means. That’s because Payne made it up.

Although he has moved to new geographical territory with Sideways, Payne is familiar with the backdrop. He grew up with Greek parents who drank Scotch and ouzo, but he discovered wine when living alone and cooking, watching Jacques Pépin on PBS. He also had an Italian girlfriend, whose ex-boyfriend had taught her about wine and who, in turn, taught him.

Payne, who graduated from Stanford, was simultaneously accepted by Columbia’s journalism school and UCLA’S film program and only narrowly chose filmmaking over being a foreign correspondent. “They both use the self as a filter to show what is going on in the world,” he says. He scored a writing-directing deal from Universal shortly after graduating in 1990, and promptly spent five grand of his paycheck on late-’80s Bordeaux. “I was overeager, like most tyros are,” he says.

Payne applies his brand of direct, specific realism to both wine and filmmaking, and the two collided when he gave his Sideways propmaster instructions to make fake wine that looked like the real varietals. Though the Pinot looked like Pinot, it meant disgusting concoctions like prune and cranberry juice. “The actors rebelled,” Payne says. “After a few takes, they said, ‘Can you just give us the real stuff?'”

It says something of Payne that the actors felt they could do that. “Really, what a good director should be is a control freak who lets you think you’re in charge, and he’s good at that,” says Giamatti. “He really likes doing what he does and wants you to have a good time, first and foremost.” And yes, they got their wine.

For our last glass, the sommelier brings the very wine Giamatti’s character, a wine snob, rails against: American Merlot. But it’s a 2001 Pahlmeyer, and it’s impressive. “It’s got so much going on. So much acid, so much tannin, so much fruit–you taste them so distinctly that with age they’ll meld into one distinct flavor,” Payne says. It’s that same blending that Payne does, mixing the effete and the unpretentious, the banal with the surreal, the painstakingly honed with the unretouched, that make his movies so good. At least that sounds smart after four really big glasses of wine. –With reporting by Desa Philadelphia/Los Angeles

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